Over the last week or so my smartphone started acting up. Maybe it happened (or is happening) to some of you as well? Did your phone start asking you if you were asleep between certain times? Mine has! The first time I saw the question I was a bit freaked out, I won’t lie. It was sometime in the middle of the day and my smartphone’s LED light was blinking, so I checked to see if someone had sent me an email or a message. But it was the health app on my phone that asked if I was “asleep between 22h00 and 07h00”? I was convinced that someone was watching me… And then it happened the next day, and the next, and the next… So far I haven’t answered my smartphone, but it got me thinking about sleep tracking. Should I, or shouldn’t I track my sleep?

If you are considering to diarise your sleep, this blog post is for you. Read on to find out more about sleep tracking and sleep tracking devices.

What is Sleep Tracking?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all in the name! Sleep tracking is basically keeping track of your sleeping patterns. But with the technology we have at our disposal, sleep tracking has become more than that. With heart rate monitors and smartwatches that have built-in heart rate monitors, we can now even map or track the different sleep phases we go through each night. But more on that later. Let’s first take a look at how sleep tracking came about. Where did it originate and to what purpose?

Sleep Diary

man writing in dark room

It started out a long long time ago, in a galaxy far away… Oh no wait, that was Star Wars. Star Wards started out in a galaxy far away, not sleep tracking.

It all started out when some young guy couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t sleep, so he started keeping a diary of the time he went to bed, the time he got up etc. But that was a long time ago and I don’t know who the person was. Suffice to say, keeping track of one’s sleep has been around for quite some time.

Elements Making up a Sleep Diary

You might be wondering at the scientific accuracy of my previous statement. I myself am somewhat unsure of the truth behind the statement. For instance, it could have been a lady that started the entire sleep diary revolution! But that is not the point, really. So if the discovery of the sleep diary is so uncertain, of what use is it really? Why should anyone keep a diary of their sleep? Isn’t it just a waste of paper and time? Besides wasting time, what does a sleep diary consist of? What kind of information does it contain? Is it something like: “I went to bed at ten pm and got out of bed at five am”? or is there more to it than meets the eye?

The fact of the matter is, scientists and medical practitioners use the data from sleep diaries to diagnose patients that suffer from sleep disorders. Sometimes there are no actual sleeping disorders, just bad lifestyle choices. People that drink too much caffeinated drinks tend to sleep less or have less restorative sleep than people that go without caffeine. Drinking too much alcohol before bedtime can lead to a bad night’s worth of sleep. But in other cases, people can live the healthiest lives and still suffer from sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea. Keeping a proper sleep diary can help you or your doctor to discover what keeps you awake at night. (PS. if it is your guilty conscience that keeps you awake, your health practitioner might not be able to cure it).

But okay, let’s say you want to start keeping a sleep diary, what to do?

Track Your Nocturnal Activities

woman singing on stage

Yes, of course, there is more to it than that. Keeping a sleep diary entails more than just simply looking at the time and jotting it down before you switch off the light at night. Sure it is that as well, but there is more. You should also take note of everything that happens during the night. How many times did you get out of bed to go to the loo? Did you toss and turn before you fell asleep? Did you wake up at night for no apparent reason, or did something wake you up?

Track Your Daytime Activities

person standing on skateboard

On top of keeping track of everything that happens from the moment before you switch the light off to the moment you switch it on again in the morning; you should also keep track of what you do during the day. How many cups a’ Joe did you have during the day? How many alcoholic drinks did you have before bedtime? What did you eat for dinner? Did you take a nap and if you did, for how long? Did you go for a jog or a swim? For that matter, did you do any sort of physical activity that entailed more than wiggling your fingers up and down on your tablet and smartphone? If you did, make a note of it!

To make your life a bit easier, you can follow this link to the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep diary The National Sleep Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that studies sleep and all things related to sleep. You should really check out their sleep diary, it is is a very useful tool, as it clearly defines what you have to fill out and when to do it. The diary contains two pages, one that must be completed when you wake up, and another one that you should fill out before you go to bed. You won’t have to write an essay or anything like that. Just write down when you had your coffee when you went for a nocturnal visit to the loo and so on.

