Crawling into bed can sometimes feel like stepping onto Daytona Speedway: You know you’re in for a restless night when your thoughts won’t stop racing around at 200 miles per hour. And the harder you try to silence your stressors—your overbearing boss, your creeping bills, your big race this weekend—the louder their engines roar. Maybe you’ll have better luck trying to fall asleep fast the next night.
Although you can’t simply flick your active brain’s off switch, you can dim it with a little practice. Use these four strategies from neurologist W. Chris Winter, M.D., author of *The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, *to calm your mind at bedtime.
Fall Asleep Fast #1: Rip Up Your Old Sleep Schedule
Let’s say you hit the hay every night at 11 p.m., but it takes you until 1 a.m. to actually doze off into dreamland. If your brain buzzes for an extra 2 hours, you’re going to bed 2 hours too early, says Dr. Winter. “Ask yourself why you go to bed at 11 p.m. in the first place,” he says. “Is it because that’s when people traditionally go to bed? Is it because you have to get 8 hours of sleep? Here’s a secret: You don’t.”
The average person may need 8 hours of shuteye, but maybe your body only requires 6, Dr. Winter says. Instead of slinking under the covers tonight like clockwork, curl up with a good book (or Colbert) until you actually feel tired and let your body take care of the rest. But don’t deviate from your usual wake time, says Dr. Winter. Otherwise you’ll throw your sleep cycle out of whack and feel extra groggy in the morning.
Fall Asleep Fast #2: Embrace the Race
Let your mind wander for however damn long it wants to, says Dr. Winter. “I’m excited when I go to bed and I can’t fall asleep,” he says. “What a nice thing to be in my comfortable bed and my quiet house, and to be able to think about all sorts of things.”
Easy for a sleep doctor to say, since he has mastered every snoozing strategy in the book (which he wrote) and can afford to waste time in bed. But that’s the point: “People really fear not sleeping, but the best way to combat fear is with confidence. I’m a sleep doctor, and I don’t care if I occasionally can’t fall asleep until 3 a.m., so why should you?” Once you know you’ve fallen asleep before and can fall asleep again, the fear of spending a late night with your busy brain goes away, Dr. Winter says.
As long as you’re up, fill your head with something fun. Dr. Winter, for example, frequently fires up visions of his celebrity crush, chef Giada de Laurentiis. “I always think about Giada when I can’t fall asleep,” he says. “She’s in Italy cooking me this awesome meal. And before I know it, my alarm clock is going off.” (Maybe next time, doc.)
Fall Asleep Fast #3: Play Distraction Games
The number-one mistake you can make in bed is trying to fall asleep. That’ll only lead to more anxiety, says Dr. Winter. The better idea: Carry out a mundane mental mission to distract yourself from the bigger task at hand.
Dr. Winter recommends going through every motion of an activity you know well. “Imagine doing an entire Spartan Race,” he says. “Take yourself through the whole course and visualize your success handling each obstacle.” How will you attack the Spartan Ladder? The Ape Hanger? The Rope Climb?
“Better yet,” says the Spartan vet, “how many obstacles can you name? Try to recite them all and see how far you can get before you fall asleep.”
This exercise works with practically any activity. Picture yourself completing all the steps in a round of golf, from pulling your club out of the bag to sticking your ball on the tee. “You won’t make it past the second hole,” Dr. Winter says. Or follow your mom’s legendary banana bread recipe. “You’ll never get the loaf in the oven.”
Fall Asleep Fast #4: Buy This Mental Workout Gear
If these free strategies don’t cut it, pick up Gaiam’s Muse ($250, amazon.com), a headband that measures your brain’s stress and anxiety levels and syncs the data to your phone. “The goal of the band and app is to work on settling your mind,” Dr. Winter says. “It converts the sound of your brain into the sound of the ocean. If you relax your mind, you can make the ocean more quiet.”
This translates to your “calmness score.” The more mental exercises you perform while donning the band during the day, the more you can train your brain to be calm when you aren’t strapped in—especially in bed. “Changing your active mind is a skill,” Dr. Winter says. “You can always get better at it.”
Are the thought of Spartan obstacles keeping you up? Download our Obstacle Training Guide.