Can't sleep? Try getting less

SleepagainRecently, I decided to try to deal with a bout of insomnia by deliberately getting even less sleep. If this strikes you as absurd, I can only reply that it’s no more absurd than what most insomniacs do instead: lie awake in bed for hours every night, getting more wakeful the harder they try to drop off, while ruminating on horrifying existential truths. (Such as: did you know there isn’t an infinite supply of This American Life podcasts? Only insomniacs discover this.) Besides, “sleep restriction therapy” (SRT), as it’s known, is growing in popularity; some evidence suggests it’s as effective as pills. When you’re sleeping poorly, your instinct is to spend more time in bed, to catch up. To which SRT arches an eyebrow and enquires: “Oh yes? And how’s that working out for you?”

You should seek expert advice before deliberately depriving yourself of sleep, but the basics of SRT are simple. First, pick a fixed getting-up time – let’s say 7am – and enforce it like a fascist. Second, over a week or two, work out how much sleep you really get per night, on average. Say five hours. Now the hard part: your job is to stay out of your bedroom, and awake, until five hours before your rising time – 2am. If five hours is all the sleep you get, five hours is all you’ll have. (Don’t go below 4.5h. As things improve, you’ll gradually extend time in bed: see here.) If my experience is anything to go by, you’ll be bleary and irritated as you struggle to stay up – and, at first, exhausted during the day. But you’ll also start sleeping remarkably deeply.

Partly, what’s happening is a breaking of the subconscious link between being in bed and miserably awake. But SRT also embodies the principle of “hormesis” – the idea, in the words of blogger Todd Becker, that “to combat a stress you should apply judicious amounts of that very stress, to train the mind or body to adapt”. Something that in huge doses might kill you, as sleep deprivation can, is actively good for you in modest doses – better than no dose at all. To build muscle, you need weights that are hard to lift. To build your child’s immunity, expose them to certain germs, rather than obsessively keeping them clean: “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” said Nietzsche, who’d surely have been brilliant as the star of a Supernanny-style reality-parenting show. So it figures that by reducing your “sleep window”, you’re raising the stakes, giving your powers of sleep a real challenge, which brings out the best in them. (By contrast, responding to insomnia by increasing time in bed lowers the stakes: it becomes less important that you’re asleep for any given hour you’re trying.)

And not just sleep: if you want to do your best at some work project, try giving yourself only a few hours – as any journalist faced with a deadline knows. Come to think of it, the solution to insomnia has been staring me in the face all this time, in the glowering expressions of impatient editors. When things absolutely have to get done, they have a curious way of getting done.

(First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by Benjamin Watson on Flickr.)

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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