For the past few years, I have kept a list of 25 things to do when you can’t sleep. These are my tried and true tips that have worked well for me over the years. Some are older tips and some are more recent. I hope they help you.
When you can’t sleep, it can be rough indeed. Fortunately, I don’t have too much trouble sleeping anymore, but I vividly remember how frustrating it used to be to lie in bed for hours or pace aimlessly around the house, failing to fall asleep at a decent hour and be functional the next day.
Eventually, I learned it’s best to just go with the flow and fill the time until I am able to sleep. This philosophy helps to calm the mind as well as get things done – and believe it or not, helps to get more sleep in the long run.
A Quick Tip About Lighting
All of the things to do when you can’t sleep that I mention below should be done under dim lighting. Do not have your overhead lighting on full brightness because that will just keep you awake even longer, inhibiting your natural melatonin production.
If your lights do not have a dimmer, try a table lamp, reading lamp, or good old fashioned candlelight – even just a cheap tealight like in the image below.
In fact, a little tealight is ideal because it’s less of a fire hazard than a regular candle. You don’t have to remember to blow it out before falling asleep – it just goes out on its own after an hour or so.
There are essentially 3 main reasons why you can’t sleep: 1.) you have too much on your mind (due to anxiety, worry, excitement, etc.), 2.) you are experiencing physical discomfort of some sort, or 3.) you are simply not tired yet. Did I miss something here? Leave me a comment, if so.
Instead of just rattling off things to do when you can’t sleep randomly as they come to mind, I have divided them up below into 3 groups that correspond with the 3 reasons. These are 25 actual activities you can do while waiting to get sleepy at night.
If You Feel Anxious, Worried, or Excited
Do Something You’ve Been Putting Off
This is a big one for me. I’m frequently guilty of lying in bed awake because I can’t stop thinking about something I should’ve done earlier in the day or that I know I need to get done soon.
If it’s something that can be done in dim lighting and that doesn’t require too much energy or attention, it’s better to just get out of bed and do that thing. For me, a lot of times it’s the little things (filing away paperwork, shopping online for a birthday gift – with my Flux blue light filter on of course!, etc.) that have been gradually piling up, adding to the mental weight I carry around.
Getting even just one of those things crossed off my list helps me go back to bed with a sense of accomplishment and enables me to fall asleep in peace.
Make a Worry List or To-Do List
If you can’t or shouldn’t do your tasks or address your worries as they cross your mind at bedtime, writing them down is a very good thing to do when you can’t sleep! That way, you have assured yourself you haven’t forgotten them and will get around to them as soon as possible.
For me, this list is a mental refuge that allows me to finally relax and fall asleep with confidence, knowing that I haven’t flaked out on any of my responsibilities.
Give your worries and undone tasks a place to rest that’s outside your brain so that you can get some rest, too!
Do the 4-7-8 Deep Breathing Exercise
Slowing down and doing some deep breathing is a healthy thing to do when you can’t sleep. Having a specific pattern to focus on makes this activity even more effective at helping you fall asleep fast.
Doing the 4-7-8 breathing exercise is easy to do, but takes a little practice to perfect.
Before you start the breathing exercise, consider these 2 tips:
- Rest your tongue on the tissue ridge directly behind your upper front teeth. Keep your tongue in that position for the duration of the breathing exercise. I do this by pretending that my tongue is glued to that ridge behind my teeth.
- Since you will be exhaling through your mouth, it might be helpful to purse your lips while exhaling so that you can keep your tongue in place and feel less awkward.
Here’s how to do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise:
- Make a slightly audible woosh sound as you completely exhale through pursed lips. Empty your lungs of all their air.
- Close your mouth, inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath while still keeping your mouth closed (and tongue glued in place) for a count of 7.
- Exhale completely, making that original woosh sound for a count of 8.
- Repeat this 4-7-8 breathing pattern at least 4 more times.
Write Your Morning Pages at Night
Julia Cameron, the original mastermind behind the concept of Morning Pages is brilliant. The idea is to spill your guts onto paper; you are supposed to physically write out with pen and paper every little thing that is on your mind, regardless of how petty, silly, or otherwise inappropriate it is – and don’t stop until you’ve filled up 3 complete pages.
It’s called Morning Pages because Cameron thinks it’s ideal to spill your guts at the start of the day, which I can see the value in. However, I can also see the value in making Morning Pages a nighttime activity. For me, nighttime Morning Pages is one of the best things to do when you can’t sleep because it empties your mind of all its worries and distractions, giving you a clear mind as you drift off to sleep.
I try to do a session of Morning Pages at least 3 times a week.
I do my Morning Pages sometimes at 5:30am – and sometimes at 9:00pm before bedtime.
Focus on One Single Pleasant Thought or Concept
If you can’t get whatever is on your mind out of your mind by means of writing or focusing on your breathing, try ignoring it by intentionally refocusing your attention on something pleasant. Out of sight, out of mind!
