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 is a widespread notion that in college you can only pick two of the top three priorities — good grades, good sleep, and a thriving social life. Unfortunately, many students take that idea to heart and end up completely sacrificing one of those three priorities, which often ends up being sleep.
However, it turns out that it is 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 do not do – right before you go to bed.
The Problem of Sleep Deprivation Among College Students
Anyone who has set foot on a college campus — virtual or otherwise — has probably heard at least one student speaking of all-nighters as though you should be proud of them. While sleep deprivation may inspire delusions of academic heroism, the reality is that sleep is an important part of being a successful college student.
When you look around a classroom, you will likely 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. In one study of university students, nearly three-quarters of participants reported having symptoms of an insomnia disorder.
College students tend to be one of the most sleep-deprived demographics, despite the fact that good sleep is essential to almost every aspect of college life. Failure to get enough quality sleep at night means your efficacy and energy during the day are greatly diminished.
The Benefits of Good Sleep Habits
Only focusing on the problem can be discouraging. The good news, though, is that addressing the issue can lead to some great benefits. When you turn your sleep schedule around and start getting the rest you need, you can experience improvements in your:
- Physical health: Your body needs adequate sleep to stay healthy. When you start getting the sleep you need, you will experience a number of health benefits to help you feel better overall. Your immune system will work better, so you will avoid sickness, which means fewer class absences. You may also have an easier time shedding the “freshman 15” since sleep can help you maintain a healthy body weight.
- Mental health: Your mental health can also get a boost from a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep is associated with several mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Good sleep gives your brain a chance to process emotions and helps you wake up feeling mentally refreshed and in a good mood — or, to put it colloquially, to wake up on the right side of the bed. You may even see improvements in your relationships when you are getting enough sleep.
- Grades: Students who experience sleep problems can experience a drop in their GPAs, while those who get enough rest see increases. There may be multiple reasons for this, like the fact that sleep enhances your ability to remember what you learn.
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.
1. Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule
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 you would not otherwise get naturally. If you do not prioritize and stick to getting enough sleep, it is 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 and behavior in children, the idea of going to bed at a certain time loses sway as we get older — but it is still important. 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 for Rest
Difficulty falling asleep is one of the most common sleep-related problems college students experience. To avoid lying awake when you want to be sleeping, you have to make sure your body is ready to embrace the sleep it needs.
Part of this process is allowing your body to get tired by avoiding naps leading up to bedtime. Short naps of 10-20 minutes in the earlier part of the day can be fine, but napping any time after 3 p.m. can be disruptive to your night’s sleep. Low-intensity forms of physical activity such as yoga or taking a leisurely stroll later in the day can also 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.
3. Plan the Next Day Before Bedtime
Many of us have trouble setting aside our worries when it is time to get to sleep. When you are busy and stressed throughout the day, it can be especially hard to relax at night. Homework, finances, and social plans rolling around in your mind — along with the sneaking suspicion you may have forgotten an assignment — can make it almost impossible to get to sleep.
To avoid the stress of the unknown, it is 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 is a great thing to do before bed in particular. If something pops into your head that is not on your to-do list, write it down so your brain can let go of that thought and relax.
You do not want to be kept up by visions of dancing textbooks in your head — and locking down what you are going to get done the next day or throughout the week 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 have squared away things you are going to do the next day, emotional turmoil can linger. That is why it is important to take steps to relax mentally before bed.
Mindfulness may help improve sleep quality. It is a mind-calming practice that focuses on being grounded in the present moment through breathing, observation, and other exercises. Even in a short session, mindfulness meditation can produce a deep relaxation response in the body, and practicing it consistently produces even better long-term sleep benefits.
Though there are many different ways to practice mindfulness, here is 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 will notice after a minute or two that your heart rate may slow and your mind may clear – and that is exactly the state of relaxation that promotes excellent sleep.
5. Create a Restful Atmosphere
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, see if you can break down where the problem lies. Maybe it is noise or an uncomfortable mattress or pillow. Whatever the problems, there are probably some steps you can take to solve them and create a more restful atmosphere.
For instance, maybe it is time to get a new pillow or a mattress topper to make your bed more comfortable. Maybe you need a white noise machine, a fan for some moving air or blackout curtains to keep the room dark. A lot of these choices come down to personal preference, so you should base them on what makes you feel the most comfortable. Some people find that spritzing their pillow with some lavender spray, for example, is the perfect way to make their bed feel more inviting.
Of course, if you have a roommate, you should make sure you agree on choices that affect both of you, like the thermostat setting.
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 habits.
1. Drinking Caffeine
It may seem like common sense that the successful college student avoids caffeinated beverages before bed, but it can be easy to fall into a bad habit of relying on caffeine to stay alert during the day. Overall, high caffeine intake can actually cause tiredness — but that does not mean you have to say no to all caffeine. That morning or even midday cup of coffee will not likely hurt anything, but the closer you get to bedtime, the more likely caffeine is to disrupt your sleep.
In fact, six hours after drinking that energy drink or iced coffee, half of the caffeine could still be in your system, and it could take up to 10 hours to go away completely. That is why it is smart to avoid caffeine in the latter half of the day, especially in the six hours leading up to bedtime.
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 can change due to alcohol consumption in certain amounts. Alcohol also interferes with melatonin production, which can mess with your circadian rhythm — your body’s internal clock.
The biggest problems have to do with binge drinking, which is unhealthy for many other reasons, too. Avoid binge drinking and try replacing that nightcap with a cup of soothing herbal tea.
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 notable difference in your sleep quality? It takes your stomach about two to four hours to empty itself after a meal, and you should wait at least that long before going to bed after eating. If you do. not, 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 are looking to have a snack before you sleep, make sure it is a small portion size and low in fat and fiber, since those food groups take longer to digest.
If you have 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 is exactly the reason you should keep social interactions to a minimum in the hour or two before bedtime, even though it is easier said than done. Socializing with more than one person — say, at a party — gets your brain firing on all cylinders, and that is 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 are not sure how to be successful in college probably know one thing — cramming is never good. While some see it as an inevitable part 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 are looking to actually learn the material, spaced learning is more effective than cramming.
6. Scrolling and Streaming
For many students, their favorite way to unwind is to lie in bed with their phone or laptop, either scrolling through social media feeds or watching their favorite shows. While these activities may seem harmless, they all involve looking at a glowing screen, and that is a problem when you are getting ready to go to sleep.
Blue light from electronics can make you feel more awake, just like bright blue skies do during the day. There are some ways you can combat this issue, like dimming the brightness on your devices or using special glasses to filter the light.
However, it is always best to put devices away for the night about an hour before bed. Putting electronics down for a period before bed also leaves you time to engage in more fruitful presleep pursuits, like meditation. Pleasure reading is also an excellent way to end the night without any electronics involved.
Enroll in One of Our Online Degree Programs and Rest Up for Success
College is complicated, but luckily, spending a little time changing what you do and do not 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 are making the kind of changes that are the key to being successful in college.
If you are ready to begin your journey in a new degree program, explore our online degree programs at Vista College. When you are studying something you are passionate about, you will be proud of your hard work when your head hits the pillow each night, and you will wake up feeling motivated to accomplish your goal.