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Wondering How to Sleep Less? Try These Tips (Temporarily)

It’s best not to short change yourself on sleep, but on the occasions that short sleep can’t be helped, here are some tips to help you through.
Published
12/9/2021
Updated
20 MINS

Have you ever wished you could train yourself to need less sleep? If you’re like most people, the answer is an easy yes. Externally imposed schedules can often leave us with insufficient time to sleep at the end of the day. While the desire to know how to sleep less is completely understandable, training yourself to do this isn’t possible, and forcing yourself to do it regularly is hazardous to your health.

While everyone has different sleep needs (your individual sleep need is a genetically determined trait like your height), adults on average need a little more than eight hours of sleep each night, with most of us needing between 7.5 and 9 hours. Short sleep, or not getting enough sleep relative to your individual need, is sometimes unavoidable. Keeping track of your sleep debt — your total missed sleep compared to your personal need over the past 14 days — and aiming to keep it under 5 hours will give you more flexibility on those days when you do lose sleep.

Whether you know you won’t get enough sleep, you’re aiming for a full night of sleep, or you’re trying to catch up on missed sleep, it’s important to make all your hours of sleep as restful as you can. However, be careful when sifting through advice online, as there are plenty of recommended “sleep hacks” that have no backing in science and can even be dangerous. 

Read on to learn why it sometimes feels like we’re sleeping too much, why short sleep is a problem, how to sleep less (for short periods of time), and why you can’t “hack” your way to permanently shorter sleep.

Are You Sleeping Too Much?

How to sleep less: man lying in bed and holding an alarm clock

Sometimes after sleeping longer than intended you may wonder if you're sleeping too much. In fact, it is much more likely you’re not sleeping enough. If you are genuinely wondering how to sleep less, it may be for one of these two reasons:

  • You think you need less sleep than you actually do.
  • Your body is sleeping more than you think it should to compensate for missed sleep (i.e., accumulated sleep debt).

As we’ve already mentioned, everyone has a unique sleep need. It’s possible your partner only needs 7.5 hours of sleep, but you need 9 hours of sleep. This could lead you to think that you’re sleeping too much when you are actually sleeping the right amount for you.

When you don’t meet your sleep need, you accumulate sleep debt. Your body wants to remain balanced, so if you undersleep relative to your sleep need, you may find yourself sleeping longer than usual as your body tries to make up for lost sleep.

Why Is Short Sleep a Problem?

Person holding a coffee cup and sleeping on their desk

There are two types of sleep loss: acute and chronic. Acute sleep loss refers to your current sleep debt, while chronic sleep loss constitutes an extended period of sleep deprivation lasting for months or years. 

You are likely already aware that sleep deprivation is associated with a variety of health problems. In fact, studies show a strong association between chronic sleep deprivation and an increased risk of developing other chronic issues. This makes chronic sleep loss a serious problem.

Acute sleep loss is also associated with negative cognitive and emotional impacts as well as an increased risk of health problems. Even one night of sleep deprivation can impair the brain. That’s because the brain has a metabolic “recycle rate” of about 16 hours, so when you stay up for more than 16 hours in a row, your brain isn’t working optimally. 

In fact, the effects of acute sleep loss are a lot like low-level brain damage. A recent study by Ohio State found that athletes with sleep loss showed symptoms similar to those of a concussion. What’s more, sleep-deprived participants reported even worse moods and experienced more loss of attention and processing speed than post-concussion participants with sufficient sleep.

Another way of looking at this is through the sizable body of research that shows the effects of sleep deprivation are equivalent to being under the influence of alcohol. After 18 hours without sleep, you’ll experience the same cognitive impairment as someone with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.05%. After 24 hours without sleep, your cognitive impairment will be similar to someone with a BAC of 0.1%, which is higher than the legal limit in all stats.

Even if you never pull an all-nighter, you can still experience the same effects just by missing one hour of sleep for 10 consecutive nights. This might seem surprising since it’s easy to think of “just one hour” as no big deal, but they rack up quickly. And they tend to do so “silently.” When you pull an all-nighter, the negative effects are acutely felt. But you can be less aware that the negative effects are stacking up when you’re routinely shaving off an hour of sleep each night. This is why it’s so important to keep your sleep debt in check.