I’ve been able to block persistent worrisome thoughts at bedtime by envisioning myself relaxing at a beautiful travel destination like Hawaii. Other serene nature scenes like a stream of running water or a thunderstorm work well for me, too.
There’s a reason it is said that nature heals. If you can’t get out in actual nature (especially since it’s probably night and you can’t sleep), envisioning yourself enjoying nature is also effective. 🙂
Meditation helps with any reason you can’t sleep, but I feel it’s most effective when you’re experiencing anxiety, worry, or excitement. It gives you a way to take your mind off whatever is distracting you from sleeping by focusing on… nothing.
If you can manage to keep your thoughts quiet or at least on something other than the thoughts that are disturbing your sleep, you’ll be golden.
Meditation can be tricky and requires a lot of practice and patience. It also allows you to rest even though you’re not asleep – that’s why meditation is a very beneficial thing to do when you can’t sleep. If you can’t sleep, at least get some rest, right?
Turn on Some White Noise While You Sit & Relax
Sometimes, if you have anxiety, worry, or over-excitement, you simply need some peace and quiet. In some environments (especially if you live in a big city or have loud neighbors or housemates), it can be difficult to have access to a quiet bedroom without stepping on too many toes in the process.
Sometimes, you have to manufacture your own peace and quiet and let others be.
This leaves you with a few viable options. You can: use a sunrise alarm clock that also plays white noise like this one, try a proper white noise machine like this one, simply turn on a fan if you won’t be too cold, or download a smartphone app that plays white noise.
If You’re Experiencing Physical Discomfort or Pain
Take a Hot Bath
A hot bath with some Epsom salt is my go-to when I have lower back or neck pain and can’t seem to shake it off before bedtime.
I just make sure to take my bath 1 to 2 hours before I plan to go to sleep – not at bedtime. The reason I bathe ahead of time is because my body temperature is still too hot, causing me to toss and turn in bed.
If I give myself a chance to cool down, it’s a perfect pre-bedtime routine because my muscles are still relaxed 2 hours later.
Soak Your Feet in a Foot Spa Massager
Since you’re in pain and awake anyway, why not pamper yourself?
I have one of these foot spa massagers stored away for evenings when I have achy feet from the gym – or just had a long day and need something to help me wind down that won’t wake me up further.
A good foot soak is one of my absolute favorite things to do when I can’t sleep. 🙂
Use an Acupressure Tool
A simple acupressure massage tool – this one in particular, is a great way to melt away stress, pain, pressure, and knots that build up in the neck, back, chest, and stomach. This tool brings all of these areas relief, making it much easier for you to sleep faster and better.
Using this tool is a fantastic (and did I mention effective?) thing to do when you can’t sleep. If you follow the instructional videos and use the tool properly, it will work even better.
Tinker with the Temperature in Your Bedroom
Maybe the temperature in your bedroom is keeping you awake. Too hot where you’re sweating and too cold where you’re shivering are both unhelpful.
The temperature in your bedroom is very important. Sleep experts say the ideal bedroom temperature for an environment that is most conducive to falling asleep and sleeping well is between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (for non-Americans that’s between 15.5 to 19.4 degrees Celcius).
That leaves quite a large range and quite a lot for you to experiment with. You wanted something to do when you can’t sleep, right? 🙂
Make it your mission to figure out what the best temperature is for you in the bedroom and tinker with it until you find it.
Going a little colder than you think you should is usually helpful because you have blankets to keep you warm. Your body temperature drops while you sleep anyway.
Try Essential Oil Therapy with Relaxing Aromatherapy Scents
Some people respond well to relaxing scents.
Essential oils made from lavender, ylang ylang, jasmine, sandalwood, cedarwood, patchouli, bergamot, and chamomile are incredibly calming and all smell great.
My 2 favorites are lavender and sandalwood.
Essential oil therapy is a great thing to do when you can’t sleep!
Just dabbing a couple of drops on your neck, wrists, and on your upper lip can keep you relaxed and grounded in the present moment while you work through the challenge of not being able to sleep.
Try Some Relaxing Body Lotion
If you enjoy relaxing essential oil scents, you might also enjoy kicking back and enjoying the scent of lavender or ylang ylang body lotion. This is great for the feet after soaking in the foot spa massager suggested in one of the tips above.
One tip I have regarding body lotion is to use it somewhat sparingly so you’re not all oily as you climb into bed. Just rub enough onto yourself that you can enjoy the scent and soften your skin. Then give your skin a few minutes to air out before jumping into bed.
Do Some Light Yoga & Stretching
If you’re in pain, you probably think moving around is the last thing you need to do, but actually… it helps. Don’t do anything too strenuous, though!
Doing some light yoga moves like Child’s Pose, Legs Up the Wall, Supine Twist, and some other yoga poses mentioned here help with chronic pain, inflammation, and other discomforts you might be fighting on a daily or nightly basis.
