How to fix your sleep schedule without pulling an all-nighter

Sleep experts recommend several strategies for resetting an out-of-sync circadian rhythm.
illustration of two people in bed, one sleeping, one awake
You need more sleep. DepositPhotos

Sleep is one of the most essential activities for human health, but it’s also one of the most neglected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.5 percent of adults occasionally have trouble falling asleep. Whether because of work or mindlessly scrolling on your phone, staying up late can throw off your circadian rhythm—the internal clock that tells your body when it’s time to sleep and stay awake. 

So how do you get your sleep cycle back on track? Some online communities have suggested pulling an all-nighter as a quick sleep hack for “resetting” your circadian rhythm. The idea is that forcing yourself awake increases sleep pressure—the urge to sleep more that increases the longer a person is awake—allowing you to knock out at your preferred time. While this may have worked for a person or two, it’s not a recommended practice.

Pulling an all-nighter will actually make sleep problems worse, says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist known as “The Sleep Doctor.” If your sleep schedule is already off, depriving the body of even more sleep can worsen a person’s cognitive function—stunting their problem-solving, memory, and creative thinking skills. A person’s reaction time also drops dramatically, which can increase the risk of drowsy driving accidents.

[Related: How to wake up]

Thomas Kilkenny, the director of the Institute Sleep Medicine at Northwell Health in New York City, points out that sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture banned in the Geneva Conventions—treaties that list protocols for humanitarian treatment during war. “To voluntarily do this is not a good idea and we should try to do whatever we can to avoid that.”

There’s no way to shift the timing of your circadian rhythm in one night. It actually takes roughly 28 days for your circadian rhythm to reset fully, says Breus. The good news is that while it might take some time, there are other effective methods for getting your sleep schedule back on track. Sleep doctors told Popular Science several strategies to get back into your normal sleep schedule. 

How to fix your sleep schedule

Wake up at the same time every day

If you normally wake up around 8 AM, but last night you didn’t get to bed until 3 AM, Kilkenny recommends still getting up at your usual wake-up hours. You may have to deal with a day of grogginess, but the trade-off is being more likely to maintain your normal sleep schedule. “If you’ve had a bad night, you’ll just have to pretend that one night never happened and get right back into that routine,” Kilkenny says.

You may feel tempted to sleep a few extra hours or sleep in on the weekends. Still, Breus says staying consistent with your normal sleep schedule stabilizes the circadian rhythm and establishes a pattern for sleep and wakefulness. This also means not napping after a poor night of sleep. Kilkenny says a nap will throw off your sleep cycle and make it harder for your body to feel tired at night naturally. 

Set aside time for purposeful worrying

Insomnia is often a result of high stress levels. The body can’t shut down for the night when your brain is actively racing with thoughts of a potential threat, whether that’s a lion prowling your campsite or the stress of paying for rent next month.

Kilkenny advises practicing a technique called purposeful worrying. Like its name, purposeful worrying involves setting aside five to 15 minutes everyday to think and feel anxious about anything troubling you. Giving yourself a time limit to worry about your problems will help manage stress without draining too much of your energy. It also provides an opportunity to really think and plan out solutions to overcome these fears.

When you have a realistic plan for overcoming the problem, the initial concern is not so scary anymore. “The brain has a tendency not to revisit something it’s already figured out,” adds Kilkenny. “You’re much less likely to get into bed and bring up the worry again.”

Exercise in the morning or afternoon

Going to bed physically tired helps increase sleep quality. Ideally aim to exercise every day, even if it is a 20-minute walk in the park. If you do exercise, Breus advises not to exercise four hours before bedtime. 

Body temperature normally increases during the day and slowly drops during the night. When you exercise too close to bedtime, your core body temperature increases, which can give a wrong signal to the circadian rhythm that you need to be awake. Breus explains that giving time to let your body temperature cool down makes you more sleepy.

Prep the body for sleep

You want to make sure your body is set up for rest. Kilkenny recommends avoiding bright lights as they can disrupt your circadian rhythm and lower melatonin levels. This includes turning off all electronics an hour or two before bed and having the bedroom lights dimly lit or off completely. Try to use the time to meditate or read to put yourself in a relaxed state. 

Breus also says not to drink coffee past 2 PM. Caffeine has a mean half-life of five hours, meaning that by 7 PM, about half will be out of your system. Another beverage to limit is alcohol, as it is associated with poor quality sleep and frequent wakings throughout the night. If you decide to drink, Breus advises only consuming two drinks and having them three hours before bed.

It may take a while for your sleep schedule to adjust after a couple of bad nights, but it is possible. Although there are some cases where health problems may cause chronic insomnia. If you continue to have trouble sleeping or your insomnia gets worse, consider speaking with a therapist, sleep specialist, or your doctor to get to the root of the problem.