A More Useful Guide to Student Sleep


…And why I didn’t mind being called smug

I loved being the last person to bed at night and the first person up in the morning.

My friends didn’t love it so much. I got called smug more than once.

I probably got called a lot worse out of earshot…

On one hand, I was lucky enough to only need around 6-hours of sleep a night, and I could do the odd 3- or 4-hour night without fuss.

On the other hand, I was only able to do this because I knew what made me tick. I’d already done the testing and suffered the consequences under control.

For example, one night I decided not to sleep at all. I wanted to spend the following day noting how I felt.

And that morning, I went for a haircut. I nearly fell asleep in the chair. The sound of electric clippers next to my ears wasn’t enough to stop me nearly dropping off.

The takeaway…I can’t get away with no sleep. Dagnabbit!

Another time, I went two nights without sleep. How long would it take me to recover?

When I finally did go to bed, I slept the moment my head hit the pillow.

Yet just six hours later, I was up and about as if nothing had happened.

Lots of small experiments like this were great in the run-up to university.

So why is this a more useful guide to student sleep? Basically, because this isn’t the usual advice to find a regular routine and get rid of distractions.

That type of advice is available elsewhere. And I’ve gone over those sleep issues on here before.

Student life can be different. Sleep can take a back seat. And when your timetable doesn’t have a regular structure, it’s hard to stick to a routine anyway.

That’s not to mention the impromptu late-nights and last-minute arrangements.

Understand how you work, with or without a routine

Clearly, a lack of rhythm is a pain.

Luckily, you can still do yourself some favours.

First off, it’s important to know how much sleep you need. Also, work out when you most like to get that sleep. Do you work better with an early night, or do you naturally stay up late?

If you don’t know these things, spend a few weeks testing the ground:

  • Spend a week going to bed at the same time every evening;
  • Now spend a week waking up at the same time every morning;
  • Now spend a week sleeping the number of hours you *think* you need. Do you wake refreshed, or might you need a longer stretch?

Thursday’s TUB-Thump will have more ideas on doing this.

When you know what makes you tick, you can tackle each situation as it arises. You don’t need a regular routine to make things work.

Learning from the teachers

Don’t knock regularity though. It’s still better if you can manage it.

Some of the most disciplined students I knew were those in Teaching.

During work placements, the teaching crowd had to be up early in the morning, ready to be taken to their school. Sometimes, this meant being up around 5am each day.

They didn’t have a choice.

But they didn’t complain. Well, not much!

It was clear from these student teachers that the only way to get past problems of unstructured craziness was to deal with it directly.

If you don’t take action, nobody else will. Your sleep is only a mystery when you don’t engage with it yourself.

My teaching friends still had late nights and managed to have impromptu fun. The difference was that they knew when to do it and when not to. Occasional was okay, regularly wasn’t.

And, perhaps most importantly, they called the shots. Nobody else.

How to deal with 6 more student-specific sleep issues

No matter how much you’re calling the shots, there are other issues that get in the way of your slumber.

From the people you live with, to the self-sabotaging thoughts in your head, you’ve got a lot to contend with.

TUB’s got you covered. Here’s how to address some of those student-specific sleep issues:

1. Early morning lectures when you’re a night-owl

When your timetable has two or three days of early starts, make the night before a calm one, even if you do stay up late.

The cards are already stacked against you, so don’t make it worse by going out, drinking loads, or doing anything that’ll keep your brain racing for longer than it needs to.

Prepare as much as you can for the following morning, so you have it sorted in advance. Clothes, books, equipment, packed bag, food…Everything you can think of so you don’t need to deal with it when you’re tired.

That way, bleary-eyed, you won’t have as much to think about for the early start.

2. Getting woken up by loud housemates

Some issues are out of your control. Noisy mates fall into that category.

When you expect your (supposed) friends to make a rowdy entrance in the early hours, it’s time for some damage limitation.

If you’d rather not wear earplugs, you could use comfortable earbuds (ones you’re okay to fall asleep while wearing) and listen to ambient sounds that drown out the outside world. A couple of my favourite apps are White Noise+ and Rain Rain.

And don’t forget to lock your door and windows. Yes, I’ve known situations where people are disturbed by drunken housemates who have climbed in through an open bedroom window.

