We’re sleeping less than ever, and sleep deprivation is taking a toll on on our general physical and mental health. It’s time to put some checks on the technology we use–ironically, using technology–in order to secure a better night’s sleep.

This article is part of How-To Geek’s Mental Health Awareness Day. You can read more about what we’re doing here.

Sleep Deprivation Is a Serious Issue

If there is one constant across the 21st century experience, it’s exhaustion. Collectively, we’re all sleeping a lot less than we used to (and certainly less than our ancestors did). A century ago, the average person was sleeping approximately 8-9 hours a day. Even as recently as as the late 1990s, more people were sleeping 8 or more hours a night. According to National Sleep Foundation polls over the 1990s and 2000s, the number of people getting that fabled 8 or more hours of sleep dropped by 7% between 1998 and 2009 and people sleeping 6 hours or less rose 8%.

It would be easy to chalk it up to job related stress, anxiety over the state of the economy, or other concerns–and make no doubt about it, people are certainly loosing sleep over those things–but the decrease in quantity of sleep cuts across age, economic, and social groups in a way that stress over diminishing stock portfolio returns or worry over caring for aging parents doesn’t. For every one of us kept up late at night with insomnia triggered by crippling stress, or as a secondary effect of a more serious mental health disorder, many more of us are simply staying up late because we don’t want to sleep.

The crux of the problem is that humans–you, me, everyone reading this–love novelty. We don’t like being bored. We love new and entertaining things. But unlike our ancestors (who were much better at getting a good night’s sleep on account of there being little to stay up for) we live in a world where we never have to be bored enough for bedtime. The fun doesn’t stop at sundown. The TV stations don’t broadcast static after midnight. The DJ never signs off for the night. And let’s not even get started about the entertain miracle that is the internet. We can watch streaming video content from around the world and at any hour of the day. We can play games with friends. We can aimlessly read the news or check social media until we sleepily drop our smartphones onto the floor beside our beds.

But all that staving off boredom in the form of late night stimulation comes at a price. Chronic sleep deprivation isn’t just living a life where you slug back a bunch of coffee every morning to face the day, yawn a lot at work, or feel a little fuzzy-brained now and then. Chronic sleep deprivation is a serious health problem. While the short term effects of missing out on sleep–grogginess, baggy eyes, etc.–might be easy to remedy with a return to better sleep habits, perpetual sleep deprivation has been linked with a host of serious side effects including depression and mood disorders, obesity, diabetes, and disruption of hormonal systems in the body.

We don’t know about you, but as much fun as we have staying up late binge watching Netflix, playing video games, or just aimlessly clicking along on our phones, none of that fun is worth getting in a car wreck because our reaction time is impaired thanks to sleep deprivation or, worse, ending up with long term health problems as a result of burning the candle at both ends.

In the face of the slow erosion of quality sleep that has assaulted most of us over the last quarter century, it’s time to use some (surprisingly not so drastic) measures to reclaim the deep, lengthy, and restorative sleep we all need. Rather than outright eschew technology in general and tell you go sleep like it’s 1899, however, we’re going to encourage you to both use the technology that keeps you awake in moderation and leverage technology to help you sleep better.

Create a New Bedtime Routine

Before we dive into individual tips and tricks, let’s frame everything in terms of the most fundamental change you need to make. The foundation of good (or poor) sleep is your bedtime routine. Sleep doctors and researchers call the activities related to sleep preparation as “sleep hygiene” and, though you may not normally associate those two words with each other, it’s with good reason–preparing for sleep is as much a health related activity as more traditional hygiene, like brushing our teeth.

Right now, whether you realize it not, you have some sort of bedtime routine. That routine might not be a great one–perhaps your routine involves drinking coffee way too late in the day and staying up watching Netflix until you nod off in the blue glow of your HDTV–but you have one. Take a moment to think about how you get ready for bed each night. What does the two hours before bed look like?

Now, to bring your bedtime routine into stark contrast, would you recommend your routine as a great method for getting a toddler to bed? We know, we know, you’re not a toddler. But, the things we do for toddlers to help get them to bed are exactly the kind of things that help everyone get to bed. We give try to relax them with a warm bath, we dim the lights, we do relaxing things like read them a book or sing a lullaby, and we do it all on a pretty regular schedule.

You wouldn’t, with a straight face, recommend that someone give their toddler a pile of junk food, keep them up to midnight watching television,  then give them an iPad to play with in bed, and to do all that on a slightly different schedule every night–yet that’s exactly what tons of us do. And then we wonder why we’re so tired.

So as you’re reading over our sleep improving tips, keep the general idea of a bedtime routine in mind. When we talk about cutting down on screen time, don’t just think “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Ask yourself, “OK, at what time in the evening will I put away the iPad or turn off the TV?” Don’t think of the new ideas in the abstract, think about them in terms of how you’ll apply them tonight.

Cut Down On Blue Light

Our bodies are finely tuned to respond to light signals. Bright morning sunshine makes us alert. Warm diffused sunlight at sunset makes us sleepy. Although indoor lighting has always had the potential to disrupt that signal system, historically the light exposed ourselves to in the evening was, for the most part, warm light. Candle and fire light, incandescent light bulbs, the “warm white” LED bulbs that followed, and so on are all tipped towards the warmer end of the visible spectrum and not all that far removed from the reddish light of sunset.

Screens, however, especially the crisp and bright screens on our computers, tablets, and smartphones, emit a very strong light that is heavily skewed towards the blue end of the spectrum (much like the morning and afternoon light that does such a great job waking us up and keeping us alert).

