Why Tracking Your Sleep Matters, and How to Do It

Mar 10, 2020 16:50:00PM

By now, you’ve felt the effects of a bad night of sleep, or even a several-nights-stretch of poor-quality sleep. When you didn’t sleep well the night before, every cell in your body suffers. You may experience things like:

  • Trouble with alertness
  • Irritability
  • Slowness of thought and speech
  • Work errors
  • Grogginess
  • Preoccupation with wanting to sleep
  • Increased cravings

signs you aren't getting enough sleep

Sleep is the time when your brain performs necessary maintenance. Max Lugavere, author of Genius Foods, says that your brain acts as a “dishwasher” during sleep. You can bounce back from an occasional bad night of sleep, but if it continues night after night, everything you try to do is met with a degree of difficulty. 

When you decide to address your sleep, the first thing you should do is see where you stand. That’s where sleep tracking comes in. Once you know where your sleep problems lie, you can address them more effectively.


3 Reasons to track your sleep

reasons to track your sleep

1. You may not realize how little sleep you’re getting

If you’re not paying attention, you may think you’re getting a solid night’s sleep when in reality, you’re coming up short. You may credit yourself for eight hours straight, without being mindful that you were lying awake for over an hour before you drifted off. While you were tossing and turning, you knew you were awake, but by morning, your mind is onto other things and you assume you slept a full eight hours.  

Or, you got caught up in your series-of-the-moment. It’s easy to wind down on the sofa, stream a couple of episodes of your favorite show, and lose track of time. You may be so consumed in your Netflix binge that you thought you went to bed at 10:00, but in actuality, you didn’t turn off the TV and close up shop until 10:45. 

If you’re a parent of young children, you may think you’re clocking a full night’s sleep based on your bedtime and wake time, but you’re not counting how many times you woke up to feed or settle your little ones throughout the night. 

Tracking -- any type of tracking -- makes you aware of what your sleep patterns really look like. Whether it’s wearable tech or a quick pencil-paper self-evaluation in the morning, tracking will give you a sense of where you’re starting. 


2. You can pinpoint what sleep conditions work best for you

best sleeping conditions

When you track your sleep, you can play with different variables and find out your personal recipe for great sleep. You may find that you fall asleep right away if you go to bed at 10:00 pm, but you lie awake for a while if you hit the hay at 11:00 pm. You can play around with the temperature of your bedroom, a few degrees in either direction, to figure out what temperature helps you fall asleep fast and stay asleep through the night. (Run this one by your partner before testing anything too extreme!) 


3. You can link daytime activities to night sleep

After tracking for a while, you might find that when you do certain things during the day, it affects your sleep at night. You may notice patterns emerge. For example, you don’t feel as refreshed when you eat dinner late, or having that glass of wine before bed makes you restless around 3:00 am. You may choose to switch from green tea to herbal tea after lunch. You may find that you sleep like a rock when you make it to hot yoga, or save your magnesium supplement for the end of the day. 

When you’ve reached this level, you can do more of what works and leave what doesn’t. Do a, b, and c during the day, sleep well at night, and wake up ready for anything the next day. 


How to track your sleep

how to track sleep patterns

Expensive wearables can generally tell you when you fell asleep and woke up throughout the night. More advanced trackers will tell you how long you spent in various sleep phases. Each type of sleep tracking technology varies depending on brand and features. 

You don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars on the latest sleep tracking wearable tech, though. There are ways to get a pulse on your sleep quality using the best judge of sleep there is: you. 

To take a snapshot of your sleep right now, you can fill out the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). This will give you a general idea of how things have been going. 

For a more detailed, day-to-day look at your sleep, keep a pen and journal next to your bed and do a quick self-evaulation before bed and when you wake up. Take notes on things like: 

  • Quick details of the day: did you exercise, drink alcohol, have caffeine late, or have a stressful day? 
  • What time did you go to bed and wake up?
  • How quickly you fell asleep
  • Were your thoughts churning? If so, what were you thinking about?
  • How often you woke up, if at all
  • Whether you feel refreshed
  • Whether you had dreams
  • How easy or difficult it was to wake up
  • Anything else notable through the night

Jot down any details that you think would be relevant. The key is consistency. Find a tracking method that works and stick with it for a few weeks so that next steps become more obvious. 

After a week or so, look for patterns and clues to help you zero in on what conditions lead to a great night’s sleep. Then do more of that.

It’s a process, and it takes time. But if you can make one or two small changes, the benefits of improved sleep can compound on themselves over time.  

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