When I tested 5 different apps on 5 consecutive nights back in September, I wasn’t too impressed.
While some of the apps provided useful information and helped me plan for a better night’s sleep, many of them just gave me performance anxiety, and no one needs more anxiety.
But, maybe the reason I wasn’t happy with the apps is that they required a week or longer to “calibrate,” or log enough entries to spot patterns in your sleep.
So I decided to try my favourite sleep app, Sleepbot, again for a whole week.
I thought it was great because it’s free, pretty easy to use, allowed me to look at the audio and movement graphs separately, review the audio, take notes and choose a rating, and change my alarm ringtone.
When I started using Sleepbot, I was enthusiastic at first, but by the end of the week, that had changed.
This is what you see when you open the app. Before you can start tracking your sleep, you have to choose what time you want to wake up, start sound recording and motion tracking, and turn on the smart alarm.
The smart alarm doesn't go off at a specific time -- it's set to go off within a 30 minute span of your choosing.
The theory goes that you have a worse time waking up out of a deeper sleep then if it rouses you during a lighter sleep. The app watches your movement and sound recording and goes off during your most active time, when your sleep is lightest.
For the first night, I set the smart alarm to go off between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., based on how active it determined I was in the that time frame from the motion tracking -- which the app uses to determine what sleep state I am in.
I like to customise my alarm so I wanted to pick a song that would set the tone for the week's experiment.
When I was testing sleep trackers before, I made a mistake of choosing a song that was too mellow and very easy to sleep through. So this time around, I picked the Lemonheads 'Drug Buddy.'
It's a fun, upbeat song that's not too jarring -- a perfect start to the day.
I also had to make sure my phone was able to both track my movements and record any sounds I made. I balanced it precariously on the edge of the bed, just next to my pillow.
The next day I woke up feeling groggy. The alarm went off a little after 6:00 a.m, but you could see from the graphs that I snoozed for about 15 minutes. You could also see that even though I went to bed at midnight, I didn't actually go to sleep until 30 minutes later.
I didn't really notice that the smart alarm was working, letting the whole song play all the way through twice. It didn't seem to matter that it was supposed to wake me up in the lightest stage of my sleep cycle.
I felt groggy because though I went to bed at midnight, I actually didn't fall asleep until about 12:30 a.m., as you can see from the sound graphs. Apparently my husband and I decided that was a perfect time to have a conversation about education in the United States and the United Kingdom.
By the first night, I learned that though it said I got six hours of sleep, it was probably closer to about five and a half hours of sleep.
Sleep apps are supposed to help people identify the causes of sleep deprivation, which can cause problems throughout your waking life, like the common cold and chronic heart disease. A third of all Americans get six hours of sleep or less, well below the seven to eight hours recommended by doctors and scientists.
And it looks like I'm one of those Americans. The night was punctuated by noise and movement at least every hour. Some of those noise and movement spikes are just me shifting positions while the 3:30 a.m. spike was my cat trying to lay on my face and purring in my ear.
I wasn't off to a great start. Sleepbot keeps track of what they call a 'sleep debt,' the amount of sleep you miss when you don't sleep eight hours, the recommended benchmark. By the first night, I already racked up a sleep debt of 1.9 hours.
Unfortunately, the two hours I missed in sleep showed. I had a rough day and slogged through most of it. Having slept so poorly the night before and knowing I had almost two hours to make up, I had an early night in.
I got into bed around 11:00 p.m. and fell asleep pretty much immediately. I kept the fan off for about an hour but I turned it back on around midnight because noises from the street kept disturbing my sleep.
I was also constantly waking up and checking that my phone hadn't fallen off the bed or hadn't gotten buried under my pillow.
You can see how much of a difference the fan makes -- that's the the light blue baseline in the bottom graph.
I slept closer to eight hours that night, but still felt pretty rough the following morning. Even with the hum of the fan, I was still waking up periodically every hour or so. You can also see that the smart alarm went off four times between 6:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., meaning I snoozed for roughly half an hour.
