Over 50 percent of adults report having suffered from symptoms of insomnia, with over 30 percent experiencing them chronically.  If you’re someone suffering from insomnia, I don’t need to tell you how devastating it can be to your overall well being and quality of life.
I’ve had trouble falling asleep for a long time, and consequently, a problem with waking up early. I can’t describe to you how many times I’ve googled, “How to beat insomnia” or “Ways to improve sleep” and gotten the same information again and again—tips and suggestions that just seem to miss the point.
Every article seems to give the same advice: that you need to get enough sunlight, enough exercise, that you need to meditate, develop an evening routine, install a blue light filter on your laptop and phone, and invest in an assortment of sleep “gear” (face masks, earplugs, blackout blinds, soft sheets, etc.) in order to fix your sleep problem.
Every now and then I’ll run across a slightly more creative post like this one:
Come on. Do you really think that I couldn’t have thought of relaxing my body and clearing my mind on my own? But I mean, it is from the military so it must work, right? That’s sarcasm. And it blows me away that this was one of Google’s top articles on sleep.
Therefore, because of this lack of useful information and my personal lack of sleep, I have done my own research and put together a plan that can help you figure out why you can’t sleep and actually solve the problem.
This article will attempt to do three things that most other articles on insomnia don’t do. That is:
- I won’t patronize you with information that everyone and their mother knows. (i.e. meditation, bedtime routines, and sunlit exercise at an altitude of 1,356 surrounded by azaleas)
- I won’t give you solutions that only work in an ideal world. (i.e. don’t use your screens 5 hours before bed)
- I won’t suggest anything that costs money. (i.e. buy this $500 Weighted Alpaca Duvet)
Alright, with all that established, here’s the plan…
Use the 80/20 Rule to Identify the Real Problem
If you haven’t heard of the 80/20 rule, then you’re an idiot. Just kidding, you’re probably actually spending your time in much more meaningful ways rather than obsessing about productivity.
If you don’t know, the 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, is a productivity strategy/theory that says that 20 percent of causes create 80 percent of effects.  In business, this means that 20 percent of clients generate 80 percent of the company’s revenue. In work, it means that 20 percent of your time creates 80 percent of your results. In college, it means that 20 percent of your alcohol results in 80 percent of your hangover. (those last two shots of tequila)
Therefore, when it comes to sleep, it makes sense to think that 20 percent of our sleeping habits create 80 percent of our sleep problems—our insomnia.
This is why all of those sleep hygiene tips are ultimately useless. Not because they can’t be helpful, but because they are not related to the major source of our insomnia, they aren’t part of that 20 percent. It’s like telling a driver with a shattered windshield that they need to replace their windshield wipers first.
But how can we figure out what that 20 percent is? How can we figure out the major sources of our insomnia? We can do this by paying attention, experimenting, and then tracking and recording our progress.
Pay attention in the evenings, try to figure out the major reasons that you have a hard time falling or staying asleep. Write down why you aren’t tired or why you don’t feel like getting into bed at the time you should. Do it for a few nights in a row with a random piece of paper on your nightstand.
Are you just not that tired? Are you worried? Do you just really love Battlestar Gallactica?
Once you have a hypothesis about an important reason why you can’t sleep, it’s time to test it. The only way to know if it’s really part of the 20 percent is to experiment.
Do 7-Day Sleep Experiments
Because we all have lives and no one wants to be burdened with some month-long experiment, I am confident that 7-day experiments are enough to understand if something has the potential to improve your sleep or not.
Below I’ve included a graphic that I’ve created to help with these experiments.
This 7-day chart will help you to track specific habits that you want to change. You can title it with the habit you want to change, put an X through each day that you changed it successfully, and then write daily notes to figure out what it all means afterward. Try putting it somewhere you’ll remember to look at every day. (i.e. on your fridge, by your desk, next to your collection of Russian nesting dolls)
If your problem is that you don’t feel tired when you should be going to sleep, maybe you need to drink less caffeine? Caffeine affects some people a lot while others can have a cup of coffee and fall asleep in ten minutes. Try cutting it out for a week with this chart and see if you notice a difference.
If your problem is that you get worried and feel the need to distract yourself, ask yourself genuinely, “Why am I worried?” If it’s financial, maybe there’s something you can cut back on for a week to save a bit of money? You could not order takeout for a week and maybe that extra bit of money you save will ease your mind and give you some hope.
If your problem is watching TV late into the night, ask yourself if you really just love TV. If you do, then try making time to watch it in the evenings and stick to it for 7 days. If by the end of that week you’re falling asleep on time, then maybe your problem really was just that simple.
Write Down the Solutions
Once you’ve repeated these experiments and found things that improve your sleep, it’s going to be important to create reminders for your future self. We all know how easy it is to slip back into old habits (i.e. leaving laundry on the floor instead of folding it, eating pizza when you know you’re lactose intolerant, or wearing crocs with socks because you’re too lazy to lace up your sneakers) It’s just how it goes.
What I recommend is creating some kind of sleep document on your computer or creating a written reminder somewhere in your living space where you can list all of the things that you’ve proven with these sleep experiments and have them easily accessible as reminders if you slip back into your old, insomniac ways.
Imagine yourself a year from now. Do you really think that person is going to remember the week that you eliminated coffee before 2 pm and noticed improved sleep on about 50 percent of your nights? No, you won’t remember, and even if you do you surely will end up having an equally convincing reason to start up that old habit despite the fact that it affects your sleep negatively.
This is why you need to write it down! Write down the habits that are most important for you to get a good nights sleep. You need to have these written down somewhere that you can consistently look back at and remind yourself of their importance. Remember, the important (or harmly) 20 percent of habits often look just like the other 80 percent.
To help with this, I’ve created another graphic—a basic chart that you can print out and fill out to remind yourself of the top 5 habits that are essential to help with your insomnia.