RELATED: Artificial Light Is Wrecking Your Sleep, and It’s Time to Do Something About It

Blue light exposure in our modern tech-heavy lives is such an issue we actually devoted an extensive section of our article about the effects of artificial light on sleep patterns to it. The obvious and immediate solution is to simply put away the portable devices, get off your computer, or turn off your television to avoid exposure to all that late evening blue light. Read a book or an ebook instead, next to a dimmed lamp at your bedside.

Of course, we know for some people, that just won’t happen. While putting aside the devices that are blasting your face with the blue light is the ideal solution, a good compromise is to warm the light they emit.

To that end, there are a wide variety of products and device settings you can use. F.lux is a fantastic and mature product for Windows and Mac users that warms the color of your computer screen in the evening (Linux users should check out a similar program, RedShift). We’ll admit that it took us years to get on the F.lux band wagon but now that we’re using it, we can’t say enough good things about it. You can even sync your F.lux color settings to your Philips Hue smart bulbs so the entire room, screens, bulbs, and all, get warmer in the evening.

You can also warm up your portable devices. Android users can shift the color of their screen with a handy little free app, Twilight. iOS users running iOS 9.3 on newer devices can enable the “Night Shift” mode–you can read more about which devices it works on and how to use it here.

Black Out Blinding LEDs

In addition to cutting down on your late night gadget exposure (and warming up the screen colors when you do use your devices), you should also black out all the bright (and often blinking) LEDs around your bedroom.

RELATED: How to Dim the Blinding Glare of Your Gadgets’ LED Lights

Even small amounts of light can be disruptive to your sleep and, let’s face it, the amount of light put out by many of the LEDs on HDTVs, chargers, and other hardware you might have in your bedroom, is anything but small.

To that end, it’s trivially easy to blackout your device LEDs without compromising device functionality. You can fashion your own LED blackout stickers or buy them for next to nothing–we detail the whole process, complete with sample photos, here.

Track Your Sleep

One of the most vexing things about trying to improve your sleep quality is the number of variables at play and the difficulty in determining sleep quality and length. Without technology, it’s really difficult to pin down the exact time you fell asleep, how much you moved while sleeping, or how much time you spent in deep sleep.

RELATED: How to Reconfigure Your Sleep Cycles Using Your Smartphone or Smartwatch

With technology, however, these measurements are easily within your grasp. Devices as cheap as the $35 Jawbone Up Move can be used for sleep tracking, and there are a whole host of applications that will use your smartphone itself as a sleep sensor.

A lot of people have experimented with sleep tracking over the last few years, but complained that it hasn’t helped much. The key to using sleep tracking tech isn’t just to say “Oh I sleep X number of hours last night” or “I didn’t get very much deep sleep this weekend”, but to use that new information to deduce why you had good or poor sleep.

Do you sleep well after your exercise in the morning? Do you have fitful sleep when you drink coffee after lunchtime? Are your post-work drinks decreasing your sleep quality? Sleep tracking technology lets you actively observe cause and effect relationships between what goes on in your day and how you sleep that night.

We can’t emphasize enough how useful sleep tracking tools are. You can get sleep feedback today that, even ten years ago, people had to go to a sleep lab to get. You just have to do something with that information.

Wake Up Gracefully

Related very closely to the sleep tracking category is a sub-genre of sleep tracking that could be called optimal waking. You know how some mornings you wake up and it feels almost like you didn’t sleep at all? No grogginess, no bleary eyes, you just sit up and it feels like you’re ready to start your day. Other times, it can take the better part of the morning to shake off the feeling that your night’s sleep is weighing on you like a heavy blanket.

The reason for this significant disparity in how good you feel upon waking up (often times regardless of whether you got up earlier or later than normal) hinges largely on the human sleep cycle. Roughly speaking, we sleep in a rolling wave of approximately 90 minutes wherein we sink into deep sleep, rise up out of it to the point of almost waking, and then slip into deep sleep again. If we wake up during the deep phase sleep, we feel pretty cruddy and disoriented. If wake up during the lightest phase of sleep, we feel refreshed and almost as if we’d just closed our eyes for a moment only to open them up energized again.

Many of the sleep tracking tools on the market, like the very popular Sleepbot for iOS and Android, include alarm clocks you can set to wake you not at a fixed time (like 6:00 AM on the dot), but at the most optimum moment leading up to that time–the closest point within a certain window that you were in the correct spot in the sleep cycle. Some days that may be 5:40 AM, some it may be 6:00 AM. But your cycle will determine when you wake up, not an arbitrary to-the-minute alarm.

RELATED: How to Build a Sunrise Alarm Clock on the Cheap

You can also wake yourself up more gently with sunrise simulating alarm clocks. Whether it’s really dark where you live (we’re looking at you, Alaskan readers) or you use blackout curtains and aren’t roused by natural sunlight, a sunrise simulator is an incredibly useful tool. The premise is simple: you tell the sunrise simulator what time you want to wake up and it begins slowly brightening the lights leading up to that time, just like sunrise.

While they still make standalone sunrise simulating timers and alarm clocks (a cursory search on Amazon will reveal dozens of them), we’ve found that they are a bit on the weak side, not to mention really expensive. For the price of a decent sunrise alarm clock, or less, you can buy multiple smart bulbs and set up your own (much brighter) sunrise simulator.

In fact, there’s even a small but emerging market for a combination of the two aforementioned technologies: tracking for optimal waking + smart bulbs. The popular iOS alarm clock application Sleep Cycle has, in its premium version, integration with Philips Hue bridge so you can sync your alarm clock not only to your sleep cycle but to your light bulbs.

Although technology has done quite a number on our sleep patterns over the last decade–we’re as guilty of playing on our phone at night as just about everyone–you can also leverage technology to take back your evenings and get the sleep you deserve.

Image Credits: by iWorksphotography, Unsplash, skeeze.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek, How-To Geek's sister site focused on product reviews, roundups, and deals. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker.
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