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How to track your sleep schedule

Track your sleep schedule to improve your sleep hygiene (and your life).

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, yet most of us know very little about how we sleep. At best, we know "around" what time we need to go to bed in order to wake up feeling relatively refreshed the next morning, and we know how to many times we can hit the snooze button before we'll be unforgivably late to work.

But how long do we really sleep each night? And how efficient is that sleep? And when we lie down at 10 p.m., do we fall asleep immediately or does it take us an hour or two to truly pass out? (And is that related to the fact that we spend all our waking time staring at screens?)

Learning about your sleep habits can help you improve those them -- for example, if you find out that you're only getting 5 hours of sleep per night, maybe it's time to start heading to bed earlier or waking up later. Improving your sleep habits ultimately improves your life, so what are you waiting for? Here's how to start tracking your sleep schedule right now:

Use an app

Sleep-tracking apps have alarm clocks that wake you up during the "light" phase of your sleep cycle. Screenshot by Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

You probably sleep next to your phone anyway, why not take it a step further and sleep with your phone? Apps like Sleep Cycle (Android and iOS), SleepBot (Android and iOS), and Sleep Time (Android and iOS) track your sleep cycles through your phone's accelerometer -- all you have to do is place your phone on the mattress next to you. These apps also have sleep cycle-based alarm clocks -- you choose a window during which you want to wake up, and the app will analyze your sleep cycle and attempt to wake you up when you're not in deep sleep.

Though apps are a great way to get started with sleep-tracking, they're not a perfect solution. They can be thwarted by mattress movement (if you sleep with a partner), your phone can fall off the bed, and they can also cause your phone to overheat if it's under sheets and blankets.

Use a sleep-tracking device

If you're interested in finding out a little more about how you sleep - how long you're in REM cycle sleep, for example, or whether you move around a lot while you're snoozing - you can use a sleep-tracking device.

Your fitness tracker may already be equipped to track sleep, assuming you don't mind wearing it while you're taking a nap. The Fitbit Surge , Jawbone Up , Withings Pulse O2/Ox , and Misfit Shine all track sleep efficiency by measuring your movements throughout the night. Keep in mind, though, that because these devices aren't designed specifically for sleep, it's a good idea to double-check their accuracy. For example, according to a 2012 study (and a recent lawsuit), Fitbit's actigraph overestimates sleep by 67 minutes, which is pretty significant. To make sure your fitness tracker isn't over- or underestimating how long you were out, use an app to be safe or the good old-fashioned method of remembering when you went to sleep.

Instead of a fitness tracker, you can also use a dedicated sleep tracker, such as the Withings Aura. The Aura consists of two parts -- a sensor pad that tucks under your mattress, and a bedside light/speaker that slowly wakes you up using light and sound. Beddit is another dedicated sleep tracker that lives on your mattress (under your sheet -- it's thinner than the Aura) and tracks sleep time, time to fall asleep, heart rate, respiration, sleep cycles, and snoring. The main benefit here, aside from accuracy, is the no-contact sensor -- if you're a person who can't sleep with jewelry on, a fitness tracker is not for you.

Compile the data

Gathering data is only useful if you actually use it. If you use an app to track sleep, whether it's a standalone app or an app that links up to a sleep-tracking device, you'll probably have some data that you can use -- information on how much "deep" vs. "light" sleep you're getting, for example. But if you want to track your sleep schedule over a long period of time, such as months or even years, I've found that the best way to do that is to input your sleep data into MedHelp's sleep tracker.

Use MedHelp's trackers to see your sleep schedule over the course of several months. Screenshot by Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

MedHelp's trackers are a free service (you can track everything from sleep to blood pressure and heart rhythm), and you can import data from a variety of sources (including Fitbit, Jawbone, Withings, and Misfit) as well as input data manually. The tracker can help you see how much sleep you're getting over a period of time, as well as how consistent your sleep schedule is.