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Sleep cycles & routines explained

There are three simple but important things to consider in relation to sleep:

1. How much sleep you need

2. What time you go to bed

3. What time you wake up

Every individual needs a different amount of sleep for optimum rest and recovery. Commonly it’s recommended that we aim for between 6-8 hours with the majority of people falling into the 7-8 hour allocation. You’ll probably also know, or know of, individuals who can thrive with a lot less than this and some who crave more than this.

What matters most is your individual preference. It pays to know exactly where you lie (excuse the pun) on the sliding scale of sleep duration so that you can plan to get enough sleep and prioritise everything you need to make this plan a reality.

Why does it matter?

How much sleep you need is based around the concept of sleep cycles, which have been identified by scientists. A sleep cycle is around 90-100 minutes and for most people, the ideal night of rest is one that allows them to complete 4 or 5 cycles of sleep. For example, if you have sleep cycles that last 90-minutes, 5 sleep cycles would mean you sleep for 7.5 hours.

During each sleep cycle we move through the progressive stages of sleep from light sleep to deeper sleep and then into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. With each successive cycle we move into REM sleep more quickly meaning that this valuable part of our sleep routine lasts longer on each cycle. For most people, completing the period of REM sleep on every sleep cycle is crucial to the quality of their sleep as it can be quite disruptive to be woken up in the middle of one of these periods of sleep.

How to find out how much sleep you need

If you’re not sure how much sleep you need it’s a great idea to find out. A good place to begin is to aim to get 5 complete sleep cycles, which should take between 7.5 and 8 hours. With a little experimenting with your bedtime and your wake time, you will soon come to recognise specifically how much sleep you need, and between which hours this sleep will afford you your most relaxing night.

Use your sleep routine to your advantage

One thing worth noting is that we all follow different rhythms across 24 hours. In relation to sleep, the most important difference to note with these rhythms is between those who are night owls and those who prefer mornings – the early birds.

You probably know which end of the day you prefer to be awake for but you must also make sure you take this into account when planning your schedule. Aim to do your most important tasks when you’re in an alert state of mind or everything will feel more difficult than it needs to be.

Similarly, don’t waste your moments of peak effectiveness on mundane tasks you could do even when you’re low on resources. As a general rule, larks will do their best work between 0700 and 1100. Night owls are at their most creative from around 1600 onwards and sometimes well into the small hours.

Re-establishing your idea sleep routine

Knowledge of your body rhythms and the basic rest activity cycle can help you regulate your sleep routines if you keep irregular hours.

Ideally your bedtime and wake time should be consistent throughout the week and the weekend. Shift the schedule by too much and you could find yourself experiencing the effects of jet lag without ever leaving the country so it’s good to pay attention to how much you change your bedtime and wake up time during any typical week.

It’s also important to think about how you get things back on track if you have shifted your routine. Larks should aim to get an early night as they are less able to stay in bed to catch up on sleep in the morning.

Night owls find it more difficult to get an early night under normal circumstances and even more so if they’ve stayed up late or stayed in bed longer in the mornings at the weekend. For them it’s more likely that they’ll recover their routine by forcing themselves out of bed early in the morning. That’s not to suggest waking up early will be easy but it’s probably more effective than trying to force yourself to sleep when you’re not tired in the evening.

The power of naps

Napping can be a great way to maintain a successful routine of sleep over a 24- hour period. It’s not for everyone but with practice and planning, it can make a real and positive difference to how people feel.

  • Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents.

  • Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.

  • Napping has psychological benefits. A nap can be a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation.

Naps can be classified in three different ways:

  1. Planned napping involves taking a nap before you actually get sleepy. You may use this technique as a mechanism to ward off getting tired earlier.

  2. Emergency napping occurs when you are suddenly very tired and cannot continue with the activity you were originally engaged in. This type of nap can be used to combat drowsy driving .

  3. Habitual napping is practiced when a person takes a nap at the same time each day. An adult might take a short nap after lunch each day.

Tips for napping

  • A short nap (15-20 minutes) is usually recommended

  • Choose a restful place to lie down

  • Ensure the temperature is comfortable

  • Try to limit the amount of noise heard and the extent of the light filtering in

Seasonal sleep routines

It’s recommended that you keep your sleep routine fairly consistent but there is one adjustment that you might need to make and that’s between summer and winter. Despite the temptation to hibernate during the winter months, we don’t actually need to sleep for weeks on end but it is often a good idea to experiment and see if you’ll benefit from changing your bedtime or wake up time between October and March or November and February.

Altering your winter sleeping hours will definitely be a consideration if you work different hours in the summer and the winter. The trick is to have a clear plan for both sections of the year and maintain a consistent routine for each period. You may need to make alterations to your exercise routine, your food routine and your family / social routine at different times of the year but, with prior planning, you’ll be able to achieve a sense of balance over the course of each 12-month.

The other benefit of planning your schedule for different seasons is that you’ll be better able to transition from one period to the next without loss of overall balance in your long-term routine.

Finally, whether your routine changes much or not in Winter, you should always aim to get plenty of natural light wherever you can during shorter days as this helps with the regulation of sleep hormones.



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