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Is going to bed at 9pm the secret to happiness? My week of sleeping like a gen Zer

Young people are increasingly heading to bed early and getting almost 10 hours of sleep. But how do they nod off – and are they missing out on anything?



Out of a sense of feeling robbed of my evening, I take my phone, laptop and headphones to bed with me. I worry, of course, that these distractions will contribute to poor sleep hygiene, but I’m more worried about not having anything to do.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I actually fall asleep – all I remember is waking at 1am with my phone still in my hand, and again at 3am with my headphones still on. After that, I don’t wake again until 8am. I have been in bed for 11 hours.

According to the certified sleep coach Camilla Stoddart, the threat to good sleep posed by technology is greatly exaggerated. “If you’re a 40-something with insomnia and you’re really struggling to sleep, I think listening to a podcast or watching YouTube videos is really helpful,” she says. “I’m not saying: phones are good, just use them. I’m saying: be relaxed about your sleep and sleep will follow.”

But prioritising sleep and being relaxed about sleep are often mutually exclusive. In 2017, the scientist Matthew Walker published a book called Why We Sleep, an international bestseller that – in the minds of many readers – linked inadequate sleep with a range of bad outcomes, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and a shortened life span. Inadequate sleep, Walker maintained, was anything under eight hours. The book spoke of a “silent sleep loss epidemic” and basically convinced a lot of people that their insomnia was life-threatening.

Other studies have found that an adequate amount of sleep varies widely from person to person, from as little as six hours a night to as much as 10 or 11, although most of us still fall into the range of seven to eight hours. While a chronic lack of sleep leads inexorably to irritability, impulsivity and problems with connecting socially, the array of dire consequences suggested by Walker was, some say, greatly exaggerated.

“One of the things he really didn’t make clear was that he was talking about sleep deprivation, which is different from insomnia,” says Stoddart. “Sleep deprivation is when you work on an oil rig and you stay up all night and put your body through the really difficult thing of not sleeping when it wants to. Insomnia is lying in bed not being able to sleep, even though you’re trying. You actually get more sleep as an insomniac, and you get more deep sleep; it’s just not as bad for you. There’s no link between insomnia and early death.”

Ironically, according to Foster and Stoddart, the anxiety generated by books such as Why We Sleep keeps a lot of people awake at night. “In my pre-session questionnaire, we used to ask: ‘Which books have you read about sleep?’” says Stoddart. “Because so many people had read it and said they then started worrying about it. It definitely caused a lot of problems.”


This is the only day of the week when events prevent me from getting to bed at 9pm. My band has a standing rehearsal scheduled; even though it’s at my house, I can’t get everyone out the door before 10pm.

Once I’ve missed my deadline, I decide to make a night of it. I eat dinner at 10.30 and watch telly until midnight. Again, I drag all my screens to bed with me, but they prove unnecessary – I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow – and wake promptly at 4am. And 5am. And 6am.

Feeling groggy the next day, I’m reminded that it would be impossible to keep to a nine o’clock bedtime and still maintain any semblance of my present life. What about going out? What about the 20 to 30 times a year I find myself driving down a motorway after midnight? How would I cope with that once I got accustomed to the sleep habits of the average 10-year-old?

Going to bed at roughly the same time every night is, generally speaking, a good habit. But going to bed early is not particularly helpful – especially if you are not tired – and it can be counterproductive. This may seem obvious, but in order to sleep well, you need to spend a certain amount of time awake.

“Sleep drive is like sleep hunger,” says Stoddart. “So, in the morning, you’re not very ‘hungry’, because you just had a nice night’s sleep. By the end of the evening, you are ‘hungry’, ready for sleep. But adults need about 16 to 17 hours’ worth of being awake to generate enough sleep drive to sleep for seven to eight hours.” If you are sleeping for nine and half hours every night, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

‘I’m getting nine hours of sleep, sometimes more, and feeling no better for it.’


Resentment has been replaced by resignation: bed at nine, asleep at 10, up at 7. According to the rules of circadian rhythm, my rising should be creeping earlier in step with my new bedtime, but this is not my experience: it has shifted only a little, and very slowly. In the meantime, I’m getting nine hours of sleep, sometimes more, and feeling no better for it.

In addition to your genetic predisposition and your age, a third factor significantly affects your sleep. “Light is really important for setting the body clock, but light at different times does different things,” says Foster. “Morning light will advance the clock, making you get up earlier. Evening light will delay the clock, making you get up later.”

Of course, there isn’t a lot of morning light to be had at this time of year. The sun hasn’t risen at 7am and even when it does rise it’s barely discernible. Maybe February is a bad month for a reset.


I fall asleep not long past 9pm, but thereafter I sleep fitfully and, after a certain point, not at all. My biological clock has blown its mainspring. In the morning, I have a strong sense of having been up all night, even though when I woke at 7am it was pretty clear I had been asleep, at least for a time.

“We are bad at reporting sleep,” says Stoddart. “In my world, people underestimate how much they’ve slept, because insomniacs absolutely overreport wakefulness. A lot of people think they sleep more than they do, because they’re in bed for that amount of time. But actually, they’re not asleep for all of that time.”

There are all kinds of sleep apps to help you measure the quantity and quality of your sleep, but Stoddart says they do more harm than good, because they are inaccurate and promote sleep anxiety. “I have clients who monitor every part of themselves,” she says. “They have these [smart] mattresses and they look at the data from the mattress to find out how they slept … They’ve lost touch with how they feel; they need to look at data to see how they’ve performed.”

The truth is that some people – young and old – will naturally want to go bed early, while some will naturally sleep for more than nine hours. But even if you want to emulate them, there probably isn’t much you can do about it.

“Sleep is a passive process, like breathing, digesting, growing a beard or being pregnant,” says Stoddart. “You have as much control over your sleep as you do over growing a beard.”

The difference is that you can’t halt beard growth by thinking about it too much. At the end of the week, I am still debating whether I should go to bed at 9pm one more time, to make up for breaking curfew on night three. I mention this in passing to Stoddart.

“What I really urge you to do is go back to normal,” she says. “Abandon tonight and just don’t worry about it. Go back to not thinking about it.”

This is all the permission I need. At different periods in my life, I have slept badly and I have slept well, but I have never really worried about it. Until this week. So, I sail right past 9pm, yawning all through Newsnight before going to bed and lying awake in the dark, thinking about my growing beard.

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Source: TheGuardian