College can be one of the most exciting times of your life – but between classes, your social life, and extracurricular activities, you can start to feel overwhelmed fast. There’s a widespread notion that in college your time can be organized into a triangle: Your top three priorities are good grades, good sleep, and a thriving social life – and you can only pick two. Unfortunately, many students take that idea to heart and end up completely sacrificing one of those three points at any given time by working too hard at the others.
However, it turns out that it’s completely possible to balance the right amount of rest with a healthy social circle and robust study habits. Being successful in college means building a balanced timetable, and all it takes is a little bit of know-how and a no-nonsense attitude. It all starts with what you do – and don’t do – right before you go to bed.
Sleep Is Not for the Weak
Anyone who’s set foot on a college campus – virtual or otherwise – has probably heard at least one student speaking of all-nighters as though they are battle scars worth boasting about. While sleep deprivation may inspire delusions of academic heroism, the reality is that most students aren’t sleeping enough even though it’s one of the most beneficial ingredients of how to be a successful college student.
When you look around a classroom, you’re likely to notice two separate camps of people: the students who show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to absorb information, and the ones who can barely keep their eyes open at their desks. The latter student is quite a common sight, as many studies have proven. While 73 percent of college students report having sleep problems, only 11 percent report sleeping well.
College students have repeatedly won the title of most sleep-deprived demographic for many years, despite the fact that good sleep is essential to almost every aspect of college life. Failure to get enough quality sleep at night means that your efficacy and energy during the day is greatly diminished.
- Daytime sleepiness is a huge problem for college students, with 50 percent of them reporting drowsiness during peak productivity hours.
- Of those college students who struggle with drowsiness, 82 percent say it negatively affects their academic performance.
Failing to get enough sleep doesn’t just mess with your academic potential, it can also lead to rocky relations. A recent study from the University of California, Berkley, suggests that sleep deprivation limits our ability to:
- Practice active listening
- Experience and demonstrate gratitude
- Prioritize the needs of others
These are vital elements to all relationships, platonic or otherwise. When it comes to meeting new people – a pretty big element in a successful college career – a Swedish study has found that sleep deprivation makes you seem both less attractive and less approachable!
How Successful College Students Prepare for Bed
If you’re not sure how to be a successful college student, examining your sleep habits is definitely the place to start. While upping your sleep quantity is a good jumping-off point, it’s vital not to forget the importance of quality. After all, an astonishing 18 percent of college men and 30 percent of college women experience insomnia even when trying to get enough hours of sleep.
There are many habits you can practice that will get your brain primed and ready for the good night’s sleep you need to be successful in college. Here are a few of them.
- Plan for Sleep
Like most other things, sleep is best done on a schedule. It may seem counterintuitive to try and regulate your body’s natural sleeping patterns, but chances are you could use the structure. Planning a sleep schedule is the best way to create consistency in sleeping that you wouldn’t otherwise get naturally. If you don’t prioritize and stick to getting enough sleep, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and overtaken by all-nighters or be tempted to go to last-minute parties.
While many people know an established bedtime is effective in improving cognitive performance as well as behavior in children, the idea of going to bed at a certain time loses sway as we get older. Going to bed at a similar time every night gives your body a chance to settle into regular and uninterrupted Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles during sleep. The brain consolidates procedural memories – the ones that remind you how to do things – during REM sleep.
Since college students in particular are generating so many procedural memories on a daily basis, sticking to consistent sleep schedules can be a huge boost to academic performance.
2. Prepare Your Body
To stave off the dreaded insomnia experienced by so many students, you have to make sure your body is ready to embrace the sleep it needs. It’s a matter of contention whether or not vigorous exercise within a couple hours of bedtime can negatively affect your sleep, but there are many other things you can do to prepare for relaxation.
Low-intensity forms of physical activity such as yoga or taking a leisurely stroll can improve your ability to fall asleep. Anything that relaxes your muscles is beneficial to you before bed. Even something as simple as a warm bath or relaxing shower can greatly improve your chances of falling and staying asleep for a healthy period of time.
Something simple and habitual is also good to do every night as part of your scheduled bedtime routine. For instance, drinking a cup of herbal tea is one excellent way to promote relaxation and sleepiness naturally.
3. Plan the Next Day
Many of us have trouble leaving our worries by the wayside when it’s time to get to sleep, and for college students the stress can be astronomical. When you’ve got homework, finances, and other plans rolling around in your mind, it can be almost impossible to get to sleep – and waking up in a cold sweat because you forgot about an assignment is never fun. To avoid the stress of the unknown, it’s well worth it to begin making a to-do list every night or even just for the week.
Keeping track of your assignments, social engagements, and basic chores is something that will enhance your quality of life overall, but it’s a great thing to do before bed in particular. You don’t want to be kept up by visions of dancing textbooks in your head, and locking down what you’re going to get done the next day can prevent that from happening
4. Relax Your Mind
While making a to-do list can cut down on confusion and clear away some of your mental clutter, you may still struggle with generalized anxiety that makes it hard to fall and stay asleep. Even if you’ve squared away things you’re going to do the next day, emotional turmoil can linger. That’s why it’s important to do a relaxing hobby before bed.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective ways to relax before going to sleep. It’s a mind-calming practice that focuses on being grounded in the present moment through breathing, observation, and other exercises. With as little as a 20-minute session, mindfulness meditation can produce a deep relaxation response in the body, and practicing it consistently produces even better long-term sleep benefits. In one study, participants who attended a mindfulness-awareness education group twice a week for six weeks learned and applied these techniques. They experienced:
- Fewer instances of insomnia
- Decreased fatigue
- Reduction in symptoms of depression
Though there are many different ways to practice mindfulness, here’s one simple exercise you can do: Close your eyes and put as much focus as possible into the act of breathing. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, counting to six each time. Focus on the minuscule movements of your body that all work together to pull air in and send it back out.
