Sleep: Does Technology Help, Or Is It Just A Distraction?

Sleep is something we all need, but remarkably few of us actually get enough of it. We can blame any number of things, from the oppressive 9-to-5 structure our culture is built on, to our children and pets, or even pre-existing medical conditions that make sleep elusive.

Whatever the reasons behind it, it’s a problem that tech companies everywhere are looking to solve, mostly in the form of sleep tracking gadgets. It’s a worthwhile mission, and one that will help wearable technology become (according to Markets and Markets) an $11.61 billion industry by 2020.

Most of the current crop of fitness wearables include some kind of sleep tracking feature. Every model offered by industry leaders Fitbit and Jawbone will tell you each morning how long you spent deeply asleep and how often you tossed and turned. Apple seems one of the few holdouts, but this is due more to the Apple Watch’s battery limitations than to a willful omission.

So there has to be something to it, right? There must be some reason why Americans are poring over sleep charts each morning. After all, the CDC contends that sleep deprivation has reached “epidemic” levels in the United States—so even the appearance of progress has to be a good thing.

Putting Wearables Through Their Paces

My informal inquiry into sleep tracking involves just a single wearable—the Fitbit Flex—and a small handful of standalone apps for my iPhone (Sleep Cycle and Runtastic’s Sleep Better).

For the most part, they all do, more or less, what they promise: provide you with insight into how well, and how long, you’re sleeping each night. Unfortunately, they all share the same shortcoming: a lack of truly actionable data.

Sleep Cycle seemed to come closest to doing this right, though its usefulness is limited by how much time you spend getting the app set up. You have the option of adding “sleep notes” each night—things like “ate late” and “drank caffeine.” Over time, you’ll be able to identify points of correlation (if not causation) between these behaviors and the quality of your sleep, and adjust your habits accordingly.

For a more comprehensive look at the efficacy of the current crop of sleep tracking wearables, I’ll turn your attention to Hayley Tsukayama’s piece for the Washington Post and Dr. Christopher Winter’s write-up for the Huffington Post. Dr. Winter hesitates to declare a single winner, or even to declare the technology itself to be indispensable, but he does admit that “any device on your wrist that makes you think twice about staying up too late is a good thing.”

A Matter of Habit

And that’s really the point I’m trying to make here: as wonderful as technology is, sometimes it’s simply a distraction from our real underlying problems.

What we’re really talking about here is cultivating good sleep habits. The more obvious ones are to establish a routine (i.e. go to bed and wake up at the same time each night and morning) and cut back on large meals as bedtime draws closer. For a more comprehensive look, take a look at Mayo Clinic’s 7 steps to better sleep.

Granted, this assumes we’re generally healthy aside from some occasional poor decision-making skills. Remember those pre-existing medical conditions I mentioned earlier? For some people, chronic fatigue is not just a consequence of habitual late nights, but an actual medical condition. It’s estimated that about 800,000 Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Unfortunately, this is a condition that affects different people in different ways, and treatments can vary widely from patient to patient. It’s unclear how helpful sleep monitors are across the spectrum of sufferers.

For the rest of us, it’s important to remember that almost all of the most enduring pieces of sleep wisdom don’t require you to purchase, or wear, or configure anything at all. Sure; mattresses contain space-age materials these days, but sometimes getting the best sleep calls for some low-tech solutions.

But then again, the mere fact that sleep tracking technology has so flooded the market is encouraging; it means more people than ever are getting wise to the fact that sleep deprivation is a significant problem, and one that’s taking a toll on our livelihoods and our happiness on a massive scale.

I think there are a lot of good reasons to invest in some kind of fitness-centric wearable. The Internet is home to thousands of reviews and testimonials claiming that these things have changed lives. And if they work for you too, that’s really great. But if you read between the lines, we’ll see that the success of these devices often comes down to the fact that they simply bring our problematic habits to light. Maybe we don’t need to plunk down a hundred dollars or more for that kind of insight.

On the other hand, maybe these are lessons you can’t put a price on.