Introducing Improving sleep series – Part 1: Sleep quality and sleep tracking

Improving sleep

You already know a lot about the importance of sleep. Good sleep is absolutely necessary to preserve our health, and achieve good performance – whether we need to stretch our brains or bodies.

Many scientific studies show how bad sleep increases the risk of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, and many other health problems. Others show how it makes us unfocused, less creative, anxious, over-reactive and even less moral.

But we don’t really need those studies – on the very personal level we already know the difference in how we feel after a good night of sleep versus a bad night. Can you put out a great performance on the night of bad sleep? Probably not. On the other hand, when we are well rested it’s easy to come into the flow.

Just imagine 5 year old who missed his nap. He’s cranky, temperamental, and just not able to play nicely with others. You can “control” him, but it takes a lot of effort. And pretty much the same thing happens to your brain when you don’t get enough sleep.

If you often wake up feeling unrefreshed, we encourage you to read this series of articles. Not all recommendations may be relevant for you, not all of them can be easily inserted into your life. But imagine the difference it would make in your life if one or two of them work.

Pick a few sleep improvement ideas that appeal to you the most, and test them out over next few weeks.


Getting started – Defining and measuring sleep quality

In the first article we will focus on defining what the components of good sleep are, and give some tips on measuring the sleep quality. This should help you identify where you need to work on first. Is it sleep duration? Deep sleep? Or how long it takes to fall asleep?

Following articles in this series will each focus on one area and give you tips on what you can try to improve the specific area.

Defining sleep quality

Sleep tracking


Defining sleep quality

To improve sleep we need to understand what our current situation is, and define our goals. We can look at sleep quality from a few different angles, and identify how we are doing in each of these areas.

So what are the components that we should pay attention to?

1.      Sleep duration

Are you getting enough sleep? What sleep duration is optimal for you?

2.      Sleep consistency

Is your sleep consistent or is it interrupted by awakenings? What is the difference between the time you spend in bed and the time you are actually sleeping? Does it take too long to fall asleep?

3.      Sleep timing

What time do you usually go to sleep and wake up? Is this time consistent throughout the week? What is the right time for you to go to sleep? In other words – what is your chronotype? Are you a lark for whom it is better to go to sleep earlier in the evening? Or a night owl who is still full of energy in the evening and benefits from sleeping and waking up later?

4.      Sleep architecture (deep/light/REM sleep)

Are you getting not just sufficient amounts of total sleep, but of each of its components? How do you feel when you get enough deep sleep and when not? What is the optimal amount of REM sleep for best mood and performance?

In following articles we will focus on each of these components, explain what it means, what the optimal situation is, and how to achieve improvements.

For even more in-depth look on defining sleep quality you can read about 4 pillars of sleep of Dr. Matthew Walker PhD., author of the book Why We Sleep.

Sleep tracking

Why is sleep tracking important for improving it? Because our senses are not very accurate, and our subjective memories are even less so.

This is true even about those of us who actively work on improving sleep. Martina, the founder of Hecatee, just recently analyzed her 2+ years of sleep tracking data with Oura ring. Even she was surprised by some trends she did not notice on day-to-day optimizing journey.

So remember – Tracking always beats subjective memory.

Peter Drucker said “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”. This quote summarizes 2 concepts

  1. Measuring helps you identify the baseline – areas where you are doing fine, and where you can improve.
  2. Measuring helps you see whether you are moving the right direction.
REM sleep improvement
Martina’s experiments on improving REM sleep captured by Oura ring. In May 2019, her REM started declining to levels which were impacting her mood and performance (less than ~1h 20m in her case). She tested several approaches between July and November, with mediocre results. In December she achieved her goal by using glycine 1h prior bed.

As you will be testing different approaches to improve your sleep, without data you will not know what works for you and what doesn’t. Tracking is important tool to validate if what you are doing makes the difference you expect.

Measuring sleep during travel

Tracking becomes even more important when we travel. Maybe we have a good idea of how much we sleep during our normal life. We have our consistent daily routines so we know when to go to sleep and when to wake up.

But long journeys are the kryptonite of sleep – crossing the time zones, all the time spent at airports and on uncomfortable airplane seats and taxis, unfamiliar hotel rooms and the jetlag that drags for a few days.

In this situation tracking becomes even more important for making sure we are giving the body enough time to sleep and recover.

What to measure

As with anything, you want to focus on measuring things that make a difference in your sleep quality, and those you want to influence.

The absolute basics are the time in bed and comparison to total sleep duration. These tell us if we are getting enough hours of sleep, and if we can sleep when we give the body the chance to do so.

We recommend tracking these parameters:

  • Time of going to bed and getting up + Time in bed duration
  • Time of falling asleep and waking up + Total sleep duration
  • Sleep cycles (ideally including REM sleep)
  • Sleep disruptions (e.g. difficulty to fall asleep, or wake ups during the night)
  • Perceived sleep quality (on a scale)
  • Daily life quality parameters – mood, ability to focus, creativity, …
  • Any interventions you are testing

Of course you can add any other parameters that are important for you. For example athletes may want to track Resting heart rate and Heart rate variability as well as a measure of their recovery. If you are trying to address specific health problem like for example sleep apnea, professional measurement is highly advised.

How to measure sleep

Wearable sleep trackers

Some of the parameters are impossible to track without a specialized device. This costs money, but wearables have a great advantage – tracking happens automatically and you don’t have to remember to start the measurement or write things down. This is why we consider wearables the perfect solution for sleep tracking.

Of course, these consumer products don’t yet measure sleep as precisely as clinical devices. For example measuring sleep stages is very difficult without electrodes on your head. But in most cases, even just “good enough” information can lead to improvements. Even if your device of choice is not 100% precise, as long as it is consistent it will show you whether you are trending in a good or bad direction.

When selecting wearable tracker, you should consider what is your goal and what do you need to measure to achieve it. Another factor can be how easy it is to use or export the data. If you want to tinker around to achieve the best sleep for your athletic or creative performance, you may need to invest a bit more to a more precise device (e.g. Oura ring without a promo code is 299$). If you just want to make sure you have sufficient sleep, there are good-enough trackers for as low as 10-20$.

Examples of wearable sleep trackers (please note that we have no affiliation with any of these)

  • On your finger: Oura ring (very popular with more serious biohackers)
  • On your wrist: Withings Steel, Fitbit, any smart watch
  • On your bed: Withings Sleep (pad), Emfit or Beddit
  • On your bedtable: SleepScore Max (also tracks environment)

Sleep tracking with mobile apps

Mobile apps are still quite easy to use, but you have to remember to turn the tracking on. Most of them are free or at freemium and you can purchase the premium features for a few dollars. They usually combine sleep tracking with alarm features.

Tip: Waking up in light sleep stage is much easier than deep or REM. Use Smart Alarm feature which wakes you up based on your sleep cycle.

Examples of good sleep tracking apps:

  • Sleep as Android
  • Sleep Cycle

Manual tracking

If you are sufficiently disciplined, you can also use just manual tracking in e.g. Excel or just in the journal. Of course if you want to see long-term trends, having a digital version would make more sense.


This is the first article in the Improving sleep series. It describes components of sleep quality that we should focus on when we are trying to improve sleep. It also highlights the importance of sleep tracking – not just to establish a baseline and see what can be improved, but especially as a tool to validate if interventions are working or not.

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