Sorting out my sleeping patterns

I had a new year’s resolution this year. As part of my current crisis (i.e. having to become responsible), I am trying to get my notoriously bad sleeping pattern in order. Amazingly, I have stuck to the first part of the resolution.

For the past three months, I have been keeping a log of my sleeping patterns. It’s quite detailed. Every morning I open up my big Excel spreadsheet and record the time I went to bed, when I think I fell asleep, when I woke up and when I actually got my lazy arse out of bed. I also note when I set my alarm for. From all of this I work out how long I am unable to sleep, how long I sleep in and… well, how lazy I am.

Obviously it’s not an exact science. I obviously can’t tell exactly what time I fall asleep at, but I think I have a good idea — often because I end up listening to the radio (with its regular half-hourly bulletins) because otherwise I just get frustrated at not being able to fall asleep which makes the problem even worse.

So I am three months in. My excellent maths skills tell me that this means I am a quarter of the way through the project. A good time to look over the data. That can mean only one thing: graphs.

This first graph shows rolling seven day averages for the five variables that are measured as clock times. The labels are probably self-explanatory enough.

Sleep graph 1

This second graph shows the variables that are measured in lengths of time. ‘Insomnia’ is the length of time it takes for me to fall asleep (i.e. the difference between the time at which I fall asleep and the time at which I go to bed). ‘Asleep for’ is self-explanatory, and ‘Lazy’ is the length of time I spend in bed after waking up. Stacking these shows the amount of time I spend in bed per day, which you can read off the y-axis.

Sleep graph 2

One thing that I have noticed is that my sleeping patterns appear to be in cycles. There are fairly distinct peaks and troughs and it doesn’t look quite as ‘random’ as you might expect.

I will spare you from the boring details that led to every peak and trough. What I have learned from generating these graphs is the fact that even the slightest disruption to my routine can have massive effects on my sleep.

For instance, the pronounced peak that happens in around week 3 of February came about because I had a reading week on just one of my courses. This small change led to me falling asleep one hour later than normal and sleeping a further hour longer than normal.

The broad trend, though, had been good. The lines were going in the right direction (of course I am trying to sleep earlier in the day). But since the middle of March it has all gone wrong.

It started when I travelled up to Dundee to attend a friend’s birthday outing and opted to take the first train home (so I didn’t get to sleep until a disgusting 8am). This was exacerbated by the Australian Grand Prix which, of course, I had to watch live (you have to get your priorities straight, you see). Later that week I (almost) inexplicably woke up hours earlier than I expected to.

All of this left me rather more sleep-deprived than normal. Ironically, of all the variables, the most important one — length of time spent asleep — is fairly stable at 8 hours, which is said to be the recommended amount of sleep. But this week it fell through the floor to a seven day average of 6 hours.

It felt okay at the time, but I know from experience that this situation can only last so long until it catches up with you. Combine this with the Malaysian Grand Prix (which I also had to watch live) and the fact that I no longer have any classes, and the result is the mess you see towards the end of the graph.

So now I am at a situation where the earliest I have to get up all week for the next few weeks is 4pm. With no incentive to get up, I just don’t. A hefty dose of self-discipline is clearly in order, but more than once in the past two weeks I have slept straight through four alarm clocks without having any recollection of switching them off.

The result is now that I am falling asleep at around 5am if I am lucky, and waking up at around 2 if I’m lucky. Smart alecs might point out that I should maybe try going to bed earlier. But if you look at graph 2 you will see that I am already spending an average of 3 hours in bed without being able to get to sleep.

Asleep for These seven day average graphs are nothing though. I have also generated separate graphs for each of the variables showing daily changes (in blue, of course). The red line is the familiar seven day average, and there is a grey trendline (though in this particular graph is is almost indistinguishable from the gridline marking 8 hours).

As you can see, it fluctuates wildly during my ‘routine’ weeks. Despite the ‘overall’ consistency of the seven day average, and the reassuring fact that the trendline is almost parallel to the x-axis, the fluctuating blue line is alarming. I suspect that this is the root of most of my problems.