That said, you probably don’t need to worry as much about an open window if you live on the third floor.

It depends on how determined (or sensible) your mates are…

3. Staying up later than you intended

Not all late-night events are planned. We’ve all been there.

But instead of thinking, “Just a bit longer”, switch to a different mindset. Think, “How much am I going to regret this in the morning?

In other words, get out when you feel the longer-term benefits of sleep outweigh the short-term joy of being out.

There will always be the odd event that you absolutely must stay at until the end. But these are rare. When your body is screaming out for sleep, do what it’s telling you!

4. You didn’t listen to your body anyway

Okay, it’s emergency time.

When you’ve not had enough sleep, you may still have a trick up your sleeve.

Enter the nap.

I’ve talked about powernaps before in these posts:

But there’s so much more to the nap than that.

Fortunately, someone else has put together a long article about getting the right type of nap for you.

How to Take the Perfect Nap for Performance, Mood and Memory

Thanks, Helmut!

5. You’re sabotaging yourself and you don’t even know it

What time in the day do you work best? Whenever it is, there may still be room to improve.

There’s a term called self-handicapping. If you’ve not heard of it, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

“An example of self-handicapping is the student who spends the night before an important exam partying rather than studying. The student fears failing his exam and appearing incapable. In partying the night before the exam the student has engaged in self-defeating behaviour and increased the likelihood of poor exam performance. However, in the event of failure, the student can offer fatigue and a hangover, rather than lack of ability, as plausible explanations. Furthermore, should the student receive positive feedback about his exam, his achievement is enhanced by the fact that he succeeded, despite the handicap.” [SOURCE]

A team at Indiana University found that people who identify as night-owls are more likely to self-handicap during their evening time of peak-performance. Similarly, those who prefer the mornings will self-handicap most in the morning.

Are you choosing to lose sleep, or stay in bed longer than you need? Don’t let your worries lead to self-sabotage.

6. Your gut is trying to tell you something

You may not have indigestion, but there are other ways your body can tell you to improve your digestive health.

Your enteric nervous system is your “brain in the gut“. It can mess about with how you feel. Digestion problems may be keeping you up at night.

Lifehack says you may get a better night of sleep when you drink tea, do yoga, and eat more healthily.

My favourite site for information on healthy eating and avoiding preventable illness is Nutritionfacts.org.

Summing Up

No matter how much sleep you need and no matter how your schedule looks, you can make sleep work as a student.

It’s not always as simple as going to bed early enough and getting up at the same time every day. But at least you have options beyond this.

There’s no need to feel tired in perpetuity. We all get the occasional rubbish day, but don’t suffer every day when you don’t have to.

For all the temptation there is to stay up as late as possible, it’s no good doing it when you suffer the rest of the time.

The most effective way to find what works for you is to put in the effort in the first place. The more self-aware you are, the more you can feel like anything is possible.

One day soon, maybe your friends will be calling you smug too. It might just be the happiest day (and night) of your life so far.

And if it’s not, at least you’ll be sleeping soundly.

How To Sort Out Your Sleep (and Stay Awake): TUB-Thump 003


One of my most popular posts on TheUniversityBlog is about sleeping (and staying awake). Episode 003 of TUB-Thump revisits the piece and gives you the lowdown on how to get the best sleep you can.

Here are the show notes for the 16-min episode:

  • Find out why some people probably hate me (01:25)
  • Follow along with the original post: “7 Tips to Top Sleep, 3 Tips for Staying Awake
  • Ambient noise app (iOS) – White Noise+
  • Ambient noise app (Android & iOS) – Rain Rain
  • Keep a pen and pad by your bed. Write your thoughts down before bed so you can safely leave them until the morning, and make a note of any inspirational thoughts you have in the middle of the night. A pen and pad is the brain-dump by your bed.
  • Some of my favourite guided relaxations and meditations – MassageASMR (especially Tibetan singing bowls), Marie Forleo’s 10-minute mantra meditation (with MP3 download), Headspace (paid service, but well worth checking out if you like guided meditations).
  • Powernaps rule! I suggest 18-20 minutes for the most refreshing session.
  • A future episode will take a look at student-specific issues with keeping a regular sleep schedule. What are your biggest sleep challenges?