If you feel that you don’t get enough sleep or that your sleep is non-restorative, try to keep a sleep diary for two weeks and see if you find anything that might be keeping you awake. Alternatively, you can also take your sleep diary to a doctor and ask for him/her to give you tips on how to improve your sleep.

Is Sleep Tracking different from keeping a Sleep Diary?

close-up photo of black fitness band powered on

In essence, it is the same thing, technology just made it a whole lot easier. With smartwatches and smartphones, we don’t have to write down every single thing we do during the night. Our watches can record that now and give a moderately accurate printout of how you spent the night. According to sleep specialists, sleep tracking isn’t perfect, because it is not always accurate in describing the different sleep phases that your body goes through every night.

Most smartwatches and sleep trackers monitor your heart rate and level of movement. In sleep, we tend to lie still and breathe deeply. When our breathing has deepened sufficiently and our hearts have slowed down a tad, the smartwatch will assume that you are sleeping. This might not be the case. You can still be lying awake, but be still and have a slow and steady heart rate. So in that sense, sleep tracking is flawed. These trackers are also not very accurate in distinguishing between different sleep states. By just monitoring heart rate and movement, it is very difficult to discern how long it takes to get to REM sleep, for instance.

That doesn’t mean we should just throw our sleep trackers away.

Even though the system is not perfect, it is still a lot better than having to fill out every single detail of your night’s rest in a log book each morning. It’s a lot easier to let your watch do it for you. And besides, you can always read your sleep log and change the data if you know that you were awake at times when your device claimed that you were asleep. Unfortunately, your watch won’t tell you that you drank a cup of coffee at 4 pm, or that you had one too many beers before bed.

Should I track my sleep?

footprints in the sand

That is the big question, isn’t it? For the sake of science and for diagnosing sleep disorders, it is definitely a must! But if you feel well rested every morning you wake up, why go to all the effort? You can, of course, track your sleep and brag about how good you feel after your night’s rest, and give your friends tips on how to improve their sleeping habits. But even if they follow your advice, they might still not sleep well. After all, everyone’s sleeping pattern is unique.

There are many benefits to tracking your sleep. Especially in the long run. You won’t be able to improve your sleeping habits by looking at one or two night’s worth of sleep data. It will take weeks or even months to gather up enough data to get a proper picture of your sleep patterns. Only once you’ve collected enough data will you be able to discover trends in your lifestyle that might contribute to your lack of proper sleep.

Once you have that data though, you will be able to start tweaking your lifestyle so as to improve the quality of your sleep. Sure, it might be tedious work to gather all that data and to make a note every time you drink coffee or coca-cola. But hey! It might really be helpful to know when and how you struggle to sleep so that you can take control of your sleep and improve on your overall health.

Some experts think sleep tracking is bad for you…

As with most things in life, whether sleep tracking is good or bad for you isn’t clear cut. Most researchers agree that it is beneficial to track your sleep, especially if you do not sleep well. But there are those that say tracking your sleep can cause more harm than good. Their argument goes something like this:

A lot of people get anxious when they can’t sleep. If you are already anxious about not sleeping, it might cause more anxiety if you have to try to remember all of the things you should be writing down and taking note of. So in other words, keeping track of your sleep is just one more thing you should remember. But in the meantime, you might already be losing sleep because you can’t remember everything that still needs to be done. You can see how, if you can’t sleep because of anxiety, trying to keep a sleep diary might add to that anxiety.

In answer to that argument though, I will revert back to one of my favourite things to say; Writing helps! (Well, for me at least). If I write something down in a diary, I know that I don’t have to keep it in mind all the time, because I can just look it up in my diary. On the other hand, if I don’t write it down, I have to remember it. So for me, taking the time to write something down de-clutters my mind and enables me to perform better. And it definitely helps to keep my anxiety levels down, because I don’t have to keep track of everything in my head!

So do you think I should start telling my smartphone when I was asleep?

I haven’t tried to make a sleep diary yet, because I sleep well most of the time. But I’m pretty sure that if I did struggle with sleep, writing it down might help. Thus, for now, I will keep my phone in the dark…

What do you think?