Getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done at times, but with the 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule you could be one – okay, five – steps closer to the dream. While things like sleep masks and pillow sprays work for plenty of people (and are nice additions to your bedtime routine), fundamentally, you don't really need any of those things to kick start a healthy sleep routine.
The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule is a simple way for you to remember some good pre-sleep habits – such as avoiding caffeine and reducing screen time – in the hours leading up to your bedtime. And while it’s not always practical to follow this formula strictly everyday, it’s good for reinforcing sleep-friendly behavior that should soon become second nature.
The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule: the basics
The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule is designed as an easy-to-remember formula to provide structure to your bedtime routine and implement some positive sleep hygiene habits. This particular rule is a favorite of sleep experts, and pops up on social media on a fairly regular basis, to enthusiastic reception from people seeking simple ways to learn how to sleep better.
The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule is made up of five separate steps. Here's a quick rundown, and we'll break down each step in more detail below:
- 10 hours before bedtime – no more caffeine
- 3 hours before bedtime – no more alcohol or food
- 2 hours before bedtime – no more work
- 1 hour before bedtime – no more screen time
- 0 times you hit the snooze button in the morning
10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule 1: no caffeine 10 hours before bed
Caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate and some sodas provide an easy way to feel alert, but caffeine can take up to an hour to kick in and the effects can last anywhere from six to ten hours. This includes feeling wired and anxious – neither are ideal when you’re trying to sleep. (If anxious thoughts are keeping you awake, read our psychologist-led feature on how to sleep with anxiety.)
If you can't live without caffeine, the best part of the 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule is that it isn’t banned completely, so you can still enjoy tea or coffee with breakfast. 10 hours is also at the longer end of the scale. Some people only need to cut out caffeine six or seven hours before bedtime, so rename the rule to suit you. If it's the hot drink part you're craving, then a herbal sleep tea (non-caffeinated) can form part of a healthy evening wind-down routine.
Here’s a recap on how caffeine affects your sleep:
1. According to research, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is the sleep-promoting chemical that we need to build up in order to feel sleepy. Sleep experts call this our sleep drive (a hunger for sleep).
2. It reduces the length and quality of slow-wave sleep, where we fall into the deep and restful slumber that helps us feel refreshed the next day.
3. Another study showed it can worsen the symptoms of stress and anxiety, leading to more restlessness, worrying, and the inability to drop off. You may end up feeling like you have a sleep problem when you don’t.
Sleep rule 2: limit food and drink 3 hours before bed
If your bedtime is 10pm, the 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule would state that 7pm is the latest you should eat or drink alcohol. We have to say, it’s disappointing to put the wine glass down at 6.59pm, having only just poured it 30 minutes earlier with dinner.
In fact, if you're regularly waking up in the night to wee, it's not just late-night alcohol you should avoid, but fluids of any kind, including things like herbal sleep teas. Our article on when to stop drinking before bed digs into it in more detail, but essentially the aim is to work with your bladder to ensure you don't end up disrupting your sleep with nighttime bathroom visits.
Depending on your lifestyle and commitments, getting dinner over and done with three hours before bedtime could be a tall order to start with. But if you plan your time well, you'll soon fall into a routine. However, if you find you’re eating or drinking late several nights a week, then it might be time to reassess your daily routine.
This is how eating and drinking late at night can impact your sleep:
- Higher levels of alcohol in the bloodstream at bedtime causes disruptive REM sleep and leads to tiredness and poor concentration the next day.
- Eating close to bedtime can exacerbate issues such as acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn, as the digestive process and stomach acids can’t function as effectively when the body is horizontal.
- Snacking close to bedtime should only be done if essential. If you do need to eat, stick to healthy snacks such as nuts, and avoid anything containing sugar as this also affects your ability to fall asleep.
Sleep rule 3: stop working 2 hours before bed
For some of us, working from home has made it more difficult to switch off at the end of the day, which isn't great for trying to relax before bedtime. The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule advises you to stop working 2 hours before you hit at the hay. That's because increased screen time keeps the brain alert and makes it more difficult to sleep.
