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5 Daytime Habits to Break for a Better Night’s Sleep

By Kaitlin Vogel
July 26, 2022

Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.

When it comes to getting quality sleep, many of us focus on nighttime rituals: meditation, setting up a sleep schedule, taking a bath, or bringing our minds and bodies into a relaxed state.

But we may fail to pay attention to our daytime habits, which—surprise!—could be preventing us from getting a good night's sleep. While it’s well known that drinking caffeine too late in the day can keep you up at night, there are some other slumber saboteurs that may astonish you. Here are a few ways you may be unknowingly undermining your sleep—and what you should do instead.

1. Staying Sedentary

To sleep better at night, you’ll want to build up what experts call sleep pressure, or what most of us just refer to as sleepiness. That pressure starts to build the longer you stay awake, and, research suggests, adding light-to-medium-intensity activities can increase it even further, leading to that can't-wait-to-get-to-bed feeling at night.

If most of your day is spent sitting at a desk and then sitting in front of the TV, your sleep pressure gauge may still be on the low side by the time you want to go to bed. Try adding in activities like doing yardwork, cleaning the house, or going for a bike ride into your day to help you put the pressure on.

2. Worrying Late in the Day

Why does it always seem like the volume gets turned up on mental chatter right when our heads hit the pillow? And all that internal "noise" is enough to keep us awake. Cognitive processes like repetitive thinking, worrying, and rumination can all play a role in that one-off sleepless night or contribute to chronic insomnia, says Christina Pierpaoli Parker, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Integrated Behavioral Medicine Service clinic at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

“Scheduling in 30 minutes of ‘worry time’ during the day may help to reduce that,” she says.

How to Schedule Worry Time

Worry time works like this:

  • Using a calendar app or old-school paper calendar, schedule your 15-to-30-minute worry period for the same time each day. Just remember to set the time for the morning or afternoon, since the whole point is to get worries out of the way far before bedtime.
  • Set intentions at the start and end of each worry period. Maybe you need to hash out a problem you’re having at work or want to focus on pandemic-related anxiety.
  • During that protected worry time, write down all of the stressors you can think of, big and small. Consider making two columns: one for the worries, the other for small steps to address them. Don’t pressure yourself to solve anything. Instead, focus on listing one small step toward reducing that worry, even if it feels large and amorphous. For example, if you have “I am a bad friend” in the worry column, a potential action step could be “Send friend a text.”
  • Once your worry time comes to an end, kindly encourage yourself not to revisit your worries until tomorrow. If a negative thought pops into your head, gently redirect your thoughts and turn to another means of self-soothing, like deep breathing, going for a walk, or focusing on the things you’re grateful for instead.
  • At the end of each week, note the themes and patterns in your worries. That way, you can identify larger challenges that need to be addressed or determine whether you should seek help from a mental health professional.
  • Rinse and repeat, modifying scheduling as needed.

3. Exercising Right Before Bedtime

Research has shown that moderate aerobic exercise may improve sleep quality for both older and younger individuals. But if it's done too late in the day, exercise can also make it difficult to fall asleep. While engaging in moderate physical activity at least an hour before bedtime is usually okay, a 2018 systematic review suggests that vigorous exercise done within an hour of bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep and get enough sleep.

Pro tip, according to science: Plan your workout for the morning or afternoon, if your schedule allows.

4. Not Getting Enough Sunlight

You may have heard that you should avoid bright light and blue light from your devices before going to bed, but did you know that not getting enough light earlier on in the day can have a similarly harmful effect on your sleep? If you spend a lot of time in a dimly lit office, forget to open your curtains in the morning, or don’t make an effort to get outside during the daytime hours, you’ll want to listen up.

Research suggests that light plays a vital role in our circadian rhythm—the internal body clock that promotes sleepiness at night and wakefulness during the day—and that exposure to white light in the daytime is associated with evening drowsiness. It may be time to change course and brighten up your home office, pull open those curtains, and take a nature break when the sun is shining.

5. Bottling Up Your Stress

Stress is the enemy of sleep, which is why stress-busting should be toward the top of your daytime to-do list. Otherwise, you run the risk of letting daily stressors impede on your sleep quality—and enter your dreams.

A 2019 systematic review found that bad dreams and nightmares may be the brain’s attempt at processing and coping with stressful events. And suppressing those events and the thoughts and feelings that come with them may only lead to greater intrusion in our dreams.

To adequately cope with tension and worry, make a point of adding de-stressing to your daily routine. Pencil it in; set a reminder; do whatever it takes to make self-care a priority. If you need some inspiration, try finding a creative outlet through drawing, painting, or writing, call up a friend you trust for a vent session, or get lost in a good book.

With your stress reduced, before you know it, you’ll be on your way to dreamland.

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