Digital minimalism principles for better sleep: spend more time outside, less time on the phone, and sleep better. Read this to get a research-based perspective.

Photo by Craig Garner on Unsplash

Reducing nighttime light exposure is a common sleep tip. Light is often coupled with using electronic devices (e.g., mobile phones, tablets). Our electronics also give us access to endless streams of information that can be disruptive to our sleep. But there may be ways to counteract these sleep disruptions.

Daytime bright light might protect nighttime sleep

Sleep research has demonstrated the power of daytime bright light exposure for better sleep at night. We’ve talked before about how people with office windows tend to sleep better than those who don’t have windows. These studies show that bright light exposure is linked with high sleep quality. And people who are exposed to bright light during the daytime often report lower feelings of sadness.

Some interesting research has shown that bright light exposure during the daytime hours might protect against sleep disruptions from light exposure during the night time. One small study assessed sleep in people who read a novel on a backlit tablet and those who read a physical book. Both spent 6.5 hours in constant bright light during the day. Interestingly, sleep quality was similar in both groups regardless of whether they read using a tablet or physical book. But, there may be a caveat to this.

The study mentioned above is restricted to reading a novel, which may be more relaxing than other activities that can be done on a backlit advice. Our physical and mental states before bedtime are powerful predictors of how well we sleep. For example, think back to a time where you fell asleep easily compared to when you may have tossed and turned before falling asleep. What was on your mind?

Sleep quality is consistently linked with pre-sleep arousal. Our cognitive state before bedtime impacts how quickly we fall asleep and how continuously we sleep throughout the night. Electronic devices, like backlit smartphones and tablets, have a world of possibilities to make us feel excited, anxious, riled up, or otherwise engaged, all of which disrupt our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

Another small study evidences this — even when blue light is filtered, people’s sleep was disrupted when viewing socially relevant content on a device. There were no differences in sleep quality for those who used blue light filters as compared to those who didn’t use filters. Although the authors acknowledged that more research needs to be done in this area, they concluded that light filtering may only be useful when the information viewed is not arousing. It seems that it’s not just the light that we’re exposed to that affects our sleep. Our level of focus on the content also matters.

Social media can act as an insidious sleep disturbance

I’m all for focused thought that facilitates deep work. But, during bedtime, it’s time to disengage from the day. Social media often has other plans for us. By design, social media platforms want to keep our attention. A byproduct of maintaining our attention is keeping us awake.

Social media has been linked with pre-sleep arousal. Studies done on TikTok and Facebook show that social media may lead to high pre-sleep arousal, or higher cognitive activity before bed. Scrolling through internet feeds can make us feel excitement, anger, and stress, which can interfere with falling asleep and getting enough sleep.

A potential problem with social media use is that there is no clear end when scrolling. In a physical book, for example, there are chapters. There is no easy way to access recommended readings in a physical book. There are constraints. Comparatively, we have subreddits, TikTok videos, and Twitter feeds that go on and on and on. These feeds are what Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day authors, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, would call infinity pools. It is incredibly easy to get lost in endless scrolls. Trust me, I’ve been on Reddit binges myself. I hangout on Reddit for fun. I am not against social media, but I’m learning to set limits.

Sleep tips from a digital minimalism perspective

Daily modifications to our interactions with social media could help with sleep. Based on Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, there are two themes that I think may be particularly helpful to maintain sleep health.

1. Refocus your attention. Prioritize high quality social interactions over low quality ones. Research studies have demonstrated that social support is linked with sleep quality.

From a digital minimalism perspective, social activities might be categorized from low to high quality as follows.

  • Passively scrolling through social media feeds
  • Liking posts
  • Commenting on posts
  • Sending an email
  • Calling someone on the phone
  • Video chatting with someone
  • Hosting a social gathering (e.g., happy hour, walk with a friend)

An interesting way to prioritize social engagement is to block out a time interval for having conversations with special people in your life. For example, before or after work, you might have a specific time block that is allocated for a group workout, video call, or phone call with a friend. Try to avoid spending too much time on low quality social interactions like text messaging or liking social media posts.

There are also other high quality activities that can replace low quality digital ones. For example, leisure reading, writing, making things by hand, and joining group activities are other avenues of breaking away from low quality, digitally-focused activities. And these sorts of calming activities before bed may help with getting to sleep.

2. Protect your sleep interval. In a few words, this means to actively avoid sleep distractions. Shield your sleep time from digital invasions that want to steal sleep from you. We’ve talked some about this before regarding how time boundaries may impact sleep. And, protecting the time for our sleep interval deserves a detailed article on its own, as it is such a common sleep issue. The following is an abbreviated version of tips for prioritizing a healthy bedtime.

  • Set limits for when you engage with social media. For example, you may avoid logging into any social media accounts an hour before you want to go to bed. You may also decide that you only engage with social media during a certain time of day (e.g, during lunch time or 10-20 minutes after work).
  • Focus on activities that bring you calm before bed. This is unique to every individual, and you have to find what works for you. Some people find meditation to be helpful with sleep. Some research shows that writing a to-do list might be linked with sleep in young adults. It is important to note here that this research study also found that writing about past events before bed did not help with sleep quality. More research needs to be done on the association between journaling and sleep. That said, I prefer a combination of planning and journaling for my sleep routine. The key here is to find what helps you feel calm during bedtime and modify your routine as needed.

There are many factors involved with sleep. In addition to light exposure during the daytime and nighttime, the way that we interact with light-emitting devices could also affect our sleep.

I’d love to hear if you incorporate digital minimalism into your daily life. Have you made changes to how you interact with technology? Did you notice any differences in your overall health or sleep?


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