Sleeping at College

Update 9/20/13: I forgot to mention napping. Is napping OK? It's better than OK! If you can, start your nap by 2PM, though, so it doesn't screw with your bedtime.

There's a lot of mystery surrounding sleep at college. People ask me a lot, "What is sleep?" or "I've heard about sleep, but where do I find it? I googled it and everything, but I'm still tired."

I'll try to answer some frequently asked questions about getting enough sleep in college.

How much do I need to sleep on average?


This depends on the person. One good way to figure it out is to let your body sleep for as much as it wants for a couple weeks straight. See how much your body wants to sleep. You can probably function just fine on slightly less sleep than that, but you really should just sleep as much as you can. Your body won't try to sleep for longer than it needs.

OK, I figured out I need 9.5 hours/night on average. Can I get 6 hours during the week and backload that sleep on the weekend by getting up at 4pm on Saturday and Sunday?


Well, sort of. I know a handful of people who function just fine like that. I never hear them complain about being tired all the time, they get their work done efficiently, and they even work out regularly. So it's definitely doable. But it's not a good idea. Our bodies are designed to be on a pretty static circadian rhythm. They want to go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, and get enough sleep each night. This regularity will allow you to fall asleep quickly, even if you're not sleep deprived. It will get you more REM. Beyond that, it also helps cement a good eating schedule, which is good for digestion, and a good habit schedule, which is good for productivity.

I read that Franklin wrote, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." He's famous, right? Didn't he discover electricity and help found the most powerful nation ever to exist? Does that make this good advice?


It doesn't make it good advice, but it is generally good advice. The important thing is that you get enough sleep, and get it at the same time each night. If your first class each day is 1:25pm and you like to get your work done late at night after everyone else in the building's asleep, it's fine to sleep from 3am to 12pm. Personally, I like to be up for as much daylight as possible so I sleep 10:30pm to 7:30am.

I've got 9am classes during the week and I like to go to parties on the weekend, which start at 10pm at the earliest. Can I just have a weekday sleep schedule and a weekend sleep schedule?


Dude, I wish. Unfortunately our bodies were not born to party. My advice is to enjoy the parties, but maybe don't go to them three nights a week. If you can, choose one you're really excited about, go have a peak experience, and then let your body rest for the other nights. And don't stray too far from your normal schedule on the nights when you do party. Every minute you stay up will hurt you later.

Speaking of parties, it is part of my fraternity's/sorority's/school's dogma that I should drink heavy quantities of alcohol on a regular basis. Will that hurt my sleep?


You bet it will. Beyond the fact that people tend to drink late at night (read: when they should be sleeping), the more alcohol you drink the worse the sleep you do get will be. Your body will go into REM less often and stay in REM for less time. It's OK to drink occasionally, but try to do it earlier in the night and don't go overboard in quantity. A couple shots of tequila at 9pm will hurt your sleep a couple hours later, but not much. If you're ten deep when you pass out at 2am, you're not going to benefit very much from sleeping.

I'm an early riser, but all my friends are night owls. How do I get enough sleep without missing out on all the fun they're having? I don't want to be "that guy."


This is a more philosophical question about fomoism (fear-of-missing-out-ism), which I believe is the bane of many students' college career. Bombarded incessantly with awesome things to do - hikes to go on, movies to watch, clubs to join, classes to take, parties to attend, people to meet, lectures to hear, books to read - we try to do the absolute maximum we think we're capable of. That sounds fine in theory. In practice, however, that pursuit of stimulation and fun is driven by a more sinister anxiety about missing out. And there's more to do than can ever be done. So at the same time we're worn out, rushed, busy, and stressed about all the things we're trying to do, we're also anxious about all the things we still aren't doing.

Listen up! Your friends aren't doing anything that exciting. Don't stay up to play Smash or Mario Kart with them and don't lose sleep over missing out on it.

That's hard for me to deal with right now, but I understand where you're coming from. Surely, though, there are things happening at school that are worth staying up for!


Absolutely. Most of my best memories from college happened late at night. Staying up until 3am talking about the nature of human existence with people I'd just met; romping around downtown Ithaca with a new friend; cracking bawdy jokes and sipping whisky with my best friend; laying out and watching the stars on the roof on the last day of classes. No large number of them happened sober, either. I'm not saying never do drugs. I'm not saying never stray from your sleep routine. Nor should you never skip any habits ever. But don't do it to watch Step Brothers for the fifth time by yourself or to play old video games or play pong with freshmen you don't give a crap about. Do it when it will be intense, memorable, exciting. The rest of the time, focus on being awake, alert, and productive.

I've got a fancy bed at home with a memory foam mattress, 1000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and a nice comforter. Plus I grew up in the quiet suburbs with no light pollution and blackout shades. Now my bed sucks, there's loud music playing down the hall, my curtains are useless, people are screaming all the time outside my window, and it's 86 degrees in here.


Yep, welcome to college. Your parents literally pay a third of a million dollars for the best education the world has ever seen and you live in squalor while doing it. It's part of life. I suggest learning to wear ear plugs and eye shades. If you can install blackout shades, go for it. If the noise is especially bad, try a brown noise generator. If you've got the funds, splurge on nice sheets and a mattress topper. Be creative, experiment, and don't be afraid to spend a lot of money. When you're paying as much as you are for college, anything that detracts from you learning is more costly than you realize.

My roommate goes to sleep at a totally different time than me and wakes me up when s/he's getting ready for bed/class. How do I handle this?


Yep, welcome to college again. Having a roommate can be the best or worst thing that happens to you here. Just talk to him/her about it and see if s/he can be quieter or get ready outside the room where it won't disturb you. Besides that, just get earplugs and hope for the best. Also talk to him/her about trying to sync up your sleep schedules a little more.

Speaking of my roommate, s/he sexiles me a couple times a week and it massively delays my bedtime. What to do?


Ah, the age old sexile question. Tell him/her s/he can do it once a week or once every other week and that's it. They're welcome to go screw in the shower if they can't wait. Just do it in a friendly way, because it will come back to haunt you if you ever offend your roommate.

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I'm working on an "Eating at College" piece to continue this series, which started with "Succeeding at College." I'll probably do a "Making Friends and Getting Numbers at College" piece, also.