If you've spent the summer staying up all night and sleeping in, you may need to make some adjustments for the school year. Along with helping you make your 9 a.m. classes, getting to bed at a reasonable hour gives you the energy you need to do your best in school. A recent study of 55,322 college students in Sleep Health found that for every night of the week that you don't sleep well, your GPA drops by .02 and your chances of dropping a course increase by 10 percent. The impact of less-than-ideal sleep was as high as or higher than that of stress, drinking, and drug use.
"College is full of sleep challenges," says Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie sleep advisory board member. "Social opportunities abound and change constantly. Study pressure similarly comes and goes so that sometimes getting all the sleep you need is easy, and sometimes it seems impossible. Also, college dorms or group living situations can mean interrupted sleep from roommates, or ambient light and noise. Not to mention the probably old, overused mattress you get. But those challenges are all the more reason for a student to take control of what they can. Plenty of things will arise that make sleeping hard, but good sleep really does make you smarter, faster, happier, and healthier."
How can you avoid this trap and sleep in a way that sets you up for academic success? Here are a few tips from experts.
1. Plan your schedule around your natural rhythm.
People tend to fall into three categories: owls (those who naturally stay up late and sleep late), larks (those who take to an early schedule), and finches (those in the middle), says Smarr. "Sleeping late isn't bad in itself, but my research has also found that there is an owl disadvantage in academic performance, meaning people who are especially late type sleepers are likely to do worse in their classes, on average," he explains. "And the same is true for people who are very early risers."
But it's difficult to change how your body naturally works, Smarr says. So instead of adapting your sleep habits to your schedule, try to adapt your schedule to your sleep habits. Avoid early morning or late night classes if you know you'll be out of it at those times, and try to pick classes during the times when you're most alert.
2. Get on the same schedule every night.
Your body learns to become tired and wake up at specific times based on habit, so you're making things harder for yourself if you keep switching up your schedule. "It is extremely important that you get out of bed at the same time every day," says Dr. Sara Nowakowski, a sleep expert, clinical psychologist, and assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch. "This includes on weekends and holidays. Do not be too ambitious. Set a wake time that is challenging but realistic."
3. Get outside quickly.
Don't lounge around in bed for more than 30-45 minutes after you get up. Getting natural light tells your body to wake up — and to keep waking up at that time each day. "You should do this even if you feel poorly," says Nowakowski. "It doesn’t matter if it is gloomy or cloudy or raining." This is especially important if you've been sleeping in all summer and want to train your body to get up earlier.
4. Be as active as you can in the morning.
Another way to train yourself to feel awake is to get moving as quickly as possible. Schedule meetings or activities with friends during times when you want to be awake, says Nowakowski. This will not only force you to get up but also make you feel more alert once you do.
5. Reward yourself for getting up on time.
To increase the chances that you'll drag yourself out of bed in time for class, Nowakowski suggests giving yourself a reward, like eating or drinking something you like once you get up.
6. Aim to get to bed 8-9 hours before your wakeup time.
Most 18-25-year-olds need 7-9 hours of sleep, says Nowakowski. To give yourself a shot at reaching this goal, Nowakowski recommends trying to go to bed 8 or 9 hours before your wakeup time. But there's one caveat: Don't go to bed if you're not tired. If you do that, you may end up tossing and turning and then come to associate your bed with stress. For the same reason, don't go to bed more than 8-9 hours before your wakeup time.
7. Unplug before bed.
Your body needs time to wind down, so spend an hour or at least half an hour before bed away from electronics, doing something that relaxes you. Nowakowski suggests listening to music or reading a book.
8. Avoid naps, especially early and late in the day.
Naps during the day can get in the way of sleep at night, especially if they take place early or late in the day, says Nowakowski. So, no going to your early morning class and then collapsing back into bed. "If you are feeling sleepy and wish to nap, remain awake and active for at least 3 hours after your new wake-up time before taking a nap," says Nowakowski. Same goes with night time naps: Don't nap less than six hours before bedtime. If you must nap, do it in the afternoon and keep it under half an hour.
9. Avoid light at night.
Your brain takes light as a cue to be awake, so keep your exposure to light to a minimum around bedtime. Wear blue-light-blocking gasses if you need to look at a screen, and use lamps instead of overhead lights if you need light in your room, says Nowakowski.
10. If you're sleeping through lecture, it's time to change your sleep schedule.
Falling asleep in class is a surefire sign you're not getting enough sleep at night, says Smarr. And if you're viewing your lectures as opportunities to catch up on sleep, chances are you won't be absorbing much information from them either. Once this starts happening, carve out time to get to bed earlier or sleep later.