Music for TUB-Thump is Life, by Tobu, which is released under a Creative Commons license. Check out more of Tobu’s great sounds on SoundcloudYouTube, and his official site.

TUB-Thump is part of the Learning Always Network.

Keep being awesome!

6 Quick Energy Boosts When Sleep Isn’t Practical

The words ‘student’ and ‘sleep’ don’t mix well.

Too much when you shouldn’t be getting sleep and too little when you should. A recipe for disaster that’s easy to fall into.

Regular bedtime is difficult to commit to with so much going on. Even when you sleep like a baby every single night, that doesn’t always stop the tiredness setting in halfway through the day.

Fear not. There are a number of things you can do to spruce up your mental and physical energy before you pack in a full night of buh-byes.

Sleeping (photo by RelaxingMusic) CC BY-SA 2.0

Sleeping (photo by RelaxingMusic) CC BY-SA 2.0

Here are 6 ways to get yourself a power up:

1. Powernap

I love powernaps. It’s like sleep, only quicker. Somewhere between 12 and 30 minutes having a short kip, leaving you refreshed and rejuvenated. Win!

The most effective powernaps take a bit of practice. For some, it’s best to get back up after no more than 12 minutes. For others, you may need half an hour. If one thing doesn’t work, keep testing times until you find what works for you. The mistake is only trying one length of time and giving up when it doesn’t work. My optimum powernap is 18 minutes. What’s yours?

2. Meditate

Relaxation has never been so energising…

Meditation is often mistaken for requiring a total lack of thoughts. In reality, your brain doesn’t switch off. Any thoughts you have should be allowed to move on.

With that in mind, you’re not getting meditation wrong. Just sit in a calm and comfortable place, feel your breathing gently in and out, and gently focus on different areas of your body from head to toe, relaxing each area as you breathe. Don’t worry about what happens as you sit there. When you notice your mind wander, give yourself permission to let go of those thoughts. Accept their existence and do not dwell on them. Stay focused on the peace and quiet for however long you wish. From a few moments to a few hours to a few days. You don’t need to keep pushing for longer rituals. One of my most refreshing meditations this month came in at two minutes.

3. Walk / Jog

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous and it doesn’t always require a gym. Walking for a mile or two is enough to clear your mind of a lot of stress and it can also help energise you for the rest of the day. My favourite time to walk is in the morning, but any time is good.

4. Change of Scene

Have you ever had that feeling when you’re tired in one place, but you suddenly feel wide awake when you go somewhere else? Find a new seat, a different location, or a different environment and watch your mood lift with no further effort required. I’m still surprised at how effective this can be.

5. Take a deliberate break

No matter how much you tell yourself to keep sitting there until you complete that task, it’s not going to finish any quicker. Leave it alone and do something else. If you have enough time, stop working on it all day. If you’ve got a deadline coming right up, take a ten-minute time-out. If you don’t want to try a powernap, meditation or a walk, you could just make a drink as an excuse to get up and stop what you’re doing.

A brief pause is a good way to break up the day and stop you from feeling bogged down. Tiredness doesn’t only happen because you need sleep. Your focus may simply be drained and it’s another way you tell yourself to take off for a while. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel after a bit of time away from a task.

6. A ritual for energy (and calm)

I love loose leaf tea. Watching the leaves brew and relaxing to a cup of green tea at once relaxes and energises my mood. You should try the same. And if green tea isn’t your thing, find your own ritual that gives you a boost in a way that you can get used to without having to break into a sweat.

There are many ways to pep yourself up naturally. You don’t have to rely on energy drinks and other hardcore stimulants.

How do you restore your energy? Go on, share some of your own tips!

How to pay attention in lectures

Lectures can get the better of you, no matter how much you want to pay attention. Actually, wait…No matter how much you need to pay attention.

Yes, at times it can feel like so much hangs on the lecture, but you still can’t manage to keep focus on the words.

photo by Tadeeej

photo by Tadeeej

Okay, so lectures aren’t quite that important (I’ll come back to that in my last point). Still, it’s useful to pay attention to them, whether or not you think they’re the best way to learn about a topic.

