Whether it’s a smartwatch, fitness tracker, or smart display, a growing number of people have devices that can track sleep. It’s great to have that information, but knowing your sleep cycles isn’t actually going to improve your sleep.
Typical Sleep Tracking
Sleep tracking with a smart device is pretty similar across the board. You get a basic read-out of time spent in bed, how long you took to fall asleep, time awake, and how much time you spent in REM, deep, and light sleep cycles.
The accuracy of these numbers can vary between devices, but using the same device for an extended period of time will at least give you consistent inaccurate data. However, the problem with sleep tracking is not in the accuracy of the data collected, it’s how we use it.
Based on my own experience and others I’ve talked with, it seems most people do the same thing with this data. You wake up, look at the pretty little graph of your sleep cycles, confirm it matches how you feel you slept, and move on. Is that actually useful, though?
Data Without Context
While it’s certainly cool to know how much time you spent in REM sleep, that data is pretty useless without context. You don’t need a chart to know how you slept last night—you experienced it. The question you should be asking is “how can I sleep better tonight?”
When you do a medical sleep study, the people giving the study don’t just say “well you only had 30 minutes of deep sleep, so try to get more of that” and send you home. They use additional information to try to figure out why that might be happening.
That’s the problem with sleep tracking on smartwatches and fitness trackers. You’re mostly given a bunch of information without any context. How are you supposed to make meaningful changes to improve your sleep if you don’t know what’s making you sleep poorly?
How to Get More Context
The good news is you have the ability to get more context for your sleeping data. In fact, the device you use for sleep tracking can probably do it. The bad news is it requires more effort.
An easy thing you can do is look at your step count and heart rate. These features are found on practically any smartphone or smart wearable device. You might find that you sleep worse when you don’t get up and move around enough throughout the day.
Another good metric to cross-check could be stress levels. The Fitbit Sense 2, Versa 4, and Inspire 3 are equipped with a continuous electrodermal activity (cEDA) sensor to track stress. You could see if high stress levels throughout the day correlate with poor sleep.
Perhaps the best information to have is about your diet. The food you eat and your hydration level can play a big part in how you sleep. The things you eat close to bedtime play an especially large role. The health app that pairs with your smartwatch or fitness tracker most likely has diet and water tracking too. You’ll need to manually enter this data, though.
The point is you need some sort of additional information to go along with the sleep-tracking data. Without it, you’re only confirming things you already know. You’re never going to improve your sleep if all you do is look at the same chart every morning.