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The Ultimate Bedtime Routine for Better Sleep

Begin this bedtime routine four hours before bed.

Woman sleeping in bed
Getty Images/John Fedele/The Image Bank

When it comes to sleep, you may feel like you can never get enough -- you wake up just as tired as you were the night before. You may vow to go to bed earlier, but even if you attempt to do so, you have a hard time falling asleep. How does one improve their sleep schedule without the aid of supplements or sleep tech? The answer may be sticking to a nighttime routine. 

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Why you should follow a bedtime routine 

Everyone has a unique circadian rhythm, or the internal body clock that governs when you feel sleepy and when you don't. Some people are naturally early risers and some people are happy as night owls, but most people fall somewhere in between. 

Whether you're a morning person or not, establishing a calming evening routine can make every morning feel easy and peaceful, by helping your brain and body wind down, fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep.

Better sleep generally equates to a better life -- with benefits such as more energy, better moods, improved focus, productivity and motivation, to name a few -- so learning to work with your circadian rhythm is in your favor. 

Read more: What's Your Chronotype? The Answer Could Lead to Better Sleep

Right after work: Make tomorrow's to-do list

If you're the kind of person who tosses and turns all night due to thoughts of looming projects, upcoming bills and events galore, preempt those sleep stealers by writing the next day's to-do list before you leave work (or close your computer) for the day. 

Include work tasks, of course, but also include personal tasks that have been on your mind, such as "call mom" and "schedule dentist appointment." Writing these things down before you leave the office will help you push persistent thoughts away at night, knowing you have a detailed plan to follow when you get back to your desk in the morning.

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Four hours before bed: Stop drinking caffeine

Deadlines, duties, obligations -- we all have them. And they often keep us up late. Caffeine might call your name late in the afternoon and into the evening, but resisting the call might be in your favor.

For me, many evenings consist of a mental battle between "drink the coffee to focus and get things done" and "push through without it or you'll never sleep." I'm definitely not the only one. Drinking coffee three and even six hours before bedtime can negatively affect your sleep quality.

One study reported that people who drink more caffeine are likely to be more tired in the mornings than those who drink very little caffeine, suggesting that caffeine is implicated as a fatigue factor, despite its reputation as a fatigue fighter.

Researchers have given this phenomenon a name: The "coffee cycle." Feeling tired during the day leads to caffeine consumption, which in turn leads to impaired sleep, and so on.

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3 hours before bed: Get your workout done

If you tend to have difficulty falling asleep at night, you might want to steer clear from exercising late in the evening. Popular sleep hygiene wisdom has always stated that exercising late at night can harm your sleep, increasing the time it takes you to snooze and increasing night time wake-ups

After all, when you exercise your core temperature increases, adrenaline and cortisol soar, your nervous system gets worked up and your heart beats faster. Many experts suggest giving yourself a cushioning period of two to three hours between working out and bedtime to allow your body to return to its resting state.

However, some research suggests that this conventional wisdom is debatable. Late-night exercise may not disturb sleep quality at all, and some people actually fall asleep faster and sleep better after an evening workout.

Plus, this rule really only applies to intense exercise, such as sprint intervals, circuit training and heavy weightlifting -- restorative exercise like yoga and gentle stretching can actually improve your sleep.

The takeaway: if you tend to struggle with sleep, be wary of late-night workouts as they might exacerbate sleeplessness. But if you workout at night and you sleep just fine, keep doing what you're doing. The best time to workout is the one that you can commit to and one that makes you feel good.

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calm-apple-watch

Meditating before sleep might be more helpful than exercising before sleep if you're prone to nighttime wakefulness.

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2 hours before bed: Eat your final meal or snack

Like the exercise rule, conventional wisdom about eating and sleeping says to eat your last meal two to three hours before bed. Experts say that the two-hour interval allows your body to move food from your stomach to your small intestine, preventing any potential heartburn symptoms or digestive discomfort

Again, this is one of those guidelines that serves only as a rule of thumb -- it's not true that everyone experiences disturbed sleep after a late-night meal. Keeping a food journal can help you understand how your body responds to evening meals or even specific types of food, like chocolate or spicy dishes. 

For a week or so, write down what you eat before bed, what time you started and finished eating and how it made you feel. If you feel fatigued the mornings after you eat late at night, consider making your dinner time earlier and avoiding late-night snacks.

As for alcohol, the research is pretty clear: Booze, especially when consumed before bed, disrupts sleep quality by up to 24%.

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1 hour before bed: Put away your screens

At least one hour before you crawl under the covers, stop watching TV, answering after-hours emails and scrolling social media. Instead, grab a (paper!) book and read until you feel sleepy. Or try another calming activity -- take a hot bath, try some yoga poses, meditate, stretch or foam roll, sketch or write in a journal.

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Checking your phone, computer or tablet before bed is said to keep you awake at night both because you are psychologically engaged in what you're seeing and the blue light from the screen suppresses melatonin production. And even after you do fall asleep, that blue light is still affecting you: It interferes with your circadian rhythm and can delay REM sleep, an important sleep stage that benefits memory and mood.

Don't take your phone to bed with you, either. If you must use it as your alarm clock, plug it in across the room. This prevents late-night scrolling and you'll have to get out of bed to turn it off, decreasing the likelihood of pressing snooze in the morning -- a win-win.

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Bedtime: Unwind and snooze

Ahhh, you finally made it to your beloved pillow. Hopefully, establishing your nighttime routine helps you unwind and take your mind off of day-to-day stressors, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

If you find that you're still having trouble getting into dreamland, know that it takes time for your brain and body to adjust to new routines. Stick to your regimen and make small tweaks as needed, and after a while, you might find yourself wondering how you ever lived without it. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.