In extreme cases, I will get little more than 2 hours. This obviously has to be offset sometime, so a night soon afterwards I will be knocked out for 12 hours. Those two days alone would be enough to send my entire sleeping pattern askew, never mind having a similar pattern repeated several times in a matter of months.

The silver lining is that the end of this graph actually looks quite good. As you can see, I have not emerged from this peak yet, but it looks as though it is a peak to compensate for the previous trough. And the wild fluctuations have stopped — mostly because I don’t have any early starts for the time being.

The problem is that once it all settles down it will almost certainly be into a routine something along the lines of sleeping from 4am until 12 noon. This has been the way of it for years now. The difficult part is shifting this so that it is, say, midnight until 8am.

Why am I a nightowl? Well, one possibility is the fact that I haven’t had anything resembling regular early starts since the distant days of school. But even then I stayed up late and was seriously sleep deprived. According to my mother, I was even a nightowl when I was a baby. It looks like I was born this way.

Now, the task is working out how I can adapt this inconvenient personal trait into something that I can manage in my adult life. (Can you tell that this is a stressful period for me?…)


  1. Awesome post – I like graphs.

    For me it is also about getting to sleep, that’s the killer for me as well. I have difficulty in switching my brain off, thoughts continually running through my head.

    The best sleep I ever got was when I had a strict routine just after I left university. I was working the same hours each day, went to bed at the same time and woke up at the same time. After a while my body just tuned itself into the pattern and I got some amazing shut-eye.

    Since then, longer and fluctuating hours at work plus the addition of online activities now mean my routine is shot to pieces. Also giving that being on the internet tends to stimulate my mind (thinking about cool/geeky things, coding stuff etc…), I can’t sleep.

    I was thinking just two days ago that I need to force myself to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. You say this won’t likely help you because the ‘insomnia’ area is the killer, but I’m willing to bet that if you forced yourself into bed at midnight each night, and regardless of how much actual sleep you got, forced yourself out of bed at 7am each morning, after a while of feeling like utter crap, your body will eventually learn to fall asleep.

    I think a lot of things in life come down to self-discipline, as you say. And I too am equally as guilty as the next person for lacking in this area.

  2. Sleep is the bane of my life. At the moment it is under control, but purely thanks to medication.

    I saw the sleep clinic in Edinburgh a few years ago, did some tests, and was diagnosed with “free running” sleep. Their solution for this was strict: waking up at the same time every day, and sitting in front of a lightbox for three hours (! – luckily light boxes have improved so I doubt people have to do this long now) when I woke up – no matter when I went to sleep. For me, this didn’t work out as I wasn’t getting to sleep until *after* I should have been up! But this might be the way forward for you, assuming you don’t have any underlying health problems that could be mucking things up. (You could also consider talking to your doctor about things like depression, because they can mess sleep up for a long time without you even knowing there’s a problem, and anti-depressants can help sort it out).

    For me, what has helped has been melatonin, which I assume just ups the melatonin level in the brain, telling your body it’s sleeping when it isn’t. It changed my life, although as it’s not technically available here, it can be awkward to get hold of.

    All I would say is if you’re going to make changes do it sooner rather than later, but also factor in things like exams (although if your like me your sleep will have buggered up even more when the semester ended!). Forcing change is slow and painful, but probably worth it in the long run.

  3. Ollie,
    You’re right that self discipline is almost certainly the key here. The problem is that were I to force myself to get up at, say, 8am, I would probably feel quite lost. If, as is usually the case, I don’t have to get up, I will have nothing to do. Particularly as I am not a morning person. As unsociable a time like 4am is, I am used to it and know how to deal with it. Besides, I quite like the solitude. Of course, this has to change but in the short term there is no real incentive.

    As for the question you asked on Twitter, I haven’t experimented much in these areas. I have considered biphasic sleep. I went through a period of trying to nap after I came home from school. But I rarely managed to fall asleep, no matter how little sleep I had the night before. I got frustrated and gave up. In the end, it’s just more time in the ‘insomnia’ column.

