How to Sleep Early: Steps to Shift to an Earlier Bedtime

Sometimes, we need to go to sleep earlier than usual. Here’s why this can be difficult and how you can overcome the barriers.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Preparing your bedroom to sleep early

Have you ever wanted to go to sleep early, only to find it impossible? Maybe you have to wake up a few hours earlier than usual on a particular day for an early conference call or perhaps you need to prepare for travel across time zones to limit jet lag. So you want to compensate by going to bed a few hours earlier the night before in order to keep your total sleep time the same. If only it were this simple. It might be tempting to stock up on sleep medicines and other sleep aids for a quick fix, but these are not conducive to natural sleep.

The problem is that you cannot force yourself to feel tired. Feeling tired and falling asleep depend on two processes that are influenced by your daily habits, blue light and other light exposure, and other “zeitgebers” (external cues that influence our energy levels). 

These two processes, circadian rhythm and sleep homeostasis, work together to determine the timing and depth of your sleep. During your waking hours, you build up sleep pressure, which causes drowsiness. Meanwhile, your circadian rhythm dictates your energy peaks and dips throughout the day. When your sleep pressure hits its peak and you reach your circadian trough, you’re primed to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.

So, how can you change when your body is ready to sleep at night? Read on to learn more about the two process model of sleep, how to shift your sleep-wake cycle, and how to cope with forced disruptions to your sleep schedule.

The Two Process Model of Sleep

RISE app screenshot showing peak energy and dip times
The RISE app shows your circadian rhythm as a unique energy schedule, and it offers suggestions for what to do during your energy peaks and dips.

The two processes mentioned above, circadian rhythm and sleep homeostasis, together comprise the two-process model of sleep. Their interaction points you to the ideal bedtime and sleep duration. Let’s look at each of these processes in more detail, as they will help us understand how to sleep early.

You may have heard of circadian rhythm before. It is sometimes referred to as your internal clock. This clock regulates the timing of all of your body’s functions, including hunger, body temperature fluctuations, and hormone regulation.

Throughout the day, your circadian rhythm also dictates the peaks and dips in your energy levels. During the peaks, you will feel more alert and productive, and during the dips, you’ll feel more tired. In general, you will experience a morning peak, an afternoon dip, an evening peak, and an evening dip.

The evening dip starts with a wind-down period about 1-2 hours before your bedtime. This is when your body wants to begin slowing down for the day and preparing for sleep. During this dip, your body will produce melatonin — a sleep-promoting hormone. When your body is producing the most melatonin it will all night, this is known as your Melatonin Window, and it lasts for about an hour. Your Melatonin Window is the ideal time to go to bed according to your circadian rhythm. 

At the same time your circadian rhythm is marching along, the other process, sleep homeostasis, is also hard at work. During the day, a compound known as adenosine accumulates in your brain, causing a build up of sleep pressure. The sleep homeostasis process is like a seesaw that wants to be level. So as sleep pressure builds, the seesaw becomes unbalanced. Sleeping purges your brain of adenosine and brings your sleep pressure back down, balancing the seesaw.

When your circadian rhythm reaches its trough during your Melatonin Window and your sleep pressure is at its peak, your body will be ready to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night to meet your individual sleep need. We all have slightly different sleep needs, but adults on average need a little more than 8 hours of sleep each night. Many of us regularly fall short of our individual sleep need.

When you don’t meet your sleep need, your body isn’t able to purge all of it’s adenosine, so you carry it over into the next day and accrue sleep debt. Sleep debt is the number of missed hours of sleep over the past 14 days compared to the amount of sleep your body needed. You won’t feel or function at your best when you’re carrying sleep debt, particularly if it’s in excess of five hours. You’ll need to catch up on your sleep by outsleeping your sleep need over one or more nights (naps count!) to bring your sleep homeostasis back into balance. 

While this might seem like a lot to keep track of, the RISE app can help. It uses your sleep data, inferred light exposure, and other inputs like activity or exercise to determine your unique circadian rhythm. Using this data, the app will tell you your individual sleep need, your amount of sleep debt, and the exact time of your Melatonin Window each day.

How Your Melatonin Window Dictates When You Sleep

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window to tell you the best time to sleep
The RISE app determines your Melatonin Window every day and notifies you when it's beginning.

During the energy dip at the end of the day, your body’s production of melatonin increases, preparing your body for sleep. As we mentioned, you reach peak levels of this sleep-promoting hormone during your Melatonin Window, which begins at a slightly different time each day based on your most recent sleep and wake times as well as the other factors we referenced earlier like inferred light exposure that impact RISE’s circadian rhythm predictions.

