For Most People, Counting Sheep Doesn’t Work

During final exams in my senior year of high school, I had a hard time getting to sleep. I asked friends and family for advice on how to sleep better and several friends told me I should try counting sheep.

Not being interested in math or farming, I never found the appeal in counting sheep to fall asleep. According to research, I am not alone.

In a recent study performed at Oxford University’s Psychology Department, volunteers were instructed to visualize a range of different scenarios, including sheep counting. (Link to Study)

In the study, it took 20 minutes longer to fall asleep counting sheep than by imagining relaxing beach imagery. In other words, the group in the study that was counting sheep and the group in the study that did nothing different fell asleep at the same time.

After the study was finished, the Oxford scientists came to the same conclusion I did in high school: sheep counting is simply too boring and repetitive to be an effective strategy for most people.

Boring things tend to encourage the mind to wander, eventually wandering back to the stresses that kept you up in the first place. So the cycle goes like this:

Stress out about life, which keeps you from sleeping. Toss and turn for a while, then get angry that you aren’t asleep. Get desperate and remember that someone told you once to count sheep. Try to count sheep for a while as your mind wanders to escape the inevitable boredom. Look at your clock 40 minutes later and get angry that you spent the last hour counting sheep. Now you are stressed about life AND angry. Bad plan.

The good news is that there are techniques that work and work fast most of the time.

A simple first step is to learn what to avoid doing before bedtime. The second step is to learn how to establish a bedtime routine that promotes sleep. The third step is to learn several simple mind-body skills to help the body and mind relax.

Among other things, I have found that most of my clients will immediately benefit from learning meridian tapping techniques, self hypnosis, a progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which I generally teach in a first sleep improvement session.


William Wood teaches clients how to sleep better in his Ogden office. He also consults with clients via Skype and the telephone throughout the world. You can contact his office at 385-432-0729.

Image © Alexandra Gl –