    I have also considered the 28 hour day, but this would be confusing and difficult to fit into my normal timetable. I would have attempted it this year if it was possible.

    Thanks for the suggestions. I will probably see the doctor if the problems aren’t resolved after I’ve got something resembling a full time job.

  4. You need to move to Florida (or in fact anywhere in the US where they work on EST) – then you’ll be getting up at 7am instead of noon – and you won’t screw up your natural rhythm.

    Seriously at the moment you’re living as if you’re in a different timezone from the rest of us (non students, anyway – from what I remember of student life, going to bed at 5am and sleeping in till noon is what being a student is all about, well, that and failing exams 😉 )

    Now having been jetlagged from that timezone before, I give you one piece of advice if you want to move back to, say, waking at 7am and going to bed at, say 11pm, and that is this – do it *slowly* – don’t try and jump to that routine straight away – It normally takes me about 4 days to re-adjust to UK time from when I’ve been in the states.

    As for not getting to sleep earlier – the trick here is not to go to bed earlier – but is to get up earlier – and structure your meals sensibly – have a decent breakfast when you get up, then have lunch maybe 4 hours later, and decent dinner another 5 hours after that, that’ll help your body adjust, then the next day, do so an hour earlier.

  5. Further ideas – try no caffeinated drinks after 6pm – maybe the reason you’re taking 2 hours to get to sleep is that you’re “buzzed” on caffeine – I certainly found that when I cut caffiene out in the evenings, I got to sleep quicker.

  6. Thanks for the tips Tom, and the encouragement re exams! :O

    I already ban coffee after 6pm (or the first opportunity I get after 6pm), although I still have tea… Maybe I should stop that as well. I went completely cold turkey on coffee as well for three days once. I had no ill effects whatsoever, but it didn’t make me fall asleep any earlier either.

  7. Aside from the social factors you have already mentioned, like F1 and course work, there may be another underlying cause for your sleeping patterns. You could, for example, have delayed sleep phase, which is typified by the very late onset of sleep (usually after a few hours of insomnia) but retains the normal length of sleep, which looks pretty much like your graphs. This could have genetic or environmental causes, and is often age-related. It hits quite a large number of adolescents and “young adults”. Like you said, it only becomes a problem if you have to adhere to a 9-5 world, post-university.

    I second Sarah’s advice in comment 2 about visiting a sleep clinic. It’s not all hocus-pocus. Even the light therapy, however whack it sounds… Look into phase response curves for light (try Pubmed if you have a Uni proxy), and you’ll find that light at night will delay sleep, and light in the morning will help advance sleep*. But that only works if you can change your daily schedule. (Which is the exact problem I have! I’m a circadian biologist who should know better not to surf the internet at night, but I persist to my own detriment…) I have only cautionary words for melatonin for now; I think the current delivery method is not effective as it gives you a large dose of melatonin too early in the sleep cycle (it has its own phase response curve too). A sleep clinic probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already admit to in this post, but they might be able to help you find the “discipline” if your problems aren’t strictly biological, or help you determine if there is a biological reason (even mild undiagnosed depression can affect sleep, as Sarah rightly pointed out).

    But from a totally selfish point of view, if you were to take your sleep habits in hand and stop twittering the F1, I’d be lost for a source of decent F1 commentary!

    *Caveat: I’m not a sleep specialist, but I know the literature. And more about the controversies and internal politics than I ever cared to…

  8. Bloody students, grumble grumble…

    Seriously, though, I have to agree with Ollie – once you’re in a situation where you have to get up early then you’ll begin to adjust. A few years of working and you’ll be trying to wring every last minute out of your free time – at both ends of the day.

  9. Tea has about as much Caffeine as Coffee (I never drink coffee at all – it was tea and cola keeping me awake) – watch out for soft drinks – quite a few contain caffeine…

  10. Oh, and the failing exams comment was my memory of my time at Uni – I have no doubt that with an appropraite amount of study you’ll do fine.

