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Do pilots sleep well?

Sleep guide: How to get better quality rest

How and why it’s key to develop a good routine for sleep.

Written by
Team Pilot
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 24, 2023
min read
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Sleep is now considered a real performance enhancer in all aspects of life, yet as many as 1 in 3 Australians have been affected by long-term sleep problems [1].

Beyond the usual suspects, there are a bunch of ‘advanced’ sleep improvement techniques you can use, the most important of which is a ‘pre-sleep routine’. If you’re still not getting anywhere, doctors and psychologists can prescribe behavioural treatments, medicines or herbal supplements to take.

Ready to dive into all things sleep? Let’s go.

What are some common signs of poor sleep?

Not getting enough sleep is shitty and unnecessary.

Whatever weird and wonderful dreams you have, you should be having more of them, so today’s guide is all about how to get better sleep and actually wake up feeling rested and refreshed.

So, first things first, what symptoms do people with insomnia or other sleep problems usually experience? Some of the most common include:

  • Fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood disturbances
  • Decreased performance at work or school

On top of this, it’s common to have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up too early in the morning.

Why is sleep so important?

“Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting” Dr. Matthew Walker, Sleep Expert.

Well, there ya go!

Sleep works in several states, passing us through phases including rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep that each recover different functions of the body, like brain, memory, and muscles.

When you get sleep right, it can be a beautiful thing — but if you’re doing it tough, you’re missing out on serious performance during your day. The good news is, proper sleep habits can be learned!

Is it insomnia or am I in a sleep slump?

First things first, let’s de-stigmatise a word: insomnia.

Many may believe that those with insomnia never sleep and instead feel super paranoid and spend the night writing stuff all over their walls. Well, that’s not quite what insomnia is.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep [2]. The RACGP states that it is also the most common sleep disorder, with anywhere from 11-33% of adults having regular difficulties [3].

If you’re having sleep issues, you might have chronic insomnia, which goes for longer than a month, or acute insomnia, which is brief and often driven by a specific event, like receiving bad news or feeling stressed before an exam.

We’re not big on over-diagnosis of problems, so if it’s not life-threatening, it’s best to assume you have a mild case of insomnia, and then upgrade your treatment later.

So, what are the easiest habits you can change to improve your sleep?

  • Avoid caffeine after 4pm, and especially before bed
  • Avoid screens
  • Maintain optimal doona temp (actual advice)
  • Blackout your bedroom windows to create a good sleep environment
  • Don’t exercise strenuously before bedtime
  • Don’t nap during the day
  • Cut down on smoking and drinking
  • Minimise stress (easier said than done, we know—but here are some tips that might help)

6 advanced hacks for a good night’s sleep

Okay, so now you know all the basic tips and tricks you can try to sleep better at night.

But what if you need something a bit more intense? What if ‘no coffee, no phone late at night and no after-work drinks’ just doesn’t cut it? Read on as we go through 6 advanced sleep hygiene hacks:

#1 Create a pre-sleep routine

Whatever happens in your evening, the routine to prepare you for sleep should be the same each night regardless of when you actually get to sleep.

The point is that if you get home buzzing from the day and jump straight into bed, worried you have to get up in 6 hours, you’ll actually have a much worse sleep than if you take a bit of time and complete the routine.

This wind-down can take 15 minutes; it can take 2 hours. You may even have 2 or more different wind-downs: one for when you have the luxury of time, and one for when you don’t.

The main point is that if you take the time to do it, your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep will improve dramatically.

#2 Do a ‘pre-set’ relaxing activity

A pre-set relaxing activity is something you do before bed to help you slow down and switch off:

  • Turning the lights down
  • Taking a warm shower
  • Stretching
  • Following a guided meditation
  • Reading a book (if that doesn’t stimulate your mind)

Whatever you do, just remember to be responsible and avoid doing engaging things that will keep you awake unnaturally, like playing 5 hours of Starcraft or PUBG… or endless scrolling on social media (the worst ‘pre-set’ activity of all).

#3 Avoid blue light

Let’s pause on this for a moment. We’ve all heard that looking at blue light, like your phone or TV, before bed keeps you up.

Here’s why ‘blue light’ is actually a thing when it comes to sleep quality.

It reduces your secretions of melatonin which affects your circadian rhythm (a.k.a. the 24-hour cycle that is part of the body’s internal clock) [4]. In other words, it tells your brain that it’s daytime and that you shouldn’t be sleeping.

To prevent this from happening, the best thing you can do is not to use your phone before bed.

