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8 Sleep Mistakes You Can Fix Tonight

How to ditch bad habits and start prioritizing sleep today.

by Sarah DiGiulio /
If you’d like to get more sleep or think there is room for improvement, try avoiding the habits you may have slipped into. John Brecher /

You’ve done it every night of your life (more or less). Yet when it comes to hitting our pillow, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect for all of us.

As many as 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S. have some type of sleep or wakefulness disorder, according to estimates from the Institutes of Medicine. More than a third of Americans reported regularly getting fewer than the seven-to-nine hours of sleep that is recommended per night for adults for good health, survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. And a 2014 survey from the National Sleep Foundation revealed that a whopping 45 percent of Americans said that poor sleep had affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days.

Numbers like those make sleep experts cringe.

“Sleep coordinates brain and physical function, including hormone regulation, mood, appetite, immune function and alertness, among other things,” Ana Krieger, MD, MPH, Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells NBC News BETTER. “And optimizing our sleep can lead to an improvement in our overall health.”

“Sleep has been overlooked for many years, and we often find ourselves stealing time from sleep for work, leisure and travel,” Krieger adds.

If you’re not in the habit of prioritizing sleep (and taking steps to make sure your body is ready to get good sleep), it may feel a bit selfish, Krieger says. “But treating ourselves to a good night of sleep is a good way to start defeating this pattern.”

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Sleep has been overlooked for many years, and we often find ourselves stealing time from sleep for work, leisure and travel.

Sleep has been overlooked for many years, and we often find ourselves stealing time from sleep for work, leisure and travel.

So what are we doing wrong? For starters, a lot of us may be guilty of these common sleep mistakes:

1. Not taking enough time to unwind

One of the most common mistakes people make about sleep is thinking there’s this switch that gets triggered as soon as you jump into bed that cues sleep, Krieger says. That is not how sleep works, she explains — “not even turning off your computer is that simple.”

Physiologically sleep is defined by the body’s key functions — brain wave activity, heart rate, breathing, body temperature and more — slowing down and decreasing. Those are complex processes that don’t happen instantaneously (or just because the episode you were watching on Netflix ended).

For some creating an environment that cues our body to sleep might mean reading, listening to calming music, taking a warm shower or practicing some gentle yoga stretches. Even if it’s just taking two minutes before you crawl into bed, take those two minutes to sit in the dark, do nothing, and quiet and calm your mind, Krieger suggests.

And an important part of creating that unwinding environment means NOT…

2. Bringing electronics to bed

Cell phones bring the world to your fingertips wherever you go, which is great — except when you’re trying to signal to your body to shut down and power off. And the same goes for laptops, TVs, tablets and other electronics, Krieger says.

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Studies show that the bright blue and white light waves radiating from these devices throw our body’s internal clock, our circadian rhythm, off kilter. Our brain likens this type of light to that from the sun, and signals to the body to stay awake by suppressing the body’s natural release of melatonin, a hormone the body produces that keep our body clock running on time.

Plus, all the information we’re absorbing, whether it’s from “just one more” episode of Law and Order, that irritating email from your coworker (you swear you’re not going to think about until you get to the office tomorrow), or your Facebook feed, stimulates the brain, Krieger says. “Now you’re engaged,” she says — which is opposite of what you want to do to create a sleep-friendly environment.

Bottom line: power down and keep it out of bed when it comes to electronics — at least 30 minutes before you turn in and ideally an hour.

3. Mindlessly caffeinating throughout the day

Survey data suggests as many as 85 percent of Americans have at least one caffeinated beverage every day, with many of us consuming a lot more. And it’s that “lot more,” particularly of the late-afternoon variety, that can be really detrimental to our sleep, Krieger says.

Technically, caffeine is a drug. More specifically it’s a stimulant that temporarily makes us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increasing adrenaline production. While it’s useful for many of us in the morning to help jumpstart the day, it can take up to six hours for the body to completely eliminate the caffeine in a cup of coffee. That means your 4 p.m. Red Bull break may be affecting your wakefulness well past dinnertime.