Here are my tips to stay switched on and in tune with your lecturer for an hour or two:

Get rid of disruptions

It’s easy to be distracted when something more enjoyable is there to entertain you. Commit to a move away from temptations. Switch off those moreish phone apps, ignore your social networks, and even move away from your mates if they take up too much of your attention in lectures. Whenever temptation is still within your grasp, you’re more likely to reach out and grab it.

Prepare beforehand

Ten minutes is all it takes to have a quick look online for a basic rundown of what you’ll probably encounter in the lecture. The lecture may end up being different, but your preparation will get you thinking about the subject in advance and help you focus on the content when you get in there.

Hopefully you’ll have a list of prior reading, handouts, and other information for you to prepare from. Once you start working with the subject matter, you’ll be less likely to switch off in the lecture.

Eat and drink wisely

If you attend a lecture too full or too hungry, you’ll suffer for it. No matter how busy you feel, find time to get the nutrients you need. Listen to your body and you’ll have a better job listening to your lecture.

Engage in your head

When you don’t get it, your brain can start to switch off. Don’t let it! Note what confuses you, write down questions you have, think whether this part of the lecture is crucial to understanding everything else.

If you’re just bored at a certain point, make sure you note the basic idea/concept down for later so you don’t miss out completely.

Get comfy!

Dress so you’re not too hot or cold in the lecture theatre. If you need to wear more/less outside, prepare for that instead of suffering in the lecture!

What if the seating arrangements are uncomfortable? Bring something to sit on, or find a different seat, or take less stuff with you, and so on. Your surroundings may not be the first thing you consider when it comes to lectures, but it can make a big difference to your attention.

Record the audio on your phone/music player/dictaphone

This should be done for your own personal use only and, even then, you should probably ask the lecturer in advance if they are happy for you to record their lectures (if they aren’t already recorded for you!). I don’t recommend this method as a regular thing, because you can get caught up in listening to the lectures more than doing your own work. Use as a failsafe only.

If you do, you can listen again at higher speeds on an iPhone or software like Windows Media Player and VLC Media Player. I used to listen at 1.4-1.7 times the speed and now frequently listen to podcasts and lecture recordings at 2 times the speed. An hour long lecture in half the time? Yes please!

Focus on your own thoughts rather than the monotonous voice

No matter how interesting the topic, a monotone can send you to sleep. I found the best way to stay awake was to think about my own reactions to what was being said in the lecture. I reframed each sentence or idea in my head so it felt like I was doing a lot of the talking.

That way, I felt more in control of my own focus. If the subject was boring that was one thing, but some topics suffered more from the voice than the content. At these times, focus as if you’re in control, like when you’re reading a book or doing private research.

This took a bit of practice and it did mean I might miss a bit as I went along, but it’s better than missing the whole lecture!

photo by arctanx.tk

photo by arctanx.tk

Relax or take a nap before the lecture

We all need time to relax, to wind down, and to find calm. I love powernaps and it’s worth finding out how much time works for you. We’re all different, meaning I like about 18 minutes and you may prefer 15 or 20. It’s worth finding your personal sweet spot. Many of the people I’ve spoken to who didn’t think powernaps worked for them found that they worked a lot better when they found the right length of nap for them.

If you don’t want to nap, it’s still worth taking time out to relax. As a recent Mind/Shift article on mindfulness states:

“Recent brain imaging studies reveal that sections of our brains are highly active during down time. This has led scientists to imply that moments of not-doing are critical for connecting and synthesizing new information, ideas and experiences. Dr. Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School put it this way in a 2010 New York Times article: ‘Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.'”

The lecture isn’t *that* important

If you’re worried that you need to hang on every last word of a lecture, your stress levels are bound to shoot up and your concentration levels drop to the floor. Lectures help to frame a topic, make you aware of debates, and give you some of the academic nuts and bolts on your learning journey. Lectures are not for rote learning, even if there is a necessary element of it in some sessions. You are unlikely to fail miserably for missing a single, crucial point in a lecture. If it’s so important, the information will be elsewhere and will likely be repeated again.

Some lectures are a slog, no matter what you try. Don’t beat yourself up about that. If it’s all too much, try to understand why. If it’s down to something you can change, try to make that change for next time. If it’s out of your control, either let it go or speak to someone who can help deal with the issue.

How do you cope with difficult lectures? What is the worst you’ve had to endure as you tried desperately to stay focused?