But if you really need to, make use of appropriate light filters on your phone. You can turn off all the blue light using a night mode or blue light filter. This is how you do it:

  • iOS: From the iPhone or iPad’s main screen, open the Settings application. Scroll to Display and Brightness, tap on it, then slide the toggle for Night Shift to the active position. Optionally, toggle and adjust the Night Shift Schedule setting to have the iPhone automatically engage in Night Shift at certain times.
  • Alternatively use Flux, they know their stuff and have done a lot of research [5]. This can apply to your computer as well.
  • Android: For Android users, turning on Night Light is in your Settings app under Display (sometimes called “Personalisation”). This varies from model to model, but Night Light is available from Android N (7.0) onwards. As an alternative, you can download Twilight.

#4 Go to your bedroom only when you’re ready to sleep

Feel like reading a book before bed? Meditating? Maybe watching a movie?

Great! Do it somewhere else other than your bedroom. Only come to bed when you are ready to sleep. We’re training the body, here.

‘Pavlovian conditioning’ is actually thought to have a critical role in perpetuating insomnia [6]. What this means is that you associate your room with an awakened state. “As soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m awake!”

«Attempts to sleep despite being awake result in the bedroom environment becoming paired with an awake state. Over time, the bed is no longer associated with sleep; rather, the bed environment triggers an ‘awake’ state.« [6]

#5 Go to bed LATER

Yep, you read that right: later.

If you aren’t yawning, you’ve still got work to do. Going to bed just because you have to get up early is a bad strategy. The likelihood is that you will just stay awake in bed, getting more frustrated and agitated that you aren’t asleep. Which makes you try harder. Which makes you more frustrated. sound familiar?

When you catch yourself getting angry that you aren’t asleep yet, this should be your wake-up call (pun intended) that you have lost this round.

You need to eject yourself from the downward agitation spiral. Get up, leave the room, and wind down by doing a ‘pre-set relaxing activity’.

#6 Try a sleep-tracking app

We’ve included these last for a specific reason, but there are a bunch of cool sleep-tracking apps for those interested in their patterns over the medium to long term.

Sleep Cycle is a great starting point for a phone-only app. The Oura ring is badass if you’re making bank.

The trick here is not to be too concerned by the short-term results. If you wake up and your app shows you a bad sleep score, it’s easy to let that score convince you that you’re tired and going to have a shitty day. Instead, look at your score over time and in the long run.

And if you’re losing sleep over your sleep-tracking app. it may just not be the right solution for you.

What if I have a serious sleep problem?

So you’ve tried the tips above, and it’s a no-go? Never fear.

You may just be showing signs of what is considered ‘chronic’ insomnia. This sleep disorder affects 10-30% of the world’s population, so it’s sadly quite normal, but there are things you can do to manage it [7].

Causes of chronic insomnia

Causes of insomnia include environmental changes (think new apartment on a main road), unhealthy sleep habits, shift work, other clinical disorders, and certain medications.

Chronic insomnia can often be ‘co-morbid’, meaning it is linked to another medical or psychiatric issue, although it’s difficult to understand the cause-and-effect relationship.

How to fix insomnia

Persistent insomnia needs professional support and a lot of patience. It might take some time to re-establish normal sleeping patterns. Top line, some of the techniques used by a sleep disorder clinic might include:

Sleep diary

A sleep diary is actually the first port-of-call for doctors trying to understand why you have trouble sleeping, and it’s simple enough that you can do it yourself.

It’s basically a sheet of paper with a lined grid that you fill in after sleep every day, and it charts when you went to bed, when you woke up, what your mood was like, and important consumption markers.

Behavioural therapy

Sometimes, insomnia is maintained by behaviours and thoughts you develop in the first place to cope with poor sleep. A cycle, of sorts.

Psychologists can dig into this, and fix the cycle with a process known as ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’, or CBT-i (the ‘i’ is for insomnia).

They apply techniques ranging from the ‘sleep hygiene’ hacks we’ve touched on throughout this guide, to more rigid stimulus control. Anyway, it’s at the hands of a professional, who you often pay for (which often has a funny effect of making it effective).

Sleep deprivation

Sleep restriction AKA deprivation is pretty cool and has also shown evidence of working. This is how they do it:

If a patient reports sleeping 5 hours on average a night, out of 8 hours spent in bed, the initial recommended sleep window is restricted to 5 hours. They adjust this ‘sleep window’ until optimal sleep duration is reached.

This creates mild sleep deprivation, but from there they lengthen sleep time as sleep quality improves.

