Having trouble sleeping? Here's how a sleep diary can help you pinpoint exactly what's keeping you up at night.

By Sharon Feiereisen
Updated July 18, 2019
benefits of keeping a sleep diary
Credit: Getty Images

Whether it’s not getting enough sleep, getting poor-quality sleep, or issues falling asleep, we’re undeniably a sleep-challenged nation. While you might have heard the classic tips for promoting better sleep habits, like avoiding eating late at night, turning off your screens, and developing a nighttime routine, you’re probably not familiar with a tool commonly used by sleep experts: a sleep diary. Just as it sounds, a sleep diary is a sleep log of your sleep-related behaviors and patterns.

“As a sleep specialist, having my patients keep a record of their sleeping habits is critical,” says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and both a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “I use it to determine their new sleep-restricted bedtime and wake time, and I use it to track as they get better, higher quality sleep, which means fewer arousals or awakenings and personal ratings of sleep improvement.”

So what things should you put in a sleep diary?

The goal of a sleep diary is to keep track of various elements to help you pinpoint exactly what might be affecting your sleep. It will also allow you to track changes over time.

“You should write down what time you got into bed, what time you started trying to go to sleep, how many times you woke up in the middle of the night, how long you were awake in the middle of the night in total across awakening, what time you woke up—and if earlier than desired, how much earlier, what time you got out of bed,” says Joshua Tal, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “You should also include any notes relating to sleep, which can include medications taken, naps slept the previous day, whether you had a cold or other sleep interruption (temperature, comfort, etc.), any specific worries you had on your mind when you were awake during the night, etc.”

According to Tal, waking up in the middle of the night is mostly not dangerous. It’s important to become aware of and track what is causing you to wake up so you can try to correct it. “Is it a constant need to urinate? Too hot? Too cold? Bed partner? Pets? Kids? Uncomfortable mattress? Pain?” says Tal.

Timing is everything

We’ve all woken up from a vivid dream only to forget it a few minutes later. Breus recommends writing in your sleep diary within the first five minutes of waking up while the details are fresh. “Allow yourself a moment to wake up and stretch, but don’t let more than a handful of minutes pass before you fill out relevant details,” he says. In addition to behavioral elements, getting precise about timing is very important.

However, Tal says it’s important not to look at the clock when you are sleeping. “I know this sounds absurd, but clock-watching will keep you awake—math is not a good middle-of-the-night activity,” he says. “The sleep diary can backfire and keep you awake if you are watching the clock. Instead, just guess the times, and that will suffice for the sleep diary purposes.”

Sleep diary variables

As you continue to keep a record of your sleep patterns, there are concrete things you can do to potentially improve the quantity and quality of your sleep. Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, a board-certified internist practicing in Bethesda, Maryland, singles out some action items he’s found to be helpful in his practice. Try each behavior change for a few days and see how it alters your sleep as you record in your diary.

  • Don't ditch your sleep schedule, consistency is important.
  • Limit evening light exposure and stay away from the blue light at night. Don't surf the Internet, read emails, or even go on social media right before bed. The idea is to quiet the mind before bedtime.
  • Keep your room temperature between 65 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Avoid caffeine 8 hours before bed.
  • Avoid alcohol 3 hours before bed.
  • Don’t watch TV or even read in bed. You can do this in the bedroom in a chair if you can't do this in another room, but never in bed. You need to ‘train’ your brain that the bed is only for sleeping.
  • Never leave the TV on to help you fall asleep.
  • If you are in bed and having difficulty falling asleep for more than 15 to 20 minutes, get out of bed. Don't lay there and ruminate. Do something to help relax and unwind and then try going back to sleep.

Here’s to less scrolling, more writing—and more sleeping.