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Do sleep trackers really work?

Early in my personal sleeping-better project, I started wearing a sleep tracker to bed every night. I tracked my sleep against my goals religiously for months.

It was also one of the first things I stopped obsessing over when I learned more about how to take my sleep recovery seriously.

But wait – isn’t more information a good thing? Isn’t knowledge power?

It depends.

You have to decide how you’re using the information and question whether that info is  supporting you or adding to your sleep anxiety (tips for what to pay attention to even without a wearable tracker coming up below!).

What do I mean?

Sleep trackers provide limited information

A sleep tracker is great at showing you trends in your sleep: the average length of your sleep, how many times it perceives you woke up in the night (and for how long), and whether or not you have a consistent falling asleep time/waking up time.

Information like that can help support your memory because if you have insomnia, you probably overestimate the time you spend awake and underestimate the time you are asleep. Sometimes, you might perceive you were awake, but you were really in a light stage of sleep.

Both of these memory miscalculations can cause unnecessary stress and worry that just makes sleep harder. On the flip side, your tracker might give you welcome news about how long you’re sleeping that makes you feel better.

But this kind of focus on information you can’t necessarily control can also lead to something called orthosomnia – an unhealthy obsession with your sleep.

Knowing how to use the information your sleep tracker gives you is important.

Some devices give you information about sleep stages and this is where you can get obsessive. The device tells you for your age, you “should” be getting a certain percentage of each of four stages: awake, light, REM and deep. Light actually accounts for two stages, but they don’t register as different to most trackers.

There are at least three problems with this level of information:

They also can’t diagnose sleep disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome the way polysomnography can, so if you’re having real sleep struggles, it makes sense to talk to your doctor instead of hyper focusing on your sleep tracker data. You might be missing a medical key to your problem altogether.

What can you track without a device?

If you want to get a better handle on your sleep, you can track all the information you need without a wearable device.

You can get started by tracking four things on paper every day (we go much deeper on this in my 8-week program, Permission to Sleep™):

  1. Your bedtime/wake time (eyes closed/eyes open) 
  2. How long it took you to fall asleep the first time
  3. How many times you woke up in the night and the total amount of time you stayed awake
  4. Rate the quality of your sleep from 1-5 (where 1 feels awful, still tired and not rested, and 5 feels rested, energetic and ready to take on your day) 

What you’re looking for is consistency in your bedtime and waking time (yes, even on weekends!), being able to fall asleep within 20-30 minutes of turning out the lights, and being able to fall back to sleep within 20-30 minutes when you wake up in the night.

Track these numbers in 15-30 minute increments. Don’t be tempted to watch the clock. Your best guess is all that matters.

Add up your sleep time from #1, then subtract the time you spent awake in #2 and #3. This gives your total sleep time. There are other factors to consider but this is a good place to start.

It’s normal to wake up a few or even several times per night. This usually happens later in the night as you cycle between light and REM sleep stages (familiar with those 3 am wake-ups anyone?). It’s only a problem if you can’t fall back to sleep when you wake up.

Track these sleep factors for a few weeks and if you’re struggling, consider joining Permission To Sleep so you can solve this problem once and for all. Details on joining the waitlist below.

Get on the waitlist!

Permission To Sleep, my sleep coaching membership for midlife women, opens on a rolling basis throughout the year. Get notified of the next opening by signing up here:

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