People with insomnia often have a simple goal for their sleep: to sleep better and feel better.
However, what better sleep looks like from person to person can be very different. Some individuals have greater difficulty falling asleep, whereas others might struggle more with waking up in the middle of the night.
Moreover, sometimes people may have somewhat perfectionistic goals when it comes to their sleep.
For example, they might say: “I want to go to bed at 11:00pm, fall asleep immediately, stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up at 7:00am – feeling fully rested the whole day”.
These goals may not be achievable given what we know about sleep. Moreover, some of these goals may actually not be healthy! For example, falling asleep immediately once going to bed may be a sign of excessively sleepiness (which could mean sleep deprivation, or medical problems like sleep apnea).
Below, I discuss some SMART goals that are adaptive and specific to sleep.
SMART Goals for Sleep
Insomnia is defined by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up too early. People with insomnia also have daytime challenges, such as fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Therefore, goals for insomnia are usually related to these symptoms. Below are a few SMART Goals that are well-calibrated to our knowledge in sleep science to guide your own goal setting.
Goal 1: To fall asleep on average between 10 to 30 minutes.
Generally, good sleepers fall asleep between 10 to 30 minutes most days. An average of below 10 minutes means that a person is excessively sleepy. We also use the word ‘average’ because everyone experiences poor nights – these are common for all sleepers and not a cause for concern (unless it’s happening several times a week).
Goal 2: To generally stay asleep and fall back asleep if awakenings happen
Most people wake up several times over the course of a night. Most are amnestic (people don’t remember) or they last only a few minutes. Therefore, staying asleep completely is not likely; however, most people I’ve worked with are more than happy if they can just get back to sleep rather than tossing and turning for hours on end.
Goal 3: To find the right number of hours and sleep schedule for them
The 8-hour myth is just that – a myth. People vary in their sleep needs and chronotype: that is, how many hours they need to function and when they prefer to go to sleep and wake up.
Therefore, trying to a force an 8-hour schedule when you need less (or more) is counterproductive and can lead to sleep problems. A more helpful goal is to determine the right schedule that will allow for deep, restorative, and consistent sleep to occur (which your insomnia therapist can help with!).
Goal 4: To determine whether improved sleep leads to improved energy, and identify other strategies to reduce fatigue
Many people ascribe their low energy levels to poor sleep. However, the fact is that sleep is only one part of the overall picture.
Fatigue is multifaceted. Many things can bring about fatigue: lack of light exposure, caffeine rebound, too much activity, too little activity, not being hydrated, poor diet – the list goes on.
Therefore, it’s important to be aware of other factors that may be contributing to lack of energy. In my own practice, I often work with clients to understand that the treatment may improve sleep, but we should act like curious scientists about changes in the daytime.
Goals for Sleep Anxiety
One additional aspect of insomnia is anxiety. People with insomnia tend to experience worry about not being able to sleep and the impact of not getting enough sleep.
One additional goal then may be to increase confidence in producing high quality sleep. From a paradoxical lens, our desire to want sleep tends to push sleep further away (kind of like the idea of love is just around the corner when we least expect it).
Therefore, a radical acceptance approach can be very helpful. Radical acceptance means fully accepting the fact that sleep might not come – and that’s okay. Although this thought might seem very scary to some individuals, many of my patients have come to the realization that being awake in the middle of the night is not as dangerous as they thought. In fact, this time becomes seen as a positive experience where they can engage in activities (e.g., watching shows, reading a book) that they typically cannot during the busy-ness of the day.