While we all experience acute sleep loss from time to time, you may consider seeking medical advice if your sleep loss is chronic, as it could be symptomatic of a sleep disorder. Lack of sleep is also associated with certain health problems, including heart disease and high blood pressure, and it can be a side effect of certain medications. Talk to a healthcare provider if you believe you have one or more of these medical conditions.

How to Sleep Less (When It’s Necessary)

How to sleep less: RiseApp My energy schedule
The RISE app shows your unique energy schedule each day, and it suggests appropriate activities for peaks and dips.

While it’s best to meet your sleep need on a regular basis, circumstances outside of your control may sometimes prevent you from getting enough shut-eye. Common experiences like having an early flight or having a late night out followed by an early-morning meeting often prevent us from getting a good night's sleep. On such occasions, you can use these tips to get the most out of your fewer hours of sleep.

Keep Sleep Debt Low

Perhaps the best way to sleep less on occasion is to not sleep less the vast majority of the time. Your sleep need is greater when you are sleep deprived, so keeping your sleep debt low (under five hours) will allow you to be more strategic on the occasions when short sleep is necessary, to recover more quickly from a night of poor sleep, and to sustain higher energy levels despite the hit. The RISE app shows you your sleep debt,  so when you do get a night of poor sleep, you can create a plan to pay back the debt by getting more sleep than usual with some of the tips in the following section.

Take a Well-Timed Nap During the Day

If you are struggling to stay awake after a night of not getting the right amount of sleep, taking a nap can be a good way to increase your total number of hours of sleep and decrease your sleep debt. While it is best to do the bulk of your sleeping at night, napping can alleviate excessive sleepiness during the day, especially when your total sleep debt is over five hours.

When it comes to planning naps, both duration and time of day matter. Keep your nap length between 10 and 90 minutes. A power nap of 10-20 minutes is good for staying sharp and feeling confident, while a 40- to 90-minute nap will benefit your planning, organizing, and analyzing skills. However, you may experience more grogginess after a longer nap. 

It’s best to take your nap during your afternoon dip, as you’ll be better primed to sleep. Also, this will keep you from sleeping too late in the day, which can release too much sleep pressure and make it hard for you to fall asleep at bedtime. (A nap that’s longer than 90 minutes can have this effect as well.)

The RISE app will tell you the exact timing of your afternoon dip based on your sleep data and other inputs like activity or exercise, which you can use to figure out the best time for your nap.

Attune Your Day to Your Energy Schedule

Staying awake while dealing with significant sleep loss can feel like torture. However, aligning your schedule to your circadian rhythm will allow you to take advantage of your energy peaks, so you can still get demanding tasks done despite the excessive sleepiness. 

These peaks are the ideal times for you to do challenging work, tackle a task you typically procrastinate on, or have an important, emotional conversation with a loved one. Under conditions of low energy, it’s even more important than usual not to squander your peaks with administrative work or activities better suited for your dip.   

This brings us to your energy dip, which should also be used strategically. During your afternoon dip, do easy, repetitive tasks at work, take a nap, and/or go for a walk or do a low-intensity workout. The latter activities will all help boost your energy, despite your overall diminished energy potential from lack of sleep.

As you approach your bedtime, your energy dips again, so you should follow your body’s cue with an evening wind-down that helps prepare your mind and body for sleep. Use this time for light reading, meditation, or even a warm bath or shower.

The RISE app will tell you the exact timing of your energy peaks and dips throughout your waking hours. This allows you to take advantage of them and plan your day accordingly, which is especially important when dealing with sleep loss. Additionally, the RISE app now features a calendar integration to help you match your scheduled daily activities to your natural energy fluctuations throughout the day.

Be Vigilant About Your Sleep Hygiene

A variety of sleep habits — known collectively as sleep hygiene — influence your ability to fall and stay asleep, which are important for meeting your sleep need and in turn having energy during the day. Maintaining good sleep hygiene helps you get more natural sleep and also allows you to recover more quickly when you do lose sleep. 

