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The Quarter-Hour Rule Could Help You Get a Better Night's Sleep

illustration of a woman waking up in bed
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Most people have, at one time or another, struggled to fall asleep. (We certainly have—we wrote a whole issue about it.) You know that you’re tired and your body is screaming for rest, but for whatever reason, your brain will not shut off and allow you to snooze. The next time you’re having trouble falling asleep, try following the quarter-hour rule for sleep. Coined by sleep researchers in the U.K., the quarter-hour rule says that if you're still struggling to fall asleep after 15 minutes in bed, you should get up and only go back to bed when sleep feels imminent.

One important caveat, though: Don’t watch the clock and wait exactly 15 minutes (that will only contribute to the stress of not being able to sleep); instead, try to roughly estimate how much time has passed without staring at your bedside table. And though the quarter-hour rule is an easy-to-remember trick, it isn’t a hard-and-fast number.

In fact, some sleep experts say you can give yourself up to 20 minutes to fall asleep before getting out of bed. Dr. W. Chris Winter, MD, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, told us back in 2021 that, “Generally, a normal sleep latency [The amount of time required to fall asleep] is somewhere between five to 20 minutes.” Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD, also told us at that time that he usually tells his patients to spend 20 minutes trying to fall asleep. “Clock watching is bad, as is getting stressed out about not sleeping in bed,” he explains.

After about 20 minutes of not being able to fall asleep, you should get out of bed and do something relaxing like reading in a dimly lit room. When you feel sleepy, get back into bed and try again.

3 More Things to Try When You Can’t Fall Asleep

1. Open Your Bedroom Door

In a study published by Indoor Air: International Journal of Indoor Environment and Health, scientists observed a group of healthy young adults sleeping over a period of five nights. Those who slept with the bedroom door open reported a better and longer night’s sleep than those who slept with the door closed. Why? When you open your door, you’re providing more ventilation to the room, which might help some people drift off more easily. Opening the door also caused the temperature of the room to lower slightly, to about 67 degrees Fahrenheit, which is optimal for sleep. So instead of tossing and turning, crack open your bedroom door.

2. Resist the Urge to Look at Your Phone

Bad news for your bedtime Instagram sesh: Staring at your phone before bed (or even worse, in bed) could seriously mess with your shuteye. Studies—like this one from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—have shown that the blue and white light emitted from screens prevents your brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone that readies your body for sleep. To make the transition easier, remove all temptation by keeping your phone and charger far away from your bed (or, better yet, in another room).

3. Start Keeping a Sleep Diary

Understanding what it is that keeps you awake at night—say, the tendency to reach for your phone before bed or a penchant for midnight snacking—is key to repairing a broken sleep cycle. Track your nocturnal habits and see what contributes to a good night’s sleep and what leads to hours of tossing and turning. Ditch the latter from your routine.