How to optimize your way to a perfect sleep cave without spending a zillion dollars or becoming unduly obsessed.
What makes a bedroom, a bedroom? Let's say it starts with four walls and a bed. Add pillows and a blanket. No one can deny that this is a bedroom, a room for sleeping. It's when you ask whether it's a good room for sleeping that things get more complicated. Is it dark? Is it calm and quiet and safe from bears? How's the humidity?
The modern world offers a seemingly endless number of ways to customize your bedroom. First, there are the sleep trackers. The Sleepace RestOn Non-Wearable Sleep Monitor resembles a seat belt that sits under the sheets and runs halfway across one's mattress. Sense by Hello is a small white ball that sits next to the bed and communicates with monitors called "sleep pills" that clip on to one's pillows. There are watches, bracelets, rings, headsets, motion-detecting sweatbands, and the Withings Aura Smart Sleep System, which consists of a mattress pad, a lamp, and an app.
Once you've tracked your sleep, you'll have identified the problems that can be solved with more gadgets, from air filters and humidifiers to blackout curtains and white noise machines. There's even an alarm to wake you up with the smell of baking croissants. If you have trouble falling asleep, purchase a weighted blanket, or perhaps a sleep induction mat, or just watch a hypnosis video on YouTube.
You don't have to make your room into a finely-tuned sleep pod, but you can make some one-time changes that will have a big impact
It's possible to take this way too far. As Ben Sullivan wrote for Motherboard, he became so obsessed with his nightly FitBit report that he was unable to fall asleep for fear of sleeping badly. "Sometimes, I would try to lie perfectly still in order to fool the Fitbit into thinking I was asleep," he wrote.
This is not good. Becoming so consumed by sleep hacking that it makes you too anxious to sleep is counterproductive. That's why I decided to make this the practical, achievable, everywoman's guide to optimizing your room.
You don't have to make your room into a finely-tuned sleep pod, but you can make some one-time changes that will have a big impact. You don't need to buy every gadget and download every app, but there may be a few that will make you happy and help you rest well.
In my experience, there are a few things that really matter in the physical bedroom: darkness, noise, and temperature.
1. Philips Hue smart light bulbs
At $200, this lighting system was the most expensive thing I tried as part of my sleep hacking experiment. Philips sent me a starter kit to try, but if you aren't a journalist getting a review unit, I could understand if you don't want to pay this much for light bulbs. THAT SAID, I loved these things. The bulbs can produce 16 million colors, so you can do fancy tricks like produce a color gradient across your room, sync to music, and simulate a dance party. You can also use it to help with sleep by choosing a soothing, red-and-golden-sunset-hued setting before bed, and a bright setting for the morning. The app has an alarm, so you can choose which color you want to wake up to and have it fade up over a preset number of minutes. The lights weren't enough to wake me up on their own, but they helped me ease into wakefulness as I snoozed.
There are many other alarm clocks that will wake you up with illumination for less than $200; Philips even makes one. Google and find one you like.
Most headphones are uncomfortable to use in bed. Sometimes, when I get insomnia, I need to distract my brain with podcasts. Other times, I just want to drown out what my roommates are doing. SleepPhones are basically tiny Bluetooth speakers embedded in a soft headband. They're a little awkward, as you have to shuffle the speaker around to your ear and keep its one small wire from falling out, but they're pretty comfortable and they won't break the bank. There are other companies that make headphones designed for sleep, such as BedPhones, but the SleepPhones seem to have the best design. Who wants wires in their bed?
I coupled the SleepPhones with my trusty White Noise Free (formerly known as White Noise Lite) app. I kind of can't believe this app is free. It includes all the classics (Rain, Beach Waves Crashing) along with some unexpectedly soothing new tracks (Boat Swaying in the Water, Frogs at Night). It lets you record your own white noise loops and create your own mixes. My current favorite is Air Conditioner/Cat Purring/Train.
But best of all, White Noise Free has an alarm that fades out the white noise and plays something to wake you up, which can be either a different white noise, a traditional alarm sound, or something you record yourself. Do this in your SleepPhones, coupled with your Hue lights slowly brightening, and you'll be ready to face the world.
3. Blackout curtains
Get them. Here's one option, but there are many. They're cheap. If there is one thing you can be absolutely certain helps with sleep, it's darkness.
Once you get your blackout curtains, the next step is to tape over all those blue glowing lights on your electronics. It's another cheap, easy fix that makes a huge difference.
4. Figure out a way to get your temperature on a timer
This could be Nest; it could be a radiator with a manual timer on it. Most people find it easier to sleep when the temperature is lower. It's winter, so I set my space heater to start cranking at 5 AM, to warm up the room before wake-up time. In the summer, it makes sense to do the opposite: set your air conditioner or fan to shut off in the morning.
5. Sleep tracking apps: up to you
Sleep tracking apps are notoriously inaccurate, since they rely on your body movements to deduce what's going on in your brain—I tried two fancy ones, RestOn and Sense, and they never agreed on anything—but using one consistently may still give you insight into how you slept relative to other nights. SleepCycle is a simple one that I've used before—it's just an app you put on your phone, which you then put into your bed.
And that's it. There is your practical guide to sleep hacking your room. There's a lot I didn't cover outside the bedroom. Sleep hygiene, which refers to maintaining good habits throughout the day in order to set yourself up for good sleep, is obviously important. There are also supplements, such as magnesium or tryptophan, that some people swear by.
If you want to go deeper into the sleep wilderness, listen to this week's episode of Radio Motherboard, in which I interview the greatest sleep hacker I know: my brother William. William has hacked his room in several apartments, and is now living out of his office, which presents some interesting challenges.
While researching this story, I also spoke to Dave Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof Coffee, who does everything to the extreme. His sleep is so efficient, he says, that he only needs five hours and can skip a night without dire consequences. He's even raised his children with blackout curtains. Meanwhile, the transhumanist Zoltan Istvan wants technology to abolish sleep altogether.
I'm a humble grasshopper compared to these sleep hackers. But while I think sleep is important, I find the quantified self approach overwhelming and the "sleep is the enemy" mentality unhelpful. Even if you pay no attention at all to how you're sleeping, you'll basically be all right. And if you only do one thing, here it is: Keep your room dark.