Tools for better sleep

Teaching note-taking techniques to a student who is not sleeping well, eating well, and doing some kind of regular exercise really is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Despite this, there is so much hype around teaching students study techniques and learning modalities and very little emphasis on the fundamentals.

The reality is that a student really can drastically improve their focus, alertness, energy, and effectiveness by making a few small tweaks to their sleeping habits.

Prescribing vs Professing

Andrew Huberman is an American neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Learning podcast. The tools described in this article are a brief introduction to some of the mechanisms that Huberman describes in his podcast, and we highly recommend you take the time to listen to it in its entirety (the first few episodes are on sleep).

In his podcast, Huberman likes to say: “I am not a physician, I do not prescribe things – I am a professor, I profess things.”

In the same spirit, we must add the disclaimer here that we are not giving medical advice in this article, and you should check with your doctor before making any changes or additions to your habits. Your health is your responsibility, not ours.

The ideal sleep strategy

Every human bean is different. We all have different needs and requirements; however, there are certain universal principles that are useful to learn and teach in this domain, and we hope that with adjustment to the particulars of your situation, you will find the following tools and ideas useful.

Sleep really is the most important thing to get right when it comes to learning – or any endeavour. The quality, quantity, and consistency of your sleep matters. As far as Genius is concerned, the ideal sleep strategy looks something like this:

  • You consistently get between 7,5 and 9 hours of sleep.
  • You wake up easily, feeling refreshed.
  • You fall asleep easily.
  • You plan your sleep in multiples of 1h30.
  • You wake up at the same time from Monday to Friday, ideally Sunday.
  • You go to bed at the same time from Monday to Friday, ideally Sunday.
  • Your sleep is uninterrupted; you are not alert in the middle of the night.

The following thirteen tools are designed to equip you to get better sleep:

Sleep on an empty bladder

Limit your intake of fluids two hours before bedtime. Drinking too close to bedtime and filling up your bladder does two things:

  1. It increases your likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night to urinate.
  2. More perniciously, a full bladder can keep you at a higher level of alertness, and therefore prevent you from getting high-quality, deep sleep.

You can use your bladder to control your alertness: not feeling alert? Drink fluids; feeling too alert (anxious, etc.)? Empty your bladder.

Understand Blue Light

We’re sure you’ve heard all the hype about blue light. The thing to know about blue light is that it is a tool, and like any tool, it can be useful or harmful.

Really any bright light should be avoided at night, but blue light especially. Light at night suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone, which the body naturally releases at night (in the dark) to facilitate a transition to sleep.

Blue light in the morning is actually highly desirable (although no light so bright it hurts your eyes is desirable), and there is very little evidence to show that blue light during the day is harmful.

Your phone will have a ‘blue light,’ ‘night light,’ or ‘eye comfort’ setting, which automatically reduces blue light from the screen after sunset.

Taking this principle to the extreme, one might install dim, red-tint lights near the floor around their house to use instead of ceiling lights at night.

Even if you don’t go to these extreme measures before bed, you should actively avoid all forms of bright light if you wake up in the middle of the night.

Watch the Sunrise

Regularly getting a few minutes of light from a sunrise-lit sky, unfettered by glass windows or sunglasses, can have a massive effect on setting your daily sleep cycles.

To oversimplify, we are wired to respond to the specific quality of blue and yellow light available at sunrise by releasing cortisol and therefore starting our endocrinological clocks.

You may know cortisol as the stress hormone. This is true – but this kind of stress and alertness is required first thing in the morning and should not be delayed.

This graph contrasts the ideal cortisol curve with an irregular one. This doesn’t really map with the science, but it makes the point well: when do you want your cortisol?

cortisol's effect on sleep

The spike in cortisol also sets a timer, and this has an effect on whether or not you start feeling sleepy at the right time that night.

Watch the Sunset
Regularly exposing yourself to the specific quality of light that a sunset-lit sky produces has a positive effect on your sleep by doing a very specific thing: it actually lowers the effect that blue/ bright light has on the suppression of melatonin that evening.

Sunset-light almost sends the message that it IS bedtime soon, even if you do see some light later on.

Optimise for Consistency
Studies have shown that consistency can be more important than quantity (although both are crucial). For example, regularly getting 7 hours of sleep can be better than getting a mixed bag of 7, 10, 7, 6, 10 hours of sleep.

If your week’s activities make it impossible to get consistent sleep, “catching up” on the weekend can actually do more harm than good: you should plan to get up at the same time from Monday to Sunday. Failing this, you should at least keep it consistent Monday to Friday, and close on Saturday and Sunday.

Your internal clock sets itself to roughly the average of the last 3 day’s wake-up times, so if you get up at 9 am on Saturday and Sunday, and try to get up at 5:30 am on Monday, your system will always be playing catch up.

Use Ultradian Cycles
Every 90 minutes or so, during sleep, there is an oscillation between the slow-wave and REM phases of sleep. This is often called the ultradian sleep cycle, sleep–dream cycle, or REM-NREM cycle, to distinguish it from the 24-hour circadian alternation between sleep and wakefulness.

The below graph illustrates the oscillations between sleep cycles:

cortisol's effect on sleep

As before, this is a gross over-simplification, but it makes the point well: if your cycles are 90 minutes long, waking up after seven and a half hours is a good strategy; waking up after 8 hours is a bad strategy.