That said, everybody’s body is different to some extent, Krieger adds. Some people are affected by caffeine less than others. If you’re sleeping through the night (without other sleep aids) and feel well rested the following day, you shouldn’t necessarily worry about needing to change your habits, Krieger says.

While it’s useful for many of us in the morning to help jumpstart the day, it can take up to six hours for the body to completely eliminate the caffeine in a cup of coffee.

While it’s useful for many of us in the morning to help jumpstart the day, it can take up to six hours for the body to completely eliminate the caffeine in a cup of coffee.

But if you are looking for ways to improve sleep, limit caffeine to the morning hours, Krieger says. (Recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine are slightly more lax, recommending you should avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.)

4. Imbibing in one too many nightcaps before bed

Alcohol can make you drowsy and may send you to sleep quickly. It’s a sedative. The problem is that that’s an artificial way of falling asleep, and your brain goes straight to deep sleep and stays there, rather than cycling through the other stages of sleep (like REM sleep, the stage of sleep during when we dream), which all play their own role in rejuvenating our bodies and minds for the next day. Plus the effect wears off later in the night, so your body will spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep later in the night, during which you’re more likely to toss and turn and wake up (and dream).

Go ahead and enjoy that cocktail during happy hour rather than too close to bedtime and stick to one or two drinks to avoid it messing with your slumber, the National Sleep Foundation recommends.

5. Sleeping too hot

Part of the body’s process of falling asleep is decreasing its temperature. (Physiologically, that’s part of what happens during sleep!) So keeping your bedroom temperature cool just helps this happen faster, Krieger explains.

Ideally keep your thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If that feels chilly, cover with a light blanket (or keep one nearby) that you can shove aside as needed, Krieger adds.

6. Thinking you can make up sleep on the weekends

It’s kind of like skipping meals. If you skipped lunch for a week, most of us wouldn’t necessarily be able to eat five lunches on Saturday to make up those calories (at least not the nutritious quality calories our bodies need). Similarly, if you’re a poor sleeper during the week, you can’t make up those lost hours of shuteye on the weekends (or another day you’re able to sleep in), Krieger explains. “The body is very resilient. We make up just enough so that we feel better.”

That means you might feel better the day after you get a good night’s sleep, but you can’t store up sleep for the coming week. And over time, being chronically sleep deprived has been linked to increased risk of some pretty severe health problems, like weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and memory loss.

7. Thinking you need less sleep than you actually do

“I’ll just power through tomorrow…” Yeah right. In general we don’t have a good perception of how much sleep we need, Krieger says. Again, the body is resilient. It’s the same effect as when you go too long without eating and grab a snack or just ‘get through’ the next hour until you’re ready for a meal. “You’re body’s not going to shut down,” Krieger says. But you’re probably not feeling and/or functioning at your best.

In a similar way, your body isn’t performing at its best when you’re under-rested. And that’s even if you don’t realize it, Krieger says.

Individuals do vary in the amount of sleep they need per night, though clocking between seven and nine hours every 24 hours has been linked to the most health benefits, which is why those are the sleep recommendations for adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Want to know more specifically where you fall within that range? If you are well rested overall, you should be able to wake up consistently at the same time without an alarm clock, Krieger says.

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8. Worrying about sleep too much

It may sound contradictory given all the well-touted sleep recommendations and guidelines that exist (not to mention the seven points above), but another important way to sleep better is just to not stress about it too much. “Sleep isn’t something you can tell your brain, ‘ok, now shut down and go to sleep,’” Krieger says. “It’s not a voluntary phenomenon.”

And the more you stress and worry about having just the right sleep routine or following the rules so exactly, the tougher it is for your body to relax, which is what initiates all the internal chemical processes in the brain and the rest of the body that initiate sleep.

The bottom line, Krieger says, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. If you’re sleeping well, no need to change your routine. If you’d like to get more sleep or think there is room for improvement, try avoiding any or some bad habits you may have slipped into. And remember, listen to you and what works for your body.

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