    I blame several factors in my failure – including my housemates, something called “the Internet” (which didn’t have all these pretty pictures when I discovered it in the early 90’s but you could send a short block of text half way round the world at 1200 bits/sec – around 5000 times slower than I can now on a 4Mb/sec connection from home…) and of course, Doom 😉

    Good luck with trying to move your sleep patterns – I look forward to the next graphs!

  11. The thing I really dislike about sleep is that you can’t plan ahead for it. Say for example you want to watch the Australian GP so you know you will be getting up 4 hours earlier on the Sunday morning – to get the same amount of sleep as usual you can’t just go to your bed 4 hours earlier which is really annoying!

    You are always catching up on sleep and the more you worry about it and the more it plays on your mind, the harder it is to actually do anything about it and actually get to sleep.

    It’s a vicious circle, and one most people will have been trapped in from time to time. As Tom says, the way to get it is to do it bit by bit, don’t suddenly try to go to your bed at 10pm or your insomnia graph will be huge!

    Forcing yourself out of bed is the only way forward unfortunately. You say you would be bored, but is there anything you currently do at 3am that you can’t leave until 9am or whatever?

    I find it very easy to stay up late too, and very hard to get up in the morning, but unless you can find a job which allows you to work through the night it’s just a fact of life that we have to try!

  12. I was exactly the same until I got a proper, full time job. I still don’t kip till gone 4am on a Sunday night – but when you have to get up or be fired it really helps your sleeping pattern. I wouldn’t let it stress you out too much.

  13. I usually have the reverse problem – falling asleep in front of the telly during the evening (and MISSING what I stayed up for!) and sometimes waking up before my alarm (which is set for 5.30am).

    I’d also say that caffeine looks like part of your problem. If cutting that doesn’t work I find a couple of glasses of wine have the opposite effect. Dunno if you drink though.

    And drink the wine in a warm, but not hot, room.


  14. reminds me of when I was a student, I went from sleeping in in the mornings, to not getting up until the evening and going to bed at dawn. not a good pattern to get into. normal work hours will force you into a more typical sleep pattern, but if you really want to be a night owl, you can always get a nightshift…

    cut out all the caffeinated drinks, coke etc. put your alarm clock away from the bed, so you’ve actually got to get out of bed to switch it off. get one that’s both noisy and awkward to switch off.

  15. Thanks for the comments everyone. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond — had a busy weekend.

    Tom — Thanks for the tip on tea. I’ll stop drinking it after 6pm.

    Duncan2 — I’ve tried the trick of putting the alarm clock at the other side of the room. Problem was that even then I would go straight back to bed! Might be worth trying again though and see if I have the discipline to stay up this time round.

    Thanks James!

    I have to say, I’m surprised this post got such a reaction. I thought this was quite a lame post but it has got a good response and I’ve come away with some great tips. Thanks everyone!

  16. Despite your view, interesting post! Very sensible comments all round.

    What worked for me with a similar problem was ‘Sleep deprivation therapy’. Or something like that. I picked it up in a sleep workshop in Sarf London (!). It’s more about building your sleep up to the full 8 hours (or whatever) if you’re not getting enough. The principle is that you set yourself a rigid waking time, but deliberately go to bed late to deprive yourself of sleep. Over a period of weeks you then keep your getting up time constant but slowly (in 15 min chunks, I think) move your going to bed time back. The first week is a nightmare, but it does work. You can probably google the details.

    As far as getting up at the right time: alarm clock across the room works for me, particularly if you arrange things so you can’t just tumble back into bed. You could also try setting the lights to come on at your get up time.

    For getting to sleep at the right time: warm milky drink (yeah, it’s a cliché, but it helps); mediation or relaxation exercise before going to bed; cold-ish bedroom; avoiding reading or watching telly in bed. The advice I was given if you’re lying awake in bed for more than an hour is to get up and read something really boring for about 15 mins.

    Routine is your friend in all of this.

  17. Great tips again 4u1e! Sleep deprivation therapy sounds a bit scary, and sounds quite difficult for me to pull off anyway. The other tips sound more like it, I’ll definitely try out the alarm at the other side of the room. 🙂