The Midnight Shutdown: Results of My Sleep Experiment

Sleep Experiment

My sleep experiment, the one where I aimed to turn off my digital devices from midnight until 8am for a full month, is now over.

Going into the experiment, I hoped to see great gains in the both the quantity and quality of my sleep. Unfortunately, while I definitely did see improvements in my sleep, I also came to understand that digital devices — computers, phones, tablets, and whatnot — are only one source of trouble in what is often a multifaceted problem.

For your convenience I’ve broken the experiment into three phases, followed by the conclusions I drew from my experience.

Phase One: “This is AMAZING!”

As with many self-experiments of this type, my biggest gains came during the first few weeks while the idea was still fresh and novel. Every night at midnight I’d stop reading ESPN.com wrap up whatever I was working on and turn off my electronics.

I was fairly strict about this. I made sure to power off everything by 12:10am at the latest, and then from midnight onward if I couldn’t sleep I’d read. My first book of choice was The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (which, in hindsight, I’m surprised didn’t put me to sleep more quickly than it did).

It took me a night or two to adjust to the new regimen, during which time I learned how to survive just every possible kind of zombie uprising. However, within days I began to notice that around 11pm to midnight I’d feel ready to fall asleep. As I often keep weird hours, I was excited that I actually felt like falling asleep before midnight,and impressed that one relatively minor change had such a resounding impact on my sleep patterns. In fact, I was ready to declare the “Death to the Digital Hangover experiment a resounding success!

But as you can probably guess, considering that this article doesn’t end right here, those early returns weren’t indicative of the entire experiment. For while turning off my electronics did lead to major improvements, I soon realized that there were other factors which could negatively impact my sleep.

Phase Two: “But I don’t wanna go home!”

Lego ZombiesAfter learning how to dispatch zombies in every which way, I began to read Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, which somehow won the Hugo Award for Best Novel — arguably the most prestigious award in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy literature — in 2006. And just as that book failed to live up to the hype splashed across its cover, the early success of my experiment began to run into a few other real life problems, the most notable of which being that much of my social life here occurs in those late hours, long after the sun has set.

Now, had my computer been the only thing keeping me from a good night’s sleep I think this experiment would’ve been a resounding success. However, I soon realized that staying out with friends until 2am or so, even only once or twice a week, was enough to destroy much of the improvement gained through my digital shutdown. After staying out ’til the wee hours of the morning I’d often sleep late the next day. Or, if I did manage to wake up at a normal hour, I found it difficult to avoid taking an afternoon or evening nap. Unfortunately, both of those options generally made it difficult for me to fall asleep at a reasonable hour that night.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t also add a midnight curfew to the experiment. I suppose I could have added one, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked the effect of such a restriction, as I already spend quite a bit of time alone and I didn’t want to put extra, arbitrary limitations on my social life. I say this because friends aren’t like computers — they have schedules of their own and aren’t waiting in our bedrooms, sitting on our desks, ready to entertain us at our convenience (though we may have another word for people who engage in this sort of behavior …)

Phase Three: “Why have you forsaken me, gods of sleep?”

The experiment continued. I finished Spin and moved on to a classic Agatha Christie mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, which I had found for 50NT (under $2 U.S.) at a nearby bookstore.

I enjoyed the book. However, I’d already seen the movie, and thus the twist at the end hardly came as a surprise. Similarly, I had seen enough of what my sleep experiment could and couldn’t help me accomplish, I understood the benefits and limitations, and for the last week or two of the experiment I was eager to escape the restrictions to which I had subjected myself.

To be completely forthright, I’ll admit that I began sloughing off my the hard digital curfew a bit. I’d keep my electronics on until 12:30 or 1am. If I came home late, I’d check my e-mail and Facebook before going to bed. If I couldn’t sleep on a Sunday night, I’d power up my laptop to check how the Green Bay Packers were doing. (Note that Taiwan is thirteen hours ahead of Wisconsin, so there is live NFL football happening throughout the wee hours of the night.)

In short, I understood that turning off my digital equipment could have a positive effect on my sleep, but I had lost my enthusiasm regarding the concept and found myself merely going through the motions. Yet despite my failings, I still managed to come to a number of useful conclusions which you may find beneficial if you’re having trouble with sleep.

Sleep Experiment Conclusions

1) Avoiding bright screens at night can have a positive impact on your sleep

Bright Screen, Dark RoomI make this statement with confidence. During the first week of the experiment, before I let social events keep me out late, turning off all of my electronics definitely made it easier for me to fall asleep.

Takeaway: Consider turning off your LCD and CRT screens an hour or two before you want to go to bed. Instead of watching TV or using your computer, consider reading a book, writing in a journal, or doing some other activity that doesn’t involve staring at a backlit screen. Note that the standard Amazon Kindle, which doesn’t have a backlit screen, is another great option. (The Kindle Fire, on the other hand, does have a bright backlit screen, just like an iPad or other similar tablet, and thus isn’t an ideal late night option.)

2) Electronics probably aren’t the only reason why you can’t get good night’s sleep

There are lots of things that can keep you from sleeping: nights out with friends, crying babies, stress, homework, and so on and so forth. So while turning off your digital devices may help, it is by no means a comprehensive solution to your sleep woes.

Takeaway: If you have other things that keep you up late into the night, you’re going to have to consider them on a case by case basis. If you have a crying baby, you’re not likely to find many (morally and legally sound) ways to improve the situation besides waiting for your little crier to grow up. On the other hand, if you lead an active social life at night, or have lots of non-digital worries that are keeping you awake, it’s up to you to decide what those activities are worth to you, then determine if you can shift them to a time that won’t cut into your sleep or perhaps even get rid of them altogether. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t — that’s for you to figure out.

3) You may be more productive at night if you don’t have access to the internet

I didn’t state this explicitly, but you may have noticed that I managed to read quite a few books during the first few weeks of the experiment. I’d say I read one or two more books this month than I would’ve read had I not partaken in the experiment.

Takeaway: Even if turning off electronics doesn’t help you sleep, it may help you in other ways. Particularly, disabling your access to the internet and all of its distractions may allow you to do things that you may not have otherwise. Keep in mind that you could achieve this effect just by turning off your internet, rather than entirely powering down your computer. (In fact, a commenter on an earlier post offered up this idea.)

4) I like sleep!

(Okay, you got me — I didn’t really need to do an experiment to figure this one out.)

That’s all about sleep! If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave in them in the comments. Also, expect to see a story about my one day adventure in Manila, Philippines, soon! I already shared a few musing about it with members of my mailing list, but I’ll be posting a full rundown of my trip shortly.

And as always, thank you for reading.

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.