Joseph Pannell of SleepRep: “If somebody sleeps poorly they should do — nothing!”

If somebody sleeps poorly they should do — nothing! Even good sleepers will have poor nights of sleep, and stressful events that cause a short-term sleep problem cannot be avoided. When this happens, people shouldn’t try to force or to protect sleep. They just need to follow the 4 tips above and sleep will right itself. Getting a […]

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If somebody sleeps poorly they should do — nothing! Even good sleepers will have poor nights of sleep, and stressful events that cause a short-term sleep problem cannot be avoided. When this happens, people shouldn’t try to force or to protect sleep. They just need to follow the 4 tips above and sleep will right itself.

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Joseph Pannell.

Joseph is a former chronic insomniac of 20 years who overcame it with CBTi. He works with a sleep charity, mans a national sleep helpline and is the author of ‘You Can Sleep Too!’. Joseph is also the director of SleepRep which delivers evidence-based sleep knowledge webinars, workshops and conferences to companies around the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

I’m based in Devon in the Southwest of England with my brown dalmatian. I spend my free time surfing and playing the saxophone at open mics. It’s a happy and full life, but it wasn’t always like this. Whilst sleep has permanently been at the front of my mind, I haven’t always been in the incredibly fortunate position where I am able to help others with it.

My career before this was hiring tipis. I traveled the country setting up at festivals and film sets. I met some amazing people, rockstars, TV chefs, supermodels, film stars… I loved the adventure of it, but like everything else I stripped this out of my life in pursuit of something that was always out of my reach — sleep!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

I help people sleep because I know firsthand better than anybody what not sleeping does to you.

My insomnia lasted for two decades. During that time, I tried everything, hot baths, kiwi fruit, supplements, sleeping tablets, relaxation techniques, sleeping on an island surrounded by orcas … Nothing! Everything I tried that didn’t work just drove my obsession and anxiety and eroded my confidence that I could ever sleep well again.

I became so fearful about sleep that I stopped doing everything I loved to try and protect it. I stopped surfing in the evenings, stopped meeting up with friends, sharing a bed with my wife, pursuing my career… Eventually insomnia left me depressed, jobless, divorced, and homeless.

Everything changed for me when I found CBTi. After training in the field, I am now on a man on a mission to get this evidence-based sleep knowledge out into the world.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

The fundamentals of a good night sleep are incredibly easy. The problem is that this knowledge is buried so deep amongst so much rubbish — 1001 tips, tricks and hacks that never can, or will, get to the root cause of the problem.

Due to this people don’t know what to do, and who or what to trust. I meet so many who have lost all confidence in their ability to sleep well because they believe they have tried everything, and nothing has worked for them.

Former long term chronic insomniacs now working in the field are incredibly rare. But we are some the best people to restore this confidence. People won’t let you help them until they feel understood. And I do understand, so people listen.

So, my contribution is as an advocate. I kick over the pile of rubbish, grab CBTi out from the bottom, dust it off, put it in front of people’s faces and say, ‘I know better than anybody that this stuff works because I’m living proof — do it!’ And they do, and then they sleep.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I love the Long Walk by Sławomir Rawicz. It teaches me that if you just keep going on your journey you will get to where you want to be.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the forest that was left out by mistake. (Winnie- the- Pooh)

This quote ties into my book choice above. It reminds me that I am in control of my journey, to watch where I am going and to choose mindfully. It’s my assessment that there are some very wise fictional bears in this world, but Winnie is probably my favorite.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

Typically, 7 hours is reasonably common, but sleep is like shoe size, there is no one size fits all. The average shoe size for a man in the UK is 8.5. But there would be an awful lot of men walking around barefoot if they only made shoes in that size!

People need enough sleep to wake up feeling relatively refreshed, and that’s different for everybody. If somebody without a sleep problem typically sleeps for 6 hours but wakes up every morning bright as a button, perfect! That’s what works for them, and they don’t need any more sleep. In fact, trying to get more sleep than they need can cause a sleep problem.

Young people do need more sleep, but the amount of sleep adults need does not decline as they age.

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

I love this question as it gives me the opportunity to talk about one of the most important things to understand when it comes to helping people sleep better — The homeostatic sleep drive.

Just like people have a drive to eat when they feel hungry, people also have a drive to sleep when they feel sleepy. The only thing that builds hunger is not eating, the only thing that builds the sleep drive is being awake.

So, the 2nd hypothetical choice isn’t ideal, and I’d like to use a hypothetical person called John to illustrate.

Say John needs 7 hours of sleep. His wake time is usually 6am and he needs 17 hours of wakefulness to produce 7 hours of sleep. This means that he usually starts feeling sleepy around about 11pm.

But if he were to wake up 4 hours later than his usual time at 10am instead, he wouldn’t start feeling sleepy the next night until 4 hours later, at 3am.

