My first sleep log was five hours and four minutes. I was disappointed but also fascinated. My new Fitbit recorded how long I was asleep and how many times I was restless (19) ― just by wearing it to bed. But there was no ignoring my poor sleep habits. My bedtime read: 3:30 a.m. I was determined to do better.
Most basic health advice, whether your goal is getting better skin, losing weight or feeling more productive at work, includes some variation on sleeping more. But despite clear guidelines ― adults should get seven to nine hours ― a lot of people miss the mark. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep, up from 11 percent 70 years ago.
I’m in the sleep-deprived camp. I know this not only because I rely on coffee to get me through the day, but also because my sleep tracker tells me.
Even though technology is a big reason we’re sleeping less, we’re using it to help us solve the problem: Wearable devices let us set sleep goals and keep us on track.
When I discovered the sleep tracking feature on my Fitbit, I became a little obsessed — it was like a game, and I wanted to beat my score each night. I taunted my boyfriend: I was so much more evolved than he was! I was becoming a well-oiled machine! I could read my diagnostics and know that I had won the day.
But as time went on, my feelings of triumph faded: My score didn’t change much. I got about 70 percent “quality sleep” every night, even though I sent myself to bed earlier and tried my best to hit my sleep goal. That’s because sleep tracking is different from logging your workouts or counting your steps. You can’t just will yourself to sleep more when you know you’re not getting enough. And if you try, it could make everything worse.
People with anxiety or who have Type-A personalities may see their sleep score and panic, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonary and sleep doctor at the University of Southern California.
“They see this number and they’re like, ‘Oh my god 70. I’m going to work twice as hard to [improve].’ And they get this anxiety towards sleep based upon this number,” he said. “Sleep is not as easy as you think for something so simple.”
Tracking doesn’t necessarily lead to more sleep
Unless you’re wearing a fitness tracker that automatically tracks your sleep, it takes work to log your hours digitally. Apps on your phone and the Apple Watch require you to not only keep your device by your bedside (which, let’s be honest, most of us do even though we know it’s bad sleep etiquette), they also need you to tap when you hit the sack and again when you wake up.
“I was so wrapped in remembering to tap the thing — it gave me insomnia,” said Lisa Munro, 41, who has struggled with sleep for several years. “It just ended up causing so much stress.”
Even though she uses a Fitbit now, Munro doesn’t focus on her score in the morning.
“There’s still that anxiety because you’re like, did I get more sleep than yesterday? You still get kind of worked up about it. I feel like one of the worst things to do is fret about your insomnia because then you really can’t sleep,” she said.
Another problem with worrying about your sleep score is the fact that digital devices have mixed results when it comes to tests for accuracy. It might be exciting to wake up and see how long you were in each stage of sleep, but a truly accurate reading requires a traditional sleep study, Dr. Dasgupta said.
“When we talk about REM sleep, I have to look at your eye movements,” he said. “I have to look at characteristic waves on the EEG. I have to look for a decrease in the muscle tone.”
“Even if you don’t feel really tired, you’re still like, ‘I only got seven hours of sleep. This is going to be a terrible day.’”
And it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy when you wake up and see you didn’t reach your target.
“It sets you up,” said Munro. “Even if you don’t feel really tired, you’re still like, ‘I only got seven hours of sleep. This is going to be a terrible day.’”
That number is in the healthy range, but it’s on the lower end and may not be enough for some people. And it’s enough to raise anxiety if it’s not quite meeting your goal.
For those who have trouble sleeping, using trackers to try to solve the issue can also be a deterrent from seeking help from a physician. That’s a problem, since insomnia can have a deeper cause than simply a lack of willpower to get to bed earlier.
“Any device that encourages you to get good sleep, that makes you want to exercise, I’m on that team,” said Dr. Dasgupta. “But you have to know its limitations.”
Even though my sleep quality stays at about 70 percent and I rarely, if ever, hit eight hours, I’m not beating myself up. I’ve realized that instead of fixating on your score each morning, it’s more helpful to use a sleep tracker to gauge general patterns. It’s more important to pay attention to how you feel — not the number on that little screen on your wrist.