How Can Technology Help Us Better Our Sleep Routines?
By Sasha Mei
One night I was having dinner at my friend’s new apartment, and at around 8 p.m. the lights started to dim. I didn’t think much of it, until a bit later the blinds closed automatically and without warning. This is when I stopped and ask my friend what exactly was going on, to which my friend calmly explained that her house is automated to her sleep schedule. At around 8 p.m., when the sun starts to set, her lights dim slightly and continue to darken for the rest of the evening. At 8:45, her blinds close. At 9:30, calm, ambient music begins to play, and at 10 the thermostat begins to drop. Her house is programmed to create her perfect sleep space.
Betina Gozo is a Nike Master Trainer who advocates for her clients to practice good sleep routines in order to maximize their overall health and well-being. On an episode of Nike Training Club’s podcast from August 2019, she emphasizes the importance of unplugging and unwinding for at least 90 minutes before going to sleep. It sounds so simple—that is, until we fall into the trap of YouTube algorithms, continue to binge-watch a show, or scroll through the news on our phones before turning off the lights.
It’s human to want to stay connected and instead of pitting technology as an enemy that I continue to struggle against, I’d rather find a way to coexist. So, I propose we use technology to enhance our sleep quality. I’ve compiled a list of a few different ways for all budgets so we can—contrary to popular opinion—plug in to achieve our beauty sleep.
For Falling Asleep: Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups
Reading before going to sleep doesn’t always quiet my mind. Stories only make my imagination run wilder, and if it’s a really good one, I could be up for hours. But I do remember nights as a young girl, drifting in and out after two, three, maybe even four bedtime stories. Maybe it’s the simplicity and purity of children’s stories, or maybe it’s the predictability. Something about them seems to induce slumber.
For those who want to recreate the relaxation of these kinds of evenings, there is a podcast called “Nothing Much Happens,” with yoga and meditation teacher Kathryn Nicolai. Affectionately described as “a soft landing spot for your mind,” episodes offer a detour from the hustle of each day to create a scenario of comfort and familiarity. Nicolai hosts the podcasts and repeats the same story twice—the second version in a much slower, languid tempo. In listening, I’ve found myself transported to the same comfort and warmth I experience while listening to bedtime stories as a child, and sometimes I don’t even make it through the second round of the story.
For When You’re Asleep: Sleep++ and Sleep Tracker
I do believe that a crucial component in further optimizing your sleep is having a clear understanding ofhowyou sleep. We have four stages of sleep (some professionals argue five, but that’s not entirely important here): your body progresses through stages one to three, leading to a deeper sleep with each step, and then falls into REM sleep. As we wake up, the stages reverse. I may have only taken a single psychology course that addressed this, but according to the Alaska Sleep Clinic, these four stages of sleep take place in about 90 minutes, and the average adult needs about five of these sleep cycles each night for proper rest. We can get mathematical about this, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’re not getting the proper sleep your body needs, your quality of sleep decreases.
There are two options here for understanding your sleep, and both involve using apps. The first app I’ve discovered is Sleep++, which requires an Apple Watch, but is otherwise a free tool that analyzes your movements as you sleep to determine your quality of sleep. Were you peaceful? More restless? Sleep++ tracks the physiological quality of your sleep via movement. You’ll get detailed charts that record the hour of your movement according to what cycle of sleep you were likely in at the time.
A second option for those of us who aren’t blessed with an Apple Watch, or those who refuse to wear their watch to sleep, is Sleep Tracker. For a mere $39.99 per year, this sleep tracker works when your phone lies face-up on your nightstand, using the microphone to monitor your sleep quality and to wake you up when you’re in a lighter phase of sleep. Additionally, through some witchcraft, this app claims to be able to discern your snores from those of your partner. I know. Wild.
Creating the Environment: Home Optimization
So, you’ve got the data on your sleep cycles—now what? Maybe the charts show that you’re spending a lot more time in stage 1 of sleep and taking a long time to fall into a deeper sleep. Maybe the podcasts just aren’t helping with relaxation.
An environment that facilitates sleep is so helpful—think of how relaxing it is to enter a spa. This brings me back to my friend’s souped-up dwelling: SmartHome™. Modern housing appliances like the thermostat, lights, curtains, and even our coffeemakers, now have the ability to connect to software such as Google Home so that we can finetune their settings to adapt to our routines, creating that same, spa-like environment for ourselves.
For those living in smaller spaces, or apartments with finicky landlords that flinch at even hanging a picture on the wall (so installing a new thermostat or automated blinds is most definitely out of the question), there are less invasive methods of optimizing your home for sleep.
My favorite non-smartphone device is a Philips sunrise alarm clock. This was revolutionary after years of dark winters, where waking up to an unlit sky was a drag. Instead of blaring jarring sounds that have your sympathetic nervous system scrambling and panicked to return to homeostasis (I’m sure it’s not quite like that, but you get the feeling), the sunrise alarm clock plays peaceful sounds and gradually brightens so that by the time you have to get up, your room is fully lit. There’s something so peaceful (and surely more natural) about this process of waking.
Taking a new approach to “unplugging” changed my perception of sleeping and waking up in the morning. While I’ve only started with the alarm clock and sleep apps, my sleep process is now a priority for me, and something that I look forward to because I know just how great it feels to be perfectly rested the next day. As someone who struggles to sleep well, technology benefited me and forced me to focus on making my sleep better. Instead of being sucked into the void of social connection, we can connect (literally) to our homes and spaces to generate peaceful slumbers to feel more relaxed and rested.