Medications and herbal therapy

As with anything you take, doctors want to start small, with what is known as a minimum effective dose. So applying that principle to using sleep medicine is a good idea, and we strongly suggest you talk to a GP before anything.

Prescription sleep treatments

An effective treatment like Pilot’s prescription sleep support can help sort out your sleep.

Containing tailored doses of your body’s own sleep hormone, as well as an all-natural relaxant to help you fall asleep faster and boost your sleep quality, this non-drowsy treatment effectively helps regulate your sleep schedule.

Take one capsule 30 minutes before sleep, nightly or as needed, and wake up feeling energised, alert and ready to take on the day.

Valerian root

The jury is still out on this one, but available evidence suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects [8].

The ultimate sleep routine

If you honestly want to sleep better, be strict. If you think to yourself that some of these rules seem a bit repressive, stop wasting your time and prepare for nothing to improve.

Bit harsh? Not sleeping will impact the rest of your life. Moods will decrease, your immune system will decrease, and your overall performance will decrease. Intention set? Good. Let’s turn intention into action.

Here is your new, boss-mode sleep routine:

  • Go to the bed and wake up at the same time each morning. No sleep-ins, no snooze—even on weekends
  • If you have trouble falling asleep or you aren’t tired, GET UP. Leave your room. Read a book, stretch, or listen to a meditation app
  • Gym or exercise in the morning to strengthen circadian rhythm (ideally in the sunlight), not in the evening (unless it’s yoga or something relaxing)
  • No caffeine after 3pm, no alcohol (some rules are meant to be broken, hey?)
  • No emails after 6pm
  • Switch your phone to ‘do not disturb’ at 8pm. Brightness down and ‘night mode’ on
  • Lights dimmed at 8pm also (just like school camp)
  • If you don’t know what to do between now and bedtime, well there are probably some issues you need to address right then and there
  • Stretch, yoga or meditation

Don’t let bad sleep affect you

While you should aim for a great sleep routine, don’t let the quality of a night’s sleep become a deciding factor in how good your day will be. It is easy to be frustrated or annoyed when you wake up or can’t sleep. No offence, but this is stupid.

This paradoxical state won’t help you achieve your goal. Change your perspective. Take the pressure off. Remove your expectation of what is a good night’s rest.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Do Pilots Get Enough Sleep?


Lindsey Parnaby/European Pressphoto Agency

In the case of the wayward Northwest plane that overshot its destination, Minneapolis, by 150 miles, investigators are looking into whether the pilots were asleep when they were out of communication with controllers for an hour. The plane landed safely, and the pilots said they were engaged in a heated discussion and had lost “situational awareness.”

Pilot fatigue is a common problem, one that investigators consider in all flight safety inquiries. It was a particular issue in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo in February. Have the airlines done enough to focus on this safety issue? What strategies might reduce pilot fatigue?

  • William R. Voss, Flight Safety Foundation
  • Frances Fiorino, Aviation Week
  • Lane Wallace, pilot and columnist

The Safety Nap

Bill Voss

William R. Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, has served as director of air traffic systems development at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. He is a certified air transport pilot, a certified flight and ground instructor, and a qualified FAA control tower operator.

The issue of pilot fatigue came into the public spotlight after the tragedy of Colgan 3407 in Buffalo last winter, but it is an issue that has been on the radar screen of safety professionals for decades.

Pilots may need ‘controlled rest’ on the flight deck.

In recent years, there has been an increased effort to develop new science-based regulations that address pilot fatigue. Among the concepts that have been studied is controlled cockpit rest, or short naps, in the cockpit, particularly on longer-distance flights.

Scientific evidence has shown that pilots are more mentally aware during more difficult phases of flight, such as during approach and landing, after taking a controlled 15 minute rest. Air safety regulations in many countries around the world already allow for this practice.

Of course, a pilot should never plan for controlled rest as a substitute for a good night’s rest, but pilots are human and sometimes factors come into play that may cause unusual fatigue. By developing a regulation that would allow for in-flight rest, the risk can be managed and minimized.
With high profile accidents and incidents in the headlines, labor and management have indicated that they are ready to come together and re-examine the fatigue issue.

The Flight Safety Foundation has led the development of a three-pronged approach to managing fatigue risk: prevention, mitigation and intervention. Prevention can include such measures as better scheduling and education about sleep and fatigue. Mitigation could include trip planning, pre-trip rest and crew resource management training. And intervention recognizes the inevitable fact that crews sometimes experience fatigue and could include controlled rest on the flight deck.

