Routines, even when not fully followed, provide a guiding structure to the chaos of human life. I shower in the morning right after my cup of coffee. I sit at the same office desk every day, even though we technically have unassigned seating. I go on long, meandering walks around lunchtime. I sleep every single night. Always.
From bubble baths to pajama time, children often have a regular bedtime routine set by their parents in an effort to get the little balls of energy to wind down. “We do all this stuff so beautifully for our children,” says Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a sleep scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “And then forget to do it for ourselves, as adults.” She’s right: Upon further examination, so many of the “routines” in my life are just habits unconsciously and unceremoniously formed over time.
Whether you’ve never given much thought to what you do before bed or you want to overhaul your entire routine, here are seven tips to help you achieve that perfect, tranquil end to a hectic day.
Ritualize Your Time Before Bed
Robbins recommends ritualizing the entire lead-up to bedtime. Maybe you drink hot tea, put on face lotion, and talk about events from the day with your partner in bed. Or maybe you do some stretching, followed by a quick bath and a cozy robe. Whatever the routine is, the repetitive nature is important.
“Your body and brain then understand what comes after those activities is sleep,” she says. “So, we can kind of classically condition ourselves to understand that the end of our bedtime routine is the time for sleep.” Intentionality can shift what was a thoughtless habit into an impactful routine.
Understand That Consistency Is King
One of the biggest mistakes adults encounter when it comes to bedtime routines is a lack of consistency. “I would take a page out of the playbook that we use for our children when it comes to falling asleep,” says Robbins. “And that includes a consistent bedtime.”
Even if you start a regular ritual at night with the best of intentions, the unpredictability of life is bound to interfere with your plans. It could be a late-night call from a loved one or your favorite sports team winning a nail-biter. Whatever throws off your schedule, take a moment to reflect on what happened, and then try again the following night.
Set a Regular Wake Time
Chris Winter, a medical doctor, neurologist, and sleep specialist who hosts the Sleep Unplugged podcast, suggests putting more focus on when you wake up in the morning than on the exact time you go to bed each night. “I eat lunch every day at one,” says Winter. “But if one o’clock rolls around and I’m not hungry, I’m not gonna force food down my throat.”
One caveat is that even if you go to sleep an hour or two later than normal, he advises people to still set their morning alarm for the usual time. “I think it’s OK for your brain to have a little penalty there,” he says. Some sleepiness can reinforce the importance of your routine’s structure.
Banish Screens Before Bed
When should you get off your smartphone, transition the notifications to Do Not Disturb, and leave it untouched on the charger?
Robbins suggests doing this at least 30 minutes before your bedtime. Even though reducing the brightness on your phone or switching over to a warmer-hued light may be easier on your eyes than regular phone use, foregoing screen use altogether is the best option for a peaceful bedtime routine.
Don’t Rush the Process
A pervasive myth about quality sleep is that it happens in an instant. Tuckered-out main characters in movies snuggle up under their covers in a bedroom with half the lights still on, and they are conked out in a nanosecond. “Actually, it takes even a well-rested person about 15 or 20 minutes to fall asleep,” says Robbins. Incorrect assumptions about how you should experience sleep can create unrealistic expectations for your nightly ritual.
Seriously, Stop Pressuring Yourself
Be nice to yourself. While a soothing set of actions before bed is beneficial, the reverse is also true. One of the worst things you can do is feel a bunch of pressure to achieve the perfect night of sleep. “The anxiety starts to cloud the way we perceive sleep, which is really problematic,” says Winter.
As for most situations in life, hypercritical emotions just lead to negative spirals. “The secret to great sleep, to me, is being equally happy in bed awake as you are asleep,” he says. So, build that routine and stick to it, but don’t beat yourself up on a night when it doesn’t go according to plan.
See a Professional
Are you hunting for that perfect gadget that will help you wind down and kick-start your sleep? From mouth tape to pink noise, Winter is critical of “all these dumbass things” people purchase to assist their sleep. (Although to be fair, we at WIRED have dedicated a lot of time to testing sleep gadgets, and definitely have clear favorites.) He says, “It’s this idea that if you haven’t figured out the problem, you just haven’t bought the right solution.”
Instead of buying a $500 piece of gear or testing out the latest sleep hack from TikTok, people who still experience issues should consider making an appointment with a sleep specialist who has a history of helping patients with sleep disorders, or conducting sleep studies.