person looking at sleep tracker on list

5 Ways to Prioritize Sleep in 2021

/ December 15, 2020

2020 has been anything but restful. There's been national disasters and economic hardship, racial unrest, a global pandemic, and a turbulent election—and that was on top of all of your regular life issues like kids, relationships, money, health issues, and work!

It's safe to say all of that stress has probably wreaked havoc on your sleep. In fact, research out of the journal Sleep Medicine finds the pandemic specifically has caused an increase in insomnia.

As you head into 2021, it's time to put a renewed focus on getting a good night's sleep. Here's why prioritizing sleep in the new year is so crucial—and how to do it.

Why prioritizing sleep is important

Sleep often gets put on the back burner. Big project at work? Fitting in a workout? Trying to plan yet another Zoom get-together? It's often sleep that's sacrificed. But prioritizing sleep is key to your health, happiness, and productivity.

“Many people's brains are programmed to think of sleep as an inconvenience or something to check off the list," says Haley Neidich, licensed clinical social worker. “People need to be aware of the very serious health and mental health implications of not getting enough sleep. Our bodies and mind need and deserve adequate rest in order to reach our full potential and show up in our lives for the people we love."

Regularly not getting enough sleep has been linked to a variety of health issues including making you more susceptible to heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke, according to the National Institute of Health.

“Many people's brains are programmed to think of sleep as an inconvenience or something to check off the list. People need to be aware of the very serious health and mental health implications of not getting enough sleep. Our bodies and mind need and deserve adequate rest in order to reach our full potential and show up in our lives for the people we love."

Inadequate sleep also impacts your immunity as well as your psychological well-being, explains Neidich. “In addition to the myriad of health benefits of sleep, it is one of if not the most important thing you can prioritize when working on your mental health," she says. "Without proper sleep, almost every area of your life will begin to deteriorate."

How to prioritize sleep in 2021

So how do you make sleep a priority heading into 2021? By focusing on what things you have the power to influence and adjust, says W. Christopher Winter, MD, sleep specialist in Charlottesville, Va., and author of The Sleep Solution. “We lost a lot of the anchors of our sleep [in 2020]," he says. "It's even more important now for people to refocus on things they can control."

Even if the pandemic continues or economic struggles linger into the coming year, there are simple steps you can take to ensure you get better sleep in 2021.

Commit to making sleep a priority for six months, then evaluate if your changes have made a difference.

Make a commitment

Unlike a health diagnosis that can bring about a sudden behavior change, sleep problems are more subtle.

You think you can handle a few nights (or even months) of poor sleep. You think that if you don't see immediate consequences of lost sleep, there aren't really any side effects. But sleep problems slowly whittle away at you, says Winter, and their impact on your health can be just as severe as a sudden health scare.

Just as sleep issues can slowly erode your health, you need to give any changes that we make to your sleep time to have an impact.

“That's why you have to make a deliberate commitment to reorganize your sleep and then in six months evaluate if the intervention made a difference," says Winter. Make a resolution to prioritize sleep in 2021 and allow adequate time to see the benefits of the changes you make.

Stick to a schedule

For many people, 2020 took good habits like working out, eating well, and a regular bedtime and threw them in the dumpster.

“The pandemic has gotten us out of our life habits,“ explains Winter, “and those things anchor us." Without a commute to work or kids to bring to school, with gyms and places of worship closed, your days—and then often your nights—lack structure.

Instead of staying up late and rolling out of bed five minutes before your morning Zoom, says Winter, create a schedule that helps you make a habit of getting a good night of sleep.

That involves setting reasonable sleep and wake times for yourself—even if there isn't a commute to account for or school lunches to make. Remember, just because you can stay up until 1:30 a.m. every night doesn't mean you should.

person looking at phone in bed

Power down your devices an hour before bed to avoid sleep disturbances.

Recreate healthy screen time limits

Even if you used to have solid screen time boundaries, the endless array of things to stay updated on in 2020 may have made it difficult to put your phone down for too long. And there's a good chance all that blue light and late-night screen scrolling messed with your sleep.

According to Neidich, re-creating healthy screen time habits in 2021 can have a huge impact on the quality and quantity of your sleep.

“The best and easiest sleep tip is to completely cut out news and social media after dinnertime and screens completed at least an hour before bed," says Neidich. “The reverberating impact of this one step is often monumental for people who are constantly plugged in."

Decrease your stress

Stress and sleep are poor bedfellows. While there's no magical “de-stress" button, there are steps you can take to reduce or manage the stress-causing elements in your life. This, in turn, can help improve your shuteye.

One stress-relieving method to try? Meditation. “A simple meditation practice of five to 10 minutes per day of sitting in stillness either silently or with a guided meditation—I like the Calm app—is something that I recommend everyone do," suggests Neidich.

The benefits of adopting a mindfulness habit are well-documented. Studies show meditation can decrease stress, reduce blood pressure, and improve sleep quality.

Track your Z's

According to the National Sleep Foundation, using a tracking device is an easy way to benefit your sleep. It can help you create and stick to a sleep schedule, monitor your rest at night, and uncover sleep issues such as sleep apnea, frequent wakings, or restlessness.

“I think that devices that monitor sleep can be very helpful," says Winter. “They help you answer the question 'Am I getting enough sleep?' with a little more evidence."

Plus, for those of us who have a competitive streak or relish closing rings and winning digital gold stars, a sleep monitoring device can provide some extrinsic motivation to help you make sleep a priority.

For more ways to de-stress before bed and get a better night's sleep in 2021, try these relaxing nighttime activities.

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