The Trouble With 15-Hour Days

Frances Fiorino is senior editor for safety and training at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. She covers airline and general aviation issues. She holds a private pilot license and is a survivor of a small plane crash (an engine failure at night) over populated Long Island.

The human body continues to dance to circadian rhythms, out of synch with the pace of technology that produces ever bigger, faster, ultra-long range aircraft. Fatigue is a major concern in every aviation career — pilots, flight attendants, controllers, mechanics. But the industry and regulators are taking steps to address the problem.

Ultra-long haul flights of 16-plus hours and multiple short hops of regional operations add to the risk of pilot fatigue.

The flight recorders from Northwest Airlines Flight 188 will tell National Transportation Safety Board investigators whether the pilots were asleep, or if they lost situational awareness while having an argument about company policy, as they had told authorities.

But the Feb. 13, 2008, Go! Flight 1002 is a dramatic demonstration of how safety can be compromised by tired flight crew. Both pilots fell asleep simultaneously halfway through the 51-min. flight to Hilo, Hawaii. For 18 min., the aircraft, with 40 passengers on board, continued to fly at 21,000 ft. past their destination, toward open ocean, failing to answer concerned calls from controllers. In this period, they were incapable of monitoring aircraft systems or scanning for conflicting traffic.

A mentally or physically fatigued person can make mistakes. The N.T.S.B. has determined that fatigue has been associated with more than 250 fatalities in accidents investigated by the safety board in the last 15 years. In a 1999 NASA survey of 26 regional carriers, 80 percent of pilots admitted to “nodding off” during flight.

One of the major fatigue mitigation efforts underway is the F.A.A.’s revision of decades-old flight-and-duty time rules. The proposed regulations will be based on the latest science on fatigue and it effect on human performance.

They will also consider modern-day airline operations — from ultra-long haul flights of 16-plus hours and multiple short hops of regional operations. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, notes that pilots are often assigned up to 15-hour duty days. He further emphasizes they are making that critical decisions about landing — a time when most fatal accidents occur — at the end of a long duty day.

In November, the International Civil Aviation Association’s standards for flight-and duty time rules will go into effect. The association has formed a task force to develop an international standard for a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS). Through computer modeling, such a system can identify areas of fatigue risk; the carrier then can adjust scheduling to reduce those risks.

Air New Zealand successfully set up this kind of system 15 years ago. Currently, Delta Air Lines, Continental and Americans are developing a system for ultra-long-haul operations, and are performing in-flight pilot alertness tests. The Regional Airline Association has also launched an initiative directed at adapting this system for regional carriers.

Implementation of such programs wont’ be easy when many carriers are operating in red ink. But industry has come to recognize that it can’t ignore the fatigue problem.

Incidents Happen

Lane Wallace

Lane Wallace, a pilot for more than 20 years, is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for Flying magazine.

We don’t know yet what happened in Minneapolis. But clearly, something went wrong. And when something goes wrong, our instinctive reaction is to want to fix it. That’s not a bad reflex — learning from our mistakes is how many technologies and systems improve.

The system has built-in procedures and redundancies to shield pilots from the inevitable risk of a human error.

We also tend to focus, especially in the case of aviation, on the rules and regulations, because those are the pieces we can most easily control. But as tempting as systemic changes are, the truth is that sometimes it’s not a systemic problem.

The aviation industry polices itself more vigorously than many outsiders realize. There is a reason that flying on a major airline is, statistically, at least seven times safer than driving your car. And there’s a reason incidents like the one in Minneapolis are so incredibly rare. It’s because the system is set up to provide both procedures and redundancy to shield pilots and passengers from the inevitable risk of mechanical failure or human error.

Airline pilots already have mandatory crew rest requirements and limits to each flying day. There are also two pilots in the cockpit, adding another layer of redundancy. On long transoceanic flights, a second crew is on board to make sure that the pilots doing the landing are fresh. Then there are the airplane’s systems, warning buzzers, air traffic control and other players working to back the pilots up. All pilots have financial and other work stresses, just like anyone else, so a bad day is always possible. But pilots flying for the major airlines have more financial margin, and typically easier schedules, than pilots flying for regional carriers.

But no system or rule can keep a pilot who’s worried about their marriage or a sick child from tossing and turning the night before a flight. No system can reduce errors, incidents or accidents to zero. We have gotten so used to safe airline travel that we’re horrified when a single incident breaks through the protective layers. That’s good. But no systemic fix, short of grounding all aircraft forever, can or will keep the occasional incident from happening — an important point to remember when something does go wrong.

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