Why using an app to track your sleep could make your insomnia worse

The data-driven pursuit of better sleep may be counterproductive, however. In a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, a group of US clinicians who specialise in sleep disorders argue that self-monitoring can get out of hand. They tell the story of Mr R, a 40-year-old man, who had been sleeping poorly for years. Since this made him irritable and unable to concentrate, his girlfriend bought him a wrist-worn device that sent information on his sleeping patterns to his smartphone. Now he thought about little else. “According to my data,” as he put it to his doctor, he required eight hours of deep sleep, yet was getting only seven hours, 45 minutes. He admitted to feeling pressure, every night, to meet his target.

Achieving a precise measure of “good sleep” is becoming a new source of stress, say the doctors, and thus sleeplessness.

Mr R is one of three case studies in the paper. “They were actually destroying their sleep by becoming so dependent on these devices,” one of the authors, Sabra Abbott, told Health magazine. The researchers coin a new term, “orthosomnia”, to describe a disorder caused by the quest to achieve perfect sleep.

In naming the disorder, the clinicians were alluding to the existing condition of “orthorexia”: an unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating. Self-tracking apps are one of the big successes of the smartphone era. There are apps for tracking your productivity, mood, menstrual cycle, even your digestive system (Cara, a “poop tech” start-up, raised $2m in funding last year). While these apps can be useful, they are creating new ailments of perfectionism.

By measuring something, we assign it value, and consequently devalue whatever we are not measuring. In a blog post, Candice Lanius, a lecturer in communications at the University of Alabama, recounts how her self-tracking led her to start avoiding “unquantifiable” situations. She gradually stopped running in forests or pathways where her watch could not pick up a GPS signal. She found herself declining a friend’s homemade brownies because she couldn’t be sure which ingredients to put into her nutrition app and didn’t want to ask.

If your aim is to curb bad habits, self-tracking makes sense. For instance, most university students put on weight in their first year (you can probably guess why). Several scientific studies have found that if students simply weigh themselves every day, they are less likely to get heavier. But unlike excess weight or excess beer, sleep is good for us. What’s more, it tends to go better when we’re not thinking about it.

Worrying over one’s inability to sleep is a long-established cause of insomnia. Sleep scientists employ the word “rumination” differently to its ordinary usage. Rather than describing deep thought, it refers to the recursive mental loops that can rile the brain when we’re trying to get some rest. We lie awake because we can’t stop thinking about how much we need to sleep. These loops now pass through our phones, where they get supercharged.