Sticking to a consistent schedule reshapes your physiology for the better, allowing your body to anticipate key zeitgeber activities, like consumption of food, as well as energy peaks and dips. This also allows your Melatonin Window to happen around the same time each day and is part of good sleep hygiene (which we’ll talk about next).

How to Sleep Early by Changing Your Sleep-Wake Cycle

How to sleep early: woman sleeping soundly and an alarm clock near her

Your circadian rhythm determines your sleep-wake cycle. As we've already seen, this cycle is not set in stone. It shifts slightly every day, and you can change it with intention and planning. 

In addition to adopting good sleep hygiene in general, here are some specific steps you can take to make changes to your sleep-wake cycle if you want to sleep earlier.

Be Consistent and Make Gradual Changes to Your Sleep Schedule

Your sleep and wake times are determined by your circadian rhythm, but there is another element at play as well: your chronotype. You’re naturally an early bird or a night owl (or you fall somewhere in between), and this is due to your chronotype, which is genetically determined. 

This is important to understand so you can set realistic goals when it comes to shifting your sleep schedule to an earlier time. For example, let’s say your Melatonin Window usually falls between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., and you usually go to sleep at 10:55 p.m. If you want to go to sleep at 10 p.m. instead, this shift to the earlier part of your Melatonin Window should be fairly simple for you as long as you’re being mindful about your sleep hygiene.

However, let’s say you are an extreme night owl and need to reset your sleep schedule so that your bedtime is earlier by many hours. This shift is going to take quite a bit of time and patience or may even, realistically, be out of reach.

So, what is the best way to adjust your sleeping habits? By making incremental changes. Go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier every few days until you’ve reached your bedtime goal. 

Consistency is key when you're shifting your sleeping habits (and even once you’re maintaining your new sleep and wake times). If your sleep schedule jumps around randomly (late to bed one night, early the next, somewhere in between the next, and so on), it will be harder to reset your circadian rhythm to the new pattern.

Have a Bedtime Routine

Everyone’s bedtime routine will look a little different, but the important thing is to have one that supports mental and physical relaxation before bed. While this wind-down is meant to prepare your mind and body for sleep close to bedtime, keep in mind that the activities you do all throughout the day will also influence how you feel at night. 

Winding down can include any activities that relax you, such as taking a warm bath or shower, listening to calming music, or light reading. If you choose to wind-down by watching TV, be sure to wear your blue-light blocking glasses and choose episodic programs. These are shows where the story is told within a single episode, as opposed to shows that end with cliffhangers, stimulating “cognitive pre-sleep arousal”  and encouraging binge-watching.

In addition to relaxing activities during your wind-down, prepare your sleep environment so it is cool, dark, and quiet. Use earplugs and/or a white noise app on your smartphone if some noise is inevitable.

Having a few tried-and-true sleep-promoting activities as part of a bedtime routine can also help you move your bedtime earlier. It will help to quiet your mind and signal to your body that it’s time to sleep, even when deployed slightly earlier than usual.

Avoid Bright Light at Night (and Get Sunlight in the Morning)

Light is an important circadian cue and can therefore be a potent circadian disruptor. This is why you should be mindful of your light exposure when you’re trying to go to sleep earlier.

During your evening wind-down, it’s time to start limiting light exposure, especially blue light (which pours out of TV screens and electronic devices like cell phones). Blue light interferes with your body’s production of melatonin, so exposure to it in the evening risks keeping you awake past your bedtime. 

If you want to go to bed earlier, it is best to eliminate evening screen time as much as possible. Alternatively, you can wear blue-light blocking glasses (as we previously mentioned) and adjust the blue-light settings on your devices, many of which now have a night setting.

Once it’s time for sleep, you’ll also want to keep your sleeping environment dark by using blackout curtains and wearing an eye mask. If you need to use a nightlight, keep it as dim as possible, and opt for a warm tone, such as orange.

When it’s time to wake up, exposure to natural light in the morning will signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up and will help to calibrate your circadian rhythm. Get outside in the morning, even if it’s cloudy, as just 10 minutes of morning light will have a strong impact on shifting your circadian clock. (This is true even if you aren’t trying to move your bedtime earlier. The effect is so powerful, we can all experience benefits from it regardless of our current goals.)