You’ll notice after a minute or two that your heart rate may slow and your mind may clear – and that’s exactly the state of relaxation that promotes excellent sleep.
5. Unplug and Unwind
It’s becoming more and more difficult to disconnect from all things digital, especially social media. It’s a particularly hard sell for college students, whose lives tend to be scheduled and accessed through the convenience of apps and the Internet. With this convenience comes a whole lot of stress that’s just a phone-vibration away, and extremely hard to turn off.
When thinking about stress, it’s important to understand the term allostatic load. This is defined as the cumulative physical consequences from the constant heightened endocrine state produced by the experience of chronic stress. It’s basically wear and tear on your body from stress, and evidence suggests that nonstop texting and electronic engagement can increase it measurably.
You’re probably familiar with the vague feeling of underlying alertness or anxiety that often comes with having a phone next to your bed that could go off at any moment. It can really affect your ability to relax enough to sleep, and checking your phone at night can throw your schedule off course. However, you don’t need to disconnect completely from the digital world to experience sleep benefits. Putting your phone away and/or putting it on silent for at least a half hour before bed can keep your circadian rhythm on track. Otherwise, the light from your phone screen would have signaled your brain to stay awake.
Putting electronics down for a period before bed also leaves you time to engage in more fruitful presleep pursuits, like the aforementioned meditation or quick yoga session. Reading is also an excellent way to end the night without any electronics involved – as long as you stay away from the textbooks. In fact, recreational reading can reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent.
What Not to Do Before Bed
Part of learning how to be a successful college student is avoiding bad habits that can throw you off your game. In many cases, being proactive and picking up new habits can make a world of difference. Just be sure to watch out for these disruptive don’ts.
- Drinking Caffeine
It may seem like common sense that the successful college student avoids caffeinated beverages before bed, but a good portion of students appear to live off the stuff. While the occasional cup of coffee around midday isn’t likely to hurt anything, the closer you get to bedtime, the more disruptive the consumption of caffeine is. To drive this point home, consider that caffeine consumed even six hours before bedtime reduces total sleep time by at least one hour.
What’s interesting about the study is that participants were asked to rate how much they thought the consumption of caffeine affected their sleep. Those who consumed it immediately or three hours before bed reported adverse effects on sleep quality, but those who drank caffeine six hours before bed didn’t – even though their results clearly showed a decline in sleep efficiency. The moral of the story is that even if you think caffeine won’t affect your sleep, it’s best to stick to a 2 p.m. cutoff.
2. Drinking Alcohol
Although it may feel like having a drink or two before bed is a good way to help yourself fall asleep, it actually decreases the quality of your sleep measurably. Those REM cycles that help consolidate learning and memory are adversely affected by the consumption of alcohol – and the more you drink, the more off-kilter they become. If you rely on alcohol to fall asleep, you increase your chances of experiencing:
- Sleepwalking and talking
- Sleep apnea
- Decreased memory function
- Daytime sleepiness
- Learning impairment
You know that what you eat has a profound effect on your health in general. Did you know that when you eat can also make a marked difference in your sleep quality? It takes your stomach about three hours to empty itself after a meal, and you should wait at least that long before going to bed after eating. If you don’t, you can actually end up gaining weight and heighten your risk of developing acid reflux disease.
Eating a full meal before bed also slows your digestion, and takes up energy that could be better spent resting and rejuvenating your body. If you’re looking to have a snack before you sleep, make sure it’s a small portion size and low in fat and fiber, since those food groups take longer to digest.
If you’ve ever had a tough time getting up in the morning, you probably know how well socializing with friends and fellow students can get you up and energized. That’s exactly the reason you should keep socialization to a minimum in the hour or two before bedtime, even though it’s easier said than done. Socialization with more than one person – say, at a party – gets your brain firing on all cylinders, and that’s not what you want before you head to bed.
If possible, place a cushion of at least half an hour between the end of your social engagements and bedtime. That will allow you some time to process your interactions and any emotional fluctuations you may have had without interfering with your ability to fall asleep in a timely manner.
Even people who aren’t sure how to be successful in college probably know one thing: Cramming is never good. While it’s certainly an inevitable fact of university life, the bottom line is that the fewer times you cram for a test, the better. Procrastination is something that happens to the best of us, but if you’re looking to actually learn material, spaced learning is more effective than cramming for a full 90 percent of the student population.
Aside from being an ineffective study tool, trying to squeeze in as much information as you can is a great way to see your stress levels skyrocket, which will very likely tank your sleep quality and therefore make you less cognitively prepared to take that test anyway. If you absolutely must cram, be sure you do it the right way with:
- Healthy snacks
- Regular short breaks
- A half-hour cushion before bed
How to Be Successful in College
College is complicated, but luckily, spending a little time changing what you do and don’t do before bed can make a real difference. Like anything else in life, it takes motivation and a bit of willpower, but if you can do even one thing to improve your sleep quality, you’re making the kind of changes that are the key to being successful in college.