The Harder You Try, the Worse You Sleep

Trying to Sleep


Think about the last time you tried to fall asleep, but couldn’t? Did you start watching the alarm clock and get increasingly frustrated at yourself the later it got? We wrote an earlier article about how trying to be happy can make you less happy. As it turns out, trying to fall asleep has paradoxical effects too.

The Studies:

One Russian study tested to see if trying to sleep causes people to sleep worse. The researchers had participants come to a sleep laboratory twice at a 1 week interval. The participants received either neutral instructions or motivating instructions about falling asleep during the first visit and the other set of instructions during the second visit. The neutral instructions were “You should just lie down as if you decided to have some rest during the day. Whether or not you fall asleep doesn’t matter. Just relax’.” The motivating instructions were: “It’s very important for you to make yourself fall asleep as quickly as possible. Use all the methods you know. If you can fall asleep really quickly, you will get an additional monetary reward. For 5 min, you’ll get 300 rubles (approximately 7 euro); for 10 min, 200 rubles; for 15 min, 100 rubles” The researchers found that the motivating instruction reduced total sleep time and increased the number of awakenings after sleep onset. Another study found that participants who monitored an alarm clock took longer to fall asleep and worried more.

The reason trying to fall asleep makes it more difficult is that in order to fall asleep you need to be as relaxed. If you’re focused on trying to fall asleep and aren’t yet asleep you’re likely to become frustrated and start worrying. Researchers in the second study explained: “Periodic monitoring of the clock, during the pre-sleep period, to see how long it is taking to fall asleep will fuel worry about not getting to sleep. Escalating worry, in turn, is suggested to contribute to difficulty achieving sleep onset.”



Trying to fall asleep will paradoxically make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. So, turn your alarm clock away from you at night so that you can’t see it. Also, try to stop worrying about not sleeping (or anything else). Interestingly a study of good sleepers found that what they most often thought about at night was “nothing in particular.”



Harvey, Allison G. “Pre‐sleep cognitive activity: A comparison of sleep‐onset insomniacs and good sleepers.” British Journal of Clinical Psychology 39.3 (2000): 275-286.

Rasskazova, Elena, et al. “High intention to fall asleep causes sleep fragmentation.” Journal of sleep research 23.3 (2014): 297-303.

Tang, Nicole KY, D. Anne Schmidt, and Allison G. Harvey. “Sleeping with the enemy: clock monitoring in the maintenance of insomnia.” Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry 38.1 (2007): 40-55.



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