Keep in mind your sleep hygiene is influenced by all your daily activities, so it isn’t just about having a bedtime routine that allows you to wind down (though that’s important too) but about the choices you make all day.

Some examples of good sleep hygiene include:

Also, try to avoid self-medicating with sleep medicine at night or caffeine too late in the day. Consuming caffeine to make up for a night of poor sleep may be tempting, but this can create a vicious cycle of caffeine dependency and sleep debt. The highly addictive stimulant disrupts your internal clock by blocking adenosine (sleep pressure) receptors, keeping you awake longer and thus even more dependent on it the next day. Try to avoid caffeine consumption past your unique cutoff time. The RISE app will tell you the exact time of this cutoff each day.

Remember, it’s OK to slip up. Be patient with yourself if you’re working to change your habits. Habit-building takes time and is not a quick fix. 

Why You Can’t “Hack” Your Way to Less Sleep

Person trying hard to concentrate

Wanting to sleep less is completely understandable. With seemingly endless to-do lists, work obligations, and other external demands, time spent sleeping can seem unproductive. 

However, sleep is crucial to your productivity. You may have noticed yourself becoming less and less focused when you try to stay up late to get extra work done. You might even experience trouble recalling words, with them increasingly at the tip of your tongue. Getting the sleep you need is what allows you to do all the things you care about to the best of your abilities. It is your sleep “need” after all; your body requires it for a reason.

Though some people insist you can train yourself to sleep less, no scientific evidence supports this. Instead, a mountain of evidence suggests people who regularly sleep less than they need risk an almost endless list of cognitive, emotional, and physical health problems. 

One reason some people become convinced they can “hack” their sleep is because the human brain very quickly adapts, in a subjective sense, to sleep loss. We tend to overrate how well we’re performing various tasks when sleep deprived, while objectively our performance across every axis suffers.

One “hack” you may have heard of is the uberman method. It’s a form of polyphasic sleep (sleeping in more than two segments each day), allegedly replacing nighttime sleep with six 20-minute naps throughout the day. This gives you a measly two hours of sleep a day and, needless to say, interferes significantly with your sleep cycles. Attempting this is dangerous, to say the least. 

In fact, polyphasic sleep is not recommended in any form. It ignores circadian rhythm and energy fluctuations, imposing repeated naps during daylight hours, and it most likely won’t give you nearly enough total sleep for your individual need.

When you come across reports about sleep research, keep in mind that scientific results are often exaggerated for dramatic effect in news articles. The actual studies themselves tend to present more modest conclusions. There also may be research with small sample sizes or an overreliance on self-reported data. When participants self-report how well they slept or how much, it’s rarely an accurate picture as people commonly overestimate how much sleep they’ve actually gotten. So when you see sleep study results in the news, use your best judgment, and go to the original source when possible.

Ultimately, there is no way to “hack” your body into needing less sleep. The only true “hack” is good sleep hygiene so that you can remove common self-imposed obstacles to meeting your sleep need and get healthy, natural sleep.

Use the RISE App to Start Meeting Your Sleep Need

How to sleep less: RiseApp Melatonin window
The RISE app alerts you at the beginning of your Melatonin Window each day.

You no doubt have compelling reasons to want to know how to sleep less. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to change your sleep need, and short-changing yourself on sleep will only make you less able to do all the things you want to do (not to mention undermine your physical and emotional health in the near and long term). Thankfully, the RISE app will help you learn your sleep patterns and use them to your advantage to create a healthier sleep schedule.

To start meeting your sleep need, use the app to check your Melatonin Window every day, and plan to go to bed during the predicted range. A roughly 90-minute wind-down before your planned bedtime will support your body’s transition to sleep. 

To move your bedtime earlier to catch up on sleep debt, aim to go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier each night over the course of several days or until you’re fully caught up. Keeping your sleep debt low (under five hours) will give you the flexibility to short sleep in a pinch.

You can also use the app to check your daily energy peaks and dips to help you plan your day, aligning your daily activities to your body’s energy schedule. A short nap is an ideal dip activity if you need a quick energizer or have more than five hours of sleep debt. Using your energy schedule to plan your day will help you gradually improve your routine so you can get the sleep you need and function at your best.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
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