It's 3 a.m., and suddenly, you're awake. You don't know why or how, but there you are — tired, groggy-eyed and unable to fall back asleep.
We've all been there — or at least, many of us have. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), about 1 in 3 people experience insomnia, which can cause all kinds of problems, from increasing your risk for obesity and diabetes to disrupting your focus at work. It can even shorten your lifespan, the AASM says.
So what's a night owl to do? Enter the sleep diary.
What Is a Sleep Diary?
You may use a pedometer to track your steps. Or a food diary to track what you eat.
A sleep diary (or sleep journal) follows the same idea: You log the quality and duration of your sleep — whether good or bad — so that you can spot patterns or triggers that can impact how well (or not) you sleep.
But it's not just a place to tick off how much you sleep each night: A good sleep journal tracks what you did during the day, too. That's because your daytime activities — like drinking caffeine or exercising, for example — can impact your sleep habits, too. By considering both your days and nights, you can start to see what works best for you.
For example, you might find some cause-and-effect patterns:
- If you drink coffee after 2 p.m., you struggle to fall asleep.
- If you exercise during the day, you wake up less often.
- If you drink less alcohol, you feel more refreshed the next day.
- If you feel stressed at work, you may have frequent wake-ups.
If tracking all that sounds like just another task to add to your already growing list, consider this: Several experts recommend keeping a sleep diary to get a better night's sleep, from the National Sleep Foundation to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They even provide ready-made downloadable templates to get started, like this one from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Putting It Into Action
Of course, keeping a diary is just the first step. What is a sleep diary's purpose if you don't put it into action?
For starters, allow yourself two weeks to log your daytime and nighttime activities, and sleep habits. Track how many hours you sleep, how often you wake up and how long it takes you to fall asleep alongside what you ate, drank and did during the day. Add any notes that could provide more color — like if you had a huge deadline at work, for example.
Then, look hard for patterns — paying particular attention to how (or if) your caffeine and alcohol intake and exercise impacted your slumber. Slowly try out some changes — like exercising more or eliminating screen time right before bed — and log them for another two weeks in the diary.
Keep doing this until you isolate which factors lead to your best sleep, and make those patterns a part of your daily habit. If your sleep woes don't improve, consider going to a doctor and showing them your diary. Having that log may help them make a diagnosis and create the best treatment plan to help you get the shut-eye you need.
Good Diary, Good Sleep, Good Work
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an adult needs at least seven hours of sleep. If your diary reveals that you're not getting that, you might be tempted to chock it up to good productivity by cramming more into the day to get things done. But here's the thing: If you've got too much on your plate, your sleep should be the last thing to go.
After all, your body needs sleep to recharge, and your mind does too. Without it, Entrepreneur reports, you can't concentrate, make decisions or do your job as well. So all that burning-the-midnight-oil might just have the opposite effect that you're going for. Time to shut it down and get some rest.