How not to suck at grad school: Sleep

How Not to Suck at Sleep

This is the second of the three wellness blogs to assist graduate students to get through their studies with their mental and physical health intact. The first blog was about eating and cooking, this blog entry is about sleep, and next month’s entry will be about stress management. Also note that this blog is the first entry to appear in two different places: on the McGill website for labbies ( and at for folks who want to subscribe and comment. Blogs will appear in both fora.

Got Sleep?

The biggest problem is that we go to bed when we want to, but get up when we have to.

I do not need to spend much time convincing you that sleep is good. Cognitive performance is dramatically affected by lack of sleep. Adults getting less than 7 hours of sleep are 20% less effective in working memory, short term memory, and attention than adults getting at least 7 hours. In addition, there are not huge individual differences in the required amount of sleep required for maximum efficiency. Some people say that they simply do not need much sleep. The vast majority of these people are just used to being sleep deprived and cognitive inefficiency is normal for them. They simply do not even remember how much better their life would be with a good amount of sleep. Moreover, weight gain, lethargy, high blood pressure, poor response to stress, and uneven blood sugar regulation are all associated with sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is bad.


If you are not getting enough sleep, then you are not learning at your most efficient. All nighters on projects or cramming for exams nearly always result in worse performance than a well-planned performance where work is spaced out over a long period. In general, spaced practice is better than massed practice. If you are one of those who believe that they work best under pressure and must do things at the last minute, then the kindest thing I can say about you is that you are delusional. Everything is better with a second or third draft, input from others, time to reconsider ideas, and an increase in mindfulness. Study, then sleep.

Nice brief science blog on sleep:


The key to strong sleep is to plan ahead and schedule. There is no need to do an all nighter if you study each night and are fully prepared for all tests, projects and deadlines. Plan all activities, place stages in your calendar, and execute the plan. Your ability to plan and carry out the plan will be essential to your success for many reasons. Save at least 7 hours per night on your schedule for sleep. Do not cut into sleep time—this is a carved in stone. You must schedule your work around sleep as a highest priority. When life become hectic and the schedule is overwhelming then television, leisure time on the internet, social life, and nearly everything else needs to be cut before sleep.

Sleep Disruption

We all have days when our sleep is disrupted. Anxious or depressive features interrupt sleep. Noisy neighbors. Guilt. Too much coffee or chocolate. Partner is snoring. Baby is crying. Fire alarm goes off. You had a disruptive dream. Or you just cannot shut off your brain. Healthy sleep usually begins within 20 minutes of going to bed and usually we do not notice or remember waking during the night. When you do not get to sleep do you stare at the clock and watch the minutes pass in the 2nd slowest method possible? Treadmill time remains the slowest time passage context. Does counting sheep really work? I doubt it. And warm milk seems so nasty. I am sure there are countless ways and folk tales as to how to fall or get back to sleep. My system seems to work for me: the reboot. That is—I redo my bedtime routine. Get out of bed, check the locks on doors, look in on my kids, check the next day’s to do list and schedule, brief stretch of back and legs, brush teeth, wash face, set alarm, clear head of intrusive thoughts, and get back into bed. Seems to work most of the time.

The one confusing step might be the clearing of intrusive thoughts. I am used to meditating so this is a habit I have developed. But I meditate in the morning as it tends to wake me up, not get ready for sleep. But when I have an intrusive thought, I acknowledge it, write it down (I have a pen and paper by my bed), and think “This is something I really need to address, but morning is the best time for that.” Watch your thoughts go by like a parade. Acknowledge their existence and take note, but do not ask these thoughts to linger for long.

Significant and long-term issues with sleep are symptoms of a variety of mental health issues. Sleep change (too much or too little) are associated with anxiety, depression, substance dependency, adjustment disorders, and other issues. Counselling and other therapies to address these issues can also improve sleep as a primary or secondary effect.

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep does not come easy for some people. Getting to sleep and staying asleep are big challenges for many. All you can do is set the stage for the sleep and develop good habits. Creating good sleep hygiene helps nearly everyone.

  • No televisions, computers, or other electronic devices in the bedroom. Adults with TVs in the bedroom average one hour less per night than those without.
  • Television. I am shocked at how much television that students watch. Terrible television as well. First, you cannot multitask and you do not need noise—both distract you from the task. Second, I see people cut into their sleep time because of their favorite TV show. Stop it. Even worse is Netflix. When you are power watching a great show and it is 1:00am, you tend to say, “Let’s watch one more.” Resist. Sleep is so much better. And will improve your performance and response to stress.
  • Your bed is only for sleep (and sex). Do not study, lounge, read, talk on the phone, watch TV, or engage in other activities in your bed. You want to associate bed with sleep (but if you fall asleep during sex that might lead to other problems). Likewise, if you can avoid it, do not try to sleep in a chair, couch, class, or other places—any sleep is better than no sleep. But bed sleep is best and develops best habits. You want to associate bed with long sleep.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time every morning. Some folks get 4-5 hours of sleep on weekdays and try for 10-12 hours on weekend. You can catch up on sleep. But it is stressful on the body and does not promote good habits. You want your body to know when it is ready to sleep every night.
  • If you can sleep, then sleep. On those nights when you are bored, have free time, or are wasting time on the internet, then go to sleep.  If you have an hour or two between classes and do not want to study, then find a place to sleep and take a nap.
  • Avoid energy drinks, herbal stimulants, and such. Stimulants provide short term alertness and improvement in cognitive functions. But really mess up the sleep rhythm. Such stimulants are for crises and emergencies (e.g., driving without enough sleep). Regular use will lead to reliance and long term sleep deprivation. In addition, many stimulants can lead to heart arrhythmias and can be dangerous.
  • Avoid sleep aids and alcohol to aid in sleep. This is the same problem as stimulants. For short term or crises they can be effective. You are far better off with good habits.


Sleep is critical to learning, health, and managing stress. Any wellness activity must include long and effective sleep as a priority. Sleep is not an option. You must have effective sleep habits and patterns for long term health, stress management, and effective learning. Many of you have your own quirky ways to get sleep. Whatever it takes to get 7 or more full hours of sleep per day—and you are a big part of the way to wellness.



One thought on “How not to suck at grad school: Sleep

  1. How not to suck at sleep: I might add that one’s on campus office space can be a real life saver. Bring a yoga mat & tuck it under your desk or in the closet, bring it out when you need to lay down for a quick 15 minute recharge 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s