If you really can’t let go of work, keep a notebook and jot down any pressing issues or ideas you have, ready for you to tackle when you start work the next day. Try not to let them swirl around in your head endlessly or you won’t be in a relaxed mindset for sleep.
The stress of a long working day can lead to anxiety and thoughts that keep us up at night. Depending on your chronotype (whether you're an owl or a lark), you may also be less productive in the evenings. So stopping work at least two hours before bed allows us to relax more and get proper rest so that we can work more effectively the next day.
If you reclaim your evenings and achieve a better work-life balance, you can spend more time doing what you love. Muting work notifications on your devices straight after your shift ends will help you switch off, as will planning a leisure activity such as meeting friends or going for a run.
Sleep rule 4: avoid screentime 1 hour before bed
We’re so attached to our smartphones and TVs now that the idea of ditching them an hour before bed feels like a form of punishment, but your sleep will thank you for it. There are several reasons why screens can be disruptive before bedtime and these include:
- They stimulate the brain and keep it alert rather than prepared for sleep.
- The blue light emitted from screens is said to decrease the melatonin (sleep hormone) needed for the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
- Information you see online before bedtime could cause you to overthink or become anxious when you are trying to drift off.
Placing your device in the bedroom is also a distraction. If you really do need it in the bedroom, then make sure it’s on silent mode so you are not awoken by any beeps or buzzes that might come through.
Sleep rule 5: don't hit the snooze button (0, folks)
Ouch! This is another tough habit to break. There’s nothing more satisfying than silencing the din of an alarm and drifting back into a place of cosy reverie. What’s wrong with five minutes more sleep anyway?
Here's a top tip to help you stop hitting that snooze button: move your alarm clock away from your bedside table (or better still, out of the room) – if you have to get up to switch off the alarm, you are less likely to get back into bed.
In a blog for the Cleveland Clinic, Reena Mehra, M.D., M.S., Director of Sleep Disorders Research, said: “Much of the latter part of our sleep cycle is REM sleep, or dream sleep, which is a restorative sleep state. And so, if you’re hitting the snooze button, then you’re disrupting that.” This can also lead to a ‘fight or flight’ response, which increases our blood pressure and heartbeat.
The sleep we get in-between the times we hit snooze can lead to more grogginess. If you feel the need to hit the snooze button over and over, then you’re probably not getting enough sleep, so try an earlier bedtime. We talk more about this in our feature on how to fix your sleep schedule.
Extra tips to help you sleep better tonight
If you need a little extra help drifting off, try these helpful tips alongside the the 10-3-2-1-0 rule:
Read a book at bedtime to help prepare the mind for sleep. Nothing too gripping though, otherwise you’ll be reading up until the small hours!
Cool your bedroom by keeping the temperature at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) for optimum sleep.
Get out of bed if you can't sleep, rather than lying there stressing about how long you've been aware – this is known as the 15 minute sleep rule.
Have a warm bath or shower before you settle down to relax the body for sleep.
Pick a comfy mattress that supports your sleeping position well. If you like the feeling of being hugged, choose one of the best memory foam mattresses. For a wide range of foam and hybrid models, read our best mattress in a box guide.
10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule: things to remember
Routine is key here. That means sticking (roughly) to the same bedtime, even at weekends. This will also help the 10-3-2-1-0 sleep rule stick more, where it will soon become second nature.
If you find it isn’t always practical, try tackling the biggest problem areas first, such as drinking caffeine in the afternoon – and then introduce the other steps in the following weeks. Don’t tackle everything at once otherwise you may feel overwhelmed and ready to give up.
We found that the five common-sense aspects of the 10-3-2-1-0 formula were easy enough to fit into the week most of the time, and it’s definitely a clever way to instill good habits. We did have to set reminders to tell us to switch screens off though, as it’s easy to lose track of time... especially when binging on Netflix.
As for us, we’ve managed to significantly cut down on caffeine, and ditch the screens and snacks before bedtime too, but as for the snooze button? Ask us again tomorrow…