If You’re Just Not Sleepy Yet
Read a Book (a Real, Physical Book)
Break out the reading lamp or a candle and read a book. You know – a real book printed on paper… Remember those? 🙂
Reading is an excellent thing to do when you can’t sleep, but be careful which genre you choose. Make sure the book isn’t too action-packed or one that you feel you need to hang onto every last detail to follow. I’ve found that textbooks work really well when I’m having trouble sleeping.
The idea is to allow it to aid you in getting sleepy. You’ll want to be able to just close up the book at any second and not be worried too much about marking where you left off.
Drink a Hot, Caffeine-Free Beverage in a Small Cup
The old tried and true hot beverages are always a nice thing to do when you can’t sleep. My favorites include hot lemon water, chamomile tea, golden milk (warm turmeric milk), or even just plain warm milk.
It’s a good idea to only drink a small cup of liquid at night so you don’t ruin your sleep when nature calls.
Of course, avoid caffeinated beverages because they will only keep you awake.
Do Yoga Nidra (Sleep Yoga)
Even if I don’t start out especially sleepy, lying down with my ear buds for a yoga nidra session always does the trick.
A 30 or 60-minute guided yoga nidra session is one the most relaxing things to do when you can’t sleep – and will get you snoozing in no time.
If you haven’t tried yoga nidra, I highly recommend doing so! Just search it on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of free guided yoga nidra videos to choose from.
Listen to Soothing Music
Calming instrumental music genres like classical, jazz, ambient, Celtic, and bossa nova have a way of almost instantly initiating sleep for me, but I also find they are fabulous things to do when I can’t sleep as well. Instrumental music soothes and relaxes away whatever is on my mind.
Turn on the Sunset Feature on Your Sunrise-Sunset Simulation Alarm Clock
As I’ve mentioned in several other posts, the Somneo wake up light is hugely responsible for me being a morning person.
What I might not have mentioned before is that it also has a sunset simulation setting. Relaxing with its sunset is one of my top things to do when I’m unable to sleep because it feels realisitic and peaceful. It gets my melatonin production kicked into gear as well, which is essential for falling asleep at a decent hour.
Do Something Mundane Like Cleaning
You might not be tired one minute, but introduce something boring or something that you don’t enjoy doing like cleaning and I guarantee you’ll start yawning.
Finding productive things to do when you can’t sleep – like cleaning can cut down on the things you have to do during the day. Why not kill two birds with one stone? If you can’t sleep, stay awake and get chores done!
Try to Stay Awake As Long As Possible
This one seems counter-intuitive, but it works.
Most of us can’t resist a challenge, even if it’s sort of lame and silly like this one: Try to challenge yourself to stay awake as long as possible, which I think is the ultimate thing to do when you can’t sleep.
What I’m saying is, if you can’t sleep, embrace it and try some reverse psychology!
Don’t pressure yourself to go to sleep or calculate how many hours of sleep you’ll get. Just try to stay awake with any means necessary (although you should avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugar for obvious reasons) – and you getting sleepy will take care of itself sooner than you think.
Since I was a teenager, one of my all-time favorite things to do when I can’t sleep is to stargaze.
Looking up at the stars is a calming, humbling experience that has always lulled me to sleep in less than an hour.
Go For a Run
If you’re really, really not tired and you need things to do when you can’t sleep that will expend your energy – go outside for a run. Just be careful and take safety precautions so that you’re aware of your surroundings.
The moonlight and street lights won’t interfere with your melatonin production, and you’ll be able to run off that extra energy that would have otherwise kept you tossing and turning in bed for hours.
Play a Repetitive Game Like Mahjong, Sudoku, or a Crossword Puzzle
Playing repetitive games like mahjong, sudoku, or a crossword paper for 15 or 20 minutes is sometimes enough to help you drift off to Dreamland.
Simple match games or fill-in-the-blank puzzles are classic yet effective things to do when you can’t sleep that sort of whip you into a trance and get you sleepy.
It’s best if you play these games with paper and a pencil (or with actual mahjong tiles) and not on your smartphone or tablet so that the blue light doesn’t keep you awake.
Listen to an Audiobook with a Soothing Voice
Don’t listen to action-packed audiobooks like murder-mysteries or war novels and stay away from business and self-help books that might get ideas flowing in your head when you want to be going to bed.
Instead, a thing to do when you can’t sleep is to listen to a light-hearted audiobook with a soothing voice that you can easily press stop on anytime.
I recommend anything by Eckhart Tolle. His voice is like floating on a cloud of positive energy.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to listen to his audiobooks during the day when I’m alert and paying attention to his teachings, but his voice is also incredibly soothing. Eckhart’s voice has put me to sleep on several occasions and it’s nice to listen to in the meantime, right before falling asleep.
Listen to the Sleep With Me Podcast
If all else fails, listen to the Sleep With Me Podcast. Drew Ackerman hosts this podcast and helps give you something to listen to when you can’t sleep.
The bedtime stories are relaxing and make it much easier to fall asleep – or at least enjoy a funny story.
Ackerman’s silly, boring bedtime stories and the way he tends to ramble and jump around, make it difficult not to nod off at some point. Give it a shot if you need help getting tired.