Here are some real tactics to help you asleep quickly—and hopefully stay asleep through the night.

By Stacey Leasca
March 20, 2020

The physical and psychological effort of trying to fall to sleep at night is easier said than done, but learning effective techniques for how to fall asleep quickly and easily is a practice many adults could use—especially in a world filled with so much anxiety right now. Simply put, we’re getting way less sleep than we need—and we’re getting less sleep than we used to. In a 2019 study, for example, researchers at Ball State University found that the percentage of Americans suffering from inadequate sleep, which they defined as seven hours or less, increased from 30.9 percent in 2010 to 35.6 percent in 2018.

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It’s easier than ever to understand why we're losing sleep. Though nothing will solve our global issues overnight, there are ways we at least can combat personal sleeplessness, including a few tips and tricks to prompt faster sleep onset, starting tonight. 

First, Practice Good Pre-Bedtime Habits

Even before that moment of lying in bed, willing yourself to go to sleep, you must be disciplined about carving out time to chill out in the evenings. According to Janet Kennedy, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert, being able to fall asleep quickly once you're lying in bed starts several hours before tucking in.

“If the first chance you have to be still is when you lie down in bed, you’ll be flooded with thoughts about all of the things that happened, everything you need to do, random conversations—everything you didn’t have time to think about during the day,” Kennedy says. “Ruminating increases arousal, making it much harder to fall asleep.”

To start the wind-down process, Kennedy recommends turning off screens at least one hour before bed. That starts with your phone, then your computer, then shutting off the television. 

“The mind needs a chance to settle down before bed—which is why it’s important to turn off screens at least an hour before bed,” she says. “We’re taking in so much information all day long and we’re multitasking, which keeps the brain extremely active. But we need to take time to process or reflect on the day before going to bed.”

There is no one-size-fits-all method for winding down. “Take time to unwind in a way that feels good to you,” Kennedy says. “The bedtime routine should be something that you get to do, not something that you have to do.” 

Do what works for you: listen to relaxing music, do some light stretches, or try journaling. Whatever slows you down, centers you, and makes you satisfied and sleepy. Once you’re ready to go to hit the pillow and actually fall asleep, here are six sleep-promoting techniques to try, straight from the experts themselves.

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1. Read until you can’t stay awake.

Since you’ve already shut off your screens, including the television, Kennedy recommends doing a bit of light reading in bed to help you quickly fall asleep. Though any book will likely do, she specifically recommends something in the fiction genre.

Reading fiction gives the mind a place to go—away from the thoughts about the day and any anxieties,” she says. “With the brain occupied, the body can take over with its natural fatigue and pull you into sleep. I suggest reading until you can’t stay awake.” 

2. Or drift off to the sound of a story.

If reading isn’t your thing, that’s OK. You can still be entertained while going to bed, too, thanks to a variety of meditation apps on the market like Calm, HeadSpace, and Stop, Breathe & Think. Beyond normal medication classes, these apps now offer products like HeadSpace’s bedtime stories, where a soothing voice lulls you to sleep with a bedtime meditative exercise and little tale. “In scientific terms, meditation helps lower the heart rate by igniting the parasympathetic nervous system and encouraging slower breathing, thereby increasing the prospect of a quality night’s sleep,” Headspace shares on its website.

In addition to meditation or listening to meditative stories, many intentionally soporific podcasts exist with the sole purpose of lulling listeners to sleep with soothing voices—or with sheer boredom. “Get Sleepy” and “Sleep With Me” are two favorites. 

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3. Use the 4-7-8 breathing method.

Though we’d rarely tell you to believe in internet lore, the bedtime breathing trick known as the “4-7-8 Method” actually works. Andrew Weil, MD, has long championed the technique. In interviews, Dr. Weil has likened this breathing technique to a natural tranquilizer for your nervous system. But it is an exercise you must practice nightly, as its effects are subtle at first and become stronger only with consistent repetition.

Try it tonight:

  1. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for four seconds. 
  2. Hold your breath in for seven seconds. 
  3. Exhale completely through the mouth, making a “whoosh” sound, for eight seconds. 
  4. Repeat this cycle four times.  

4. Make your bedroom as dark as possible.

Though it seems obvious, falling asleep quickly requires the space you’re in to be dark. Really, really dark. As the Sleep Foundation explains, turning off the lights cues your brains that it’s time for sleep. Exposure to artificial light before bedtime can suppress melatonin, a hormone that tells your brain and body systems it’s time to fall asleep.

To combat this, the Sleep Foundation suggests switching to low-watt light bulbs by your bed and, to stay asleep, installing light-blocking curtains to sleep past sun-up. This also means either shutting down your laptop and turning off (or flipping over) your phone to minimize light emissions and distractions. 

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5. Turn the temperature down.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping a cool room to fall asleep fast, since temperature (external and internal) is a major player in falling asleep. Set your thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 19 degrees Celsius) for adults and children for an optimal sleep environment, suggests The National Sleep Foundation. Set the tone tonight by turning down the thermostat well before bed so you can get cozy and head off to dreamland ASAP. 

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6. Trick yourself into sleep with reverse psychology.

Kennedy has one more potentially controversial tip for you: “Don’t try to fall asleep,” she says. Instead, try not to fall asleep, and then watch sleep come to you. In psychology, this technique is known as paradoxical intention. In 2003, researchers asked 34 insomniacs to test it out for 14 nights. Half of participants were asked to use paradoxical intention while the other half was not. 

The study concluded that “participants allocated to paradoxical intention, relative to controls, showed a significant reduction in sleep effort and sleep performance anxiety.” Meaning, they fell asleep faster and with less stress. 

Beyond this counterintuitive technique, Kennedy suggests, “If you’re having trouble sleeping, stop trying and distract yourself until your body is sleepy again. You can try deep breathing, reading, coloring, Sudoku—anything that takes your mind away from the frustration of not sleeping.”

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