My sleep deficit was getting dangerously high, but the benefit of Sleepbot was that I was able to highlight some of the big problems I've been having. I was going to sleep later than I thought, and I wasn't being consistent about getting to bed at a specific time.
As you can see from the sound and motion graphs, even thought I got about six and half hours of sleep on Wednesday night, I woke up frequently throughout the night because of my cat. When she's awake, I'm awake.
Not only is going to bed at inconsistent times detrimental, waking frequently throughout the night was also making me more exhausted and anxious the next day.
With the sleep deprivation taking a toll, I slept in a bit.
I finally got more than six hours of sleep for the first time this week, but it doesn't feel like it, probably because I'm still playing catch up and because it wasn't actually seven hours. Sleepbot's sound and motion show why -- the cat was once again waking me up.
I woke up every hour between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. At 3:30 a.m., my cat was purring so loudly you can hear it on the audio. When it wasn't my cat, it was my husband. At 4:30 a.m., his snores were loud enough to register on my phone. At this rate, Sleepbot was giving me a better idea of what they were doing than how I was sleeping.
By 5:30 a.m., I'm was waking up every fifteen minutes. I hit the snooze for almost 30 minutes after my 6:30 a.m. alarm went off.
Doing this is starting to get repetitive. I already know I'm not getting enough sleep, and that having a pet crawl on my face was waking me up, but that didn't make me want to make any changes to the way I slept.
Also, I've had to tack on yet another thing to do before I could go to sleep with zero results so far this week.
For this night, I changed the smart alarm to another Lemonheads song. I went with 'It's all True' -- it's more upbeat and I thought it would do a better job waking me up. At 6:15 a.m., the alarm started going off, and I snoozed for 30 minutes anyway.
But for once, the seven-hour night of sleep actually felt like seven hours. The cat was hovering around the bed at midnight but mostly left me alone until about 3:30 a.m., when Sleepbot caught her meowing for attention.
After a long week, I discovered an issue with sleep trackers that might be a deal-breaker for some people.
I fell asleep on the couch for a couple hours and didn't go to the bed and start tracking my sleep until about 1:45 a.m. Then I took another 45 minutes to fall asleep.
The accuracy of Sleepbot, and most sleep tracker apps, is entirely dependent on the user's vigilance about logging into the app and using it. I, like many I suspect, have a habit of napping on the couch and turning off the alarm and going back to sleep. That would definitely make a difference to your sleep debt.
No, I didn't sleep for 22 hours. My phone died in the middle of the night because I didn't have it plugged in. As you might suspect, tracking movement and recording sound for six to eight hours eats up a lot of battery power. It's yet another flaw with sleep trackers -- you have to have them in your bed and plugged in for the entire night.
The app thought I was asleep the whole day because I didn't open it again until that evening, even though it stopped recording movement and sound when my phone died.
When my phone died, the audio or movement logs that it did record also disappeared.
The fact that Sleepbot thought I was asleep the whole day also completely skewed my sleep patterns.
Before this night, I had a 'sleep debt' of 6.7 hours, meaning I wasn't sleeping eight hours every night and averaged closer to six hours of sleep. Now that I had supposedly slept for 22 hours, the app assumed I had overslept for 14 hours in one day. If only.
I got a pretty solid night of sleep on the last night, though I still slept well below the recommended eight hours, and a loud noise woke me up at 3:00 a.m.
This morning, I'm glad to be done with using Sleepbot. Though the app was fun at first, it got repetitive. This isn't an indictment on Sleepbot, which is a pretty fine app when it comes to sleep trackers -- it's easy to use, free, and it allows you to dig deep into recordings.
It's just that a certain point, I got really down on the point of sleep trackers at all.
I did pick up a couple of good habits from the app. Seeing my sleep patterns helped me realise that I should probably go to sleep and wake up at more consistent times.
Because I couldn't use my phone after starting the sleep tracking, I also wasn't exposing myself to harmful blue light from reading on my phone and talking to my husband instead.
While I learned a few facts to help me sleep better in the future, I probably won't be tracking my sleep again anytime soon.
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