Get Exercise Early in the Day

Physical activity has been well-established to improve sleep outcomes in adults. This is in part because it increases your sleep pressure at a higher rate than simply being awake. In other words, it burns a lot of energy and makes you feel a greater need to sleep in order to recover. To fall asleep earlier in the night, getting regular exercise during the day is a natural way to increase your feeling of sleepiness at your desired bedtime.

However, when you exercise during the day is also important. It is generally best to avoid exercising right before bed, as this can delay the production of melatonin and keep you awake longer. Although exercise builds sleep pressure, it also raises your body temperature. Your body will need time to cool down before you can feel sleepy and a raised temperature will delay other sleep-promoting mechanisms in your body. If your goal is to go to bed early, then your best bet is to exercise earlier in the day. 

Avoid Certain Substances and Habits Late in the Day

Substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine are known to interfere with healthy sleep when ingested a few hours prior to your bedtime. These substances may be best avoided altogether when you are trying to move your bedtime earlier, but if you do consume them, aim to do so as early in the day as you can. Note that the RISE app tells you exactly when to stop consuming them in relation to your unique Melatonin Window on any given day.

It is also best to avoid exercising (as previously mentioned), napping, or doing any activity that energizes you during those last few hours of wakefulness. Many people enjoy watching tv in the evening, but this can either be calming or stimulating depending on what you watch, so pay attention to how different content makes you feel (and make sure you wear your blue-light blocking glasses).

Try Not to Worry Too Much

RISE app screenshots reminding you to do a brain dump
Use the brain dump feature in the RISE app to help calm your mind during your wind-down routine.

Shifting your sleep schedule so you can go to bed earlier is going to take time and patience. If your attempts at falling asleep early one night aren’t successful or you slip up and have caffeine late in the day, preventing you from falling asleep that night, don’t worry.

Stress hormones keep you wide awake and alert. So excessive worrying or stressing about being unable to fall asleep will only make things worse and further delay sleep. If you notice yourself caught in a stress loop, acknowledge this objectively without reacting, and forgive yourself.

Also, keep in mind, no one has a perfect routine. We all slip up and fall into bad habits on occasion, and we all accrue sleep debt sometimes. Do what you can when you can, and when you slip up, give yourself a break. 

Which is to say, it's OK if you don’t get a good night's sleep every single night. Remember, your sleep debt accrues over a total of 14 nights, so one night of poor sleep won’t singularly determine how you feel and function (as long as your amount of sleep debt is reasonable).

But if anxiety at night is a recurring problem for you, consider ways to improve your mental health. Mindfulness and meditation practices can work wonders, but you don't have to do anything fancy. For instance, just writing down the next day's to-do list before bed can help ease feelings of stress, so you don't feel pressure to remember everything. The RISE app has a “brain dump” feature, allowing you to do this easily.

Coping With Forced Disruptions to Your Sleep Schedule

How to sleep early: traveler at the airport with their suitcase

Sometimes, external forces disrupt your sleep schedule. For instance, time changes from daylight savings as well as jet lag are notorious for interfering with sleep. In order to minimize their impact on how you feel and function, treat these situations like any other where you’d like to change your bedtime. 

For example, when you know the spring (or “spring forward”) time change is approaching, start going to bed 15-30 minutes earlier within a week of the time change to prepare for the adjustment. 

If you will be traveling to a different time zone, you’ll want to incrementally move your bedtime and other scheduled activities (such as eating and exercise) during the week or so before you travel. If you’re traveling east, go to sleep earlier by 15-30 minutes each night until your bedtime is closer to your destination time zone. (Going the opposite direction requires a progressively later bedtime.)

Ingesting melatonin as a sleep aid may also help you fall asleep when dealing with schedule disruptions. The most effective sleep-enhancing melatonin is produced naturally by your body, but taking it as a supplement can help when you need to shift your bedtime. For example, one study found — when taken five hours before your Melatonin Window — a 5-milligram melatonin supplement helped advance nighttime melatonin production by 1.5 hours, making it easier to fall asleep earlier.

Use the RISE App to Help You Go to Sleep Earlier

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
he RISE app shows your total sleep debt.

Setting a new bedtime for yourself requires a fair amount of planning and patience. You’ll have the best chance of doing so if you keep track of the two sleep processes, sleep debt and circadian rhythm (or energy schedule) to ensure you’re maintaining sleep homeostasis and circadian alignment.

Thankfully, the RISE app makes this simple for you. It tracks your circadian rhythm, a crucial piece of which is the Melatonin Window. It also determines your ideal wake time to meet your sleep need and keep your sleep debt low. This in turn will help you feel and function at your best, even as you move your bedtime.

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