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Keeping a sleep diary is one of the most healthful sleep habits around. It’s a practice that will deliver major benefits for your nightly rest and will keep you alert to issues with your sleep, helping you to find the best and most effective remedy for your sleep problems.
Using a sleep diary pays dividends beyond sleep, too: it’s a practice that leads to improvements in your energy and performance during the day—and can have a big impact on your overall health.
It’s an easy habit to adopt—and with a little know-how, you can collect an invaluable trove of information and insight about your sleep and the forces in your life that affect sleep.
Why keep a diary about your sleep?
With all the sleep tracking tools available now, why do you need to use a sleep diary?
1. Sleep tracking is somewhat limited: it’s also about how you feel
Sleep tracking with devices that take measurements of your sleep (and sometimes your sleep environment), can be incredibly useful in providing you with objective sleep data, and metrics that are essential to understanding your sleep, including total sleep time, time spent in different stages of sleep, number of awakenings during the night, and sleep efficiency.
But for all the data sleep tracking with devices offers, it’s actually relatively limited information, compared to the breadth of information you can collect–quickly and without a lot of effort–in a sleep diary.
Tracking can give you important metrics that provide insight to your sleep, but those metrics can’t fully capture the experience of your sleep and the time surrounding sleep. For example, how do you feel when you wake in the morning—energized and ready to roll out of bed, or sluggish and tempted to roll over and hit pause on starting your day? Somewhere in between?
Digital sleep trackers also typically don’t do enough to incorporate information about the circumstances of your daily life. Our stress levels, light exposure, medications and supplements, eating and drinking habits, and sleep environment all have a huge impact on our nightly rest—and these factors change from day to day, often in subtle but significant ways.
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It’s not always clear how objective measurements of sleep delivered by a tracking device relate to our real life, day-to-day habits, choices, and experiences. A sleep diary gives you the opportunity to pull these threads together and create a fully fleshed out, deeply personal picture of your sleep within the context of your daily life, as it shifts and changes.
2. Active, not passive, sleep tracking will help you better understand your sleep!
For all the value that sleep tracking with devices offers, it’s ultimately a passive endeavor. Once you start tracking, the app or device does the work—and it’s up to you to take the next steps, paying attention to results and making choices about how to use the date to improve your sleep. That’s actually harder than it sounds, for most people.
THAT IS WHERE THE MAGIC SEEMS TO HAPPEN!
Keeping a sleep diary puts you directly in the driver’s seat, in monitoring and observing your sleep. It’s an active and personal endeavor, one that puts you much closer touch with your nightly rest, significantly deepening your awareness about your sleep and helping you uncover connections you might not otherwise see between your sleep and your daily waking life.
In fact, in about a third of my private cases, when I ask someone to keep a sleep diary for two weeks, they will tell me at the end of it, “ Hey, Doc, I get it now, I’m good, I know what I need to do!”
A sleep diary can alert you to issues in your sleep environment, and it can also help you track how closely you are aligning your routines with your chronotype.
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Here’s what you need to know about understanding your chronotype, and using it to improve your sleep and productivity.
3. These data can be very helpful for your doctor, if you think you may have a sleep disorder
A diary is an invaluable resource to share with your doctor, to help find solutions to sleep problems and diagnose sleep disorders. Your daily journal can help to reveal symptoms of major sleep disorders—including insomnia and sleep apnea–that otherwise often go unnoticed.
You and your doctor will find clues about potential insomnia in the patterns that emerge around the times you log for getting into bed vs. falling asleep, the number of awakenings you experience throughout the night, and your wake time, as well as your assessment of the quality and quantity of your sleep. Having persistent trouble falling asleep after getting into bed can indicate onset insomnia, while frequent awakenings and/or an extremely early wake time can indicate maintenance insomnia. With the details you gather in your sleep diary, you and your doctor will be better able to pinpoint precisely the symptoms you’re experiencing, and then take the next, critical steps to identify specific root causes of your insomnia symptoms and make decisions about treatment.
A sleep diary can be a critical tool in identifying symptoms of sleep apnea, which include frequent awakenings throughout the night, and waking feeling exhausted and unrefreshed during the day. Too often, we move from a poor night’s sleep directly into a busy day without even realizing what transpired during our nightly rest. Taking a few minutes to check in with the state of our sleep brings up details that can put you on a much faster route to diagnosis and treatment, which will not only improve your sleep but help lower your risks for health conditions associated with disordered sleep, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
How to set up a sleep diary
Your diary can be organized in any number of ways—and the most effective approach is the one you’ll use routinely over the long-term. Most people get their most valuable information, and have the easiest time sticking to the routine, when they work with a notebook and a simple template—a set of daily questions to answer. I’ll go into detail about those questions in a minute.
When to use your sleep diary
As I’ve said, the value of your sleep diary is in the accumulation of information over time. Using a diary to keep a daily record of your sleep allows you to see patterns and changes in your sleep, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Keeping a sleep diary is NOT about writing down only the things that aren’t perfect about your nightly slumber. All the information you collect has value.
Keeping a record of positive changes in your sleep experience can affirm the choices you’re making about movement, diet, light exposure, and living in sync with your chronotype and body type—and help you build on those habits, for even better rest and more energy and focus during the waking day.
I recommend setting aside a few minutes to complete your daily diary entry shortly after you’ve awakened. Keep your journal at your bedside for a quick morning journaling session. Or take it to a window in your bedroom so you can soak up some energizing, circadian rhythm strengthening sunlight while you record your entry, before you dive into your day.
I’m a big proponent of the paper journal for keeping a daily record of your sleep—it’s a no brainer to keep a small diary near your bedside. DO NOT USE a computer or tablet. I do not know why, but it does not seem to be as effective.
What to include in your sleep diary
Here’s a simple, easy-to-follow template of 10 key questions to answer in your daily sleep diary.
- I went to bed at: _______ (give clock time)
- I fell asleep at: _________ (give clock time)
- I woke up for the day at: _______ (give clock time)
- I got out of bed for the day at: ________ (give clock time)
- I woke up _____ times last night
- If you woke up, make note of how long you were awake each time (eg. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 45 minutes, etc.)
- I took _____ naps yesterday
- My naps lasted for a total of ___ minutes (eg. 90 minutes)
- Rate your Sleep Quality on a scale from 1-5:
1: very poor
5: Very good
- Rate your sleep quantity on a scale from 1-4, based on how refreshed and rested you feel:
1: Very inadequate
3: About right
4: Too much
You’ll work through these questions in a matter of minutes. And you’ll get into a groove pretty fast, especially if you make your diary a part of your daily morning and evening routine. The few minutes you spend every day with your sleep diary is a time to check in with yourself—you deserve that. And every bit of information you gather will contribute to better sleep and a more energized, healthier, more productive and fulfilling waking life.
Bottom Line: Staying attuned on a daily basis to difficulties related to your sleep can help you catch sleep problems earlier in their course, before they become more serious and more disruptive to your nightly rest and your well-being and performance. And because you’ll be paying daily attention to not only sleep itself, but also the experiences in your daily life that influence your sleep, you’ll be primed to identify trouble spots in your routines, make adjustments, and take important information to your doctor, to find the most effective treatments and therapies.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™