The problem is that your cycles are unlikely to be exactly 90 minutes long, and so your ‘Ideal wake up points’ could really be anywhere:

cortisol's effect on sleep

So really, the best strategy is to choose a minimum and then bump it up slowly until your alarm is catching you in a very light sleep:

  1. Decide on a minimum sleep length that you wouldn’t want to consistently sleep less than.
  2. Sleep for that length of time for a few nights in a row.
  3. If you are waking up disorientated and tired, crawl the time up by 10 minutes and go again.

It shouldn’t take you more than a few nights to find your optimal sleep length.

Exercise in the morning

Aside from the obvious benefit of doing regular exercise, if you have a regular exercise routine that is executed around 30 minutes after you wake up (at the same time every day), your body will begin to wake up, before your alarm goes off, in anticipation of the regular exercise routine.

Use Hot Showers Strategically

Human sleep cycles are very closely tied to temperature increases and decreases: we are wired to become sleepy as our core temperature drops, and alert as it rises.

If you have a hot shower in the evening, before bedtime, your body (which has been warmed) will experience a heat dump (rapid cooling), and this will facilitate a transition to sleep.

Similarly, a hot shower in the morning will cause a rapid cooling, and this will have two effects: you will feel relaxed, lethargic, and low energy right after the shower; and your natural sleep-cycle clock will be pushed up (making it more difficult for you to fall asleep that night).

Use Cold Showers

Cold showers can be used to leverage the same mechanism: a cold shower in the morning can cause a rapid internal warming response, which wakes the body up. In addition, a cold shower is likely to give you an adrenaline and cortisol injection, among many other benefits.

Cold showers are great because they can also assist with top-down stress response control, the benefits of which extend into all areas of your life.

Use NSDR Protocols

A Non-Sleep Deep Rest Protocol is a short (10-30 minutes) period of deep rest when awake. This can come in the form of meditation, Yoga Nidra, or hypnotherapy.

There are many situations where NSDRs are useful, but in this article, we will talk only about their utility in cases where you have woken up in the night and are struggling to fall asleep.

You should find a meditation style, Yoga Nidra script, or Hypnotherapy script that works for you and use it if you ever wake up at night and feel like you can’t go back to sleep (for example, if you feel like your mind is racing).

Avoid Light at Night
If you do wake up in the middle of the night, you should actively avoid all forms of bright light (blue or otherwise). If you need to go to the bathroom, go in the dark – if you really can’t see, use the light from your phone screen to navigate.

The worst thing you can do is engage in any activity which requires alertness, focus, or the use of light, for example reading, watching YouTube videos, or exercising.

This will make it harder to fall asleep that night, but more importantly, will increase the likelihood of interrupted sleep in the future.

Use Power Naps

Napping can be a great way to reset, increase alertness and focus, and improve memory and recall. If you are going to nap, you should aim for around 15 to 30 minutes (give yourself a few minutes to fall asleep). It is often surprising to people who have never tried, how effective such a short nap can be.

Avoid napping for much longer than 40 minutes because if you enter deeper levels of sleep you will wake up feeling heavy ‘sleep inertia’.

Use Stimulants Strategically

Avoid stimulants first thing in the morning

You should avoid caffeine in the first hour or two of the day. The human body is a remarkable machine, and if you regularly use caffeine to become wakeful in the first hour of the day, your body will very quickly depend on it.

This means that when you don’t get your caffeine hit, you will be severely handicapped.

With even half of the tools in this article, you should be able to easily wake up and feel alert and focused without the use of caffeine in the morning.

Coffee can be a great productivity tool but keep it out of the opening game.

Avoid stimulants later on in the day

For a tiny percentage of the population, caffeine does not impact their ability to sleep. If you think you’re in that subset, you’re probably wrong. Even if it doesn’t actively feel like you struggle to fall asleep at night (or wake up in the night), caffeine use late in the day can lead to a lighter, lower quality sleep.

Pick a time after which you avoid caffeine and other stimulants.

Keep learning and growing

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr Seuss, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!

There aren’t many opportunities in life where small changes can yield massive results. However, sleep is one of them – there is plenty of reading and research to be done, but we recommend you start with Andrew Huberman’s podcast:


Academic Coaching

For a student to become a productive, independent, and effective learner, they need to learn how to ‘play the game well.’

That’s where we come in. We have a sophisticated Academic Coaching programme that pairs your child with one of our academic coaches and takes them through an individualised and pre-panned academic coaching course. The course teaches students strategies for enhanced performance in the domains of:

  • Wellbeing
  • Proactivity
  • Stress Management
  • Memory Techniques
  • Study Skills
  • Examination Techniques

The lessons happen one-on-one with our trained in-house team of tutors. These can be done online or in person.

See what our parents have to say, or find out more about Academic Coaching.

Why Genius?

Genius has been supplementing the school system and facilitating the growth of students into powerful academics and life leaders for 28 years.

We are not a just tutoring agency; our team of tutors and academic coaches are in-house instructors who have been through a very rigorous vetting and training programme, and we work very closely with them, the school, and your family over the duration of the course to ensure a great result.

Here are some of the things that parents have said about our programme:

  • The assessment process is convenient and pain-free.
  • The lessons happen at a time that suits you, even if that means mornings or weekends.
  • These are one-on-one lessons that happen in your home or online.
  • You will improve your marks.
  • You will improve your confidence.
  • You will improve your interest.

You can book an assessment by heading over to our contact page, or reaching us directly on, or +27 11 467 9884.