An unregulated sleep drive is why people typically tend to sleep the worst on Sunday night as lots of people will have lie ins on the weekend.

The 1st option also isn’t ideal as, whilst people with a regulated sleep drive will tend to feel sleepy at the same time, and therefore tend to go to bed at the same time, there is no evidence to support setting a fixed bedtime.

John usually starts to feel sleepy at 11pm, but if he makes himself go to bed at 10pm he’ll just lie in bed awake for an hour or so until the time he usually starts to feel sleepy. That’s the best-case scenario.

The worst is that he’ll spend that hour between 10pm — 11pm trying to force himself to sleep and become anxious and agitated when it doesn’t come. This anxiety will result in a psychological response in the body, his heart rate, body temperature, cortisol and adrenaline will increase which will in turn mask the drive to sleep and result in him falling asleep much later than usual.

Sleeping well comes from shifting the focus away from trying to catch up and make sleep happen in the short term, to building habits and behaviors that help sleep over the long term — and to do this, consistency is key.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

Getting adequate, good quality sleep is important for regulating a number of hormones, including cortisol, estrogen, progesterone and hunger hormones like insulin and leptin…

When somebody starts sleeping well over the long term their life is transformed. They wake up refreshed and full of energy, they have better concentration and attention, they’re happier, healthier and more content. This ripples through into their relationships, their work, social life… Take it from somebody who knows better than anybody what improving sleep can do for somebody — its life changing!

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, we should make sleep a priority over the long term as everything else falls into place when sleeping well. But I think there are two categories of people here. People who are pushing themselves and working so hard that they are not giving themselves enough opportunity to sleep and therefore not prioritizing sleep. And everyone else!

Whilst it’s ok in the short term, if somebody consistently doesn’t give themselves enough sleep opportunity over a sustained period, this will lead to sleep deprivation which will affect their wellbeing and will eventually lead to burn out. Burnt out people are not productive, so it’s not a wise career move!

As for everybody else, they should prioritize sleep but only in the right way, and not to such an extent that sleep starts to control and dictate their life.

People hear that you shouldn’t exercise too soon before bed, and you shouldn’t eat late, and that you mustn’t drink any alcohol, and that you should have a warm bath and not eat certain foods.

All these things do have an evidence base and overall are good advice. However, if somebody puts too much attention on sleep and indulges in all these things obsessively and ritualistically this can make sleep worse as it drives anxiety and worry around sleep. It can also limit their enjoyment of life.

Just like diet when it comes to prioritizing sleep it’s about balance. If somebody prioritizes good nourishing food and generally eats well throughout the week, if their friend offers them a chocolate fudge cake with Hockings diary ice cream — that’s proper lush, so I’d recommend they get it in their face!

And if it’s 9pm and their friend invites them to go out roller skating, I’d recommend saying yes! Exercising late may impact their sleep that night, but if they still get up the same time and carry on as normal the next day, they’ll just have a stronger sleep drive, and sleep better the next night.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

The first blockage is the misinformation around sleep. The common knowledge things that people know are not that helpful. When people start eating cherries and chugging lettuce water or using sleep ‘hacks’ learnt from the internet they are not going to sleep better without first addressing the root cause.

To remove this obstacle, I would advise people forget everything else they have been taught about sleep and just do the real basics that I am outlining here. Once they see how well it is working for them, and how much better they feel, they will be far more motivated to adopt these habits into their life.

The second blockage is the work when I’m dead culture. I didn’t have a choice during my 20 years of insomnia because I didn’t know how to get out of it. But why anybody would actively choose to sleep poorly is beyond me.

Again, this is a habit, and it will require consistency to break it and habits are most easily broken when the goal posts aren’t being moved. So, 7/8/9pm whatever works for the individual, no matter what, at a prescribed time that person stops working.

The reason people work all hours is because they think it is productive. But the proof is in the pudding, so when they see how prioritizing sleep makes them more productive over the long term and all the other health and wellness benefits it gives them, they won’t want to go back to actively choosing to limit their sleep.

The last blockage is perfectionism. To sleep well somebody doesn’t need to do these good habits I’m outlining all the time, and they don’t need to be perfect. They just need to be good enough. There is also no such thing as perfect sleep as there are so many variables that can affect it. But trying to aim for perfect sleep can most definitely cause poor quality sleep over the long term.

The best sleepers are the ones that make no effort to sleep. It’s counterintuitive as most things you get better at the harder you try. Just an awareness that this doesn’t apply to sleep is enough to remove this obstacle.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

Yes and no. The culture we have today of working late into the evenings or expecting people to be on call 24/7 is not helpful for sleep. This isn’t due to blue light, the blue light from checking an email just before bed will have very little effect on wakefulness hormones. But telling the brain that it’s time for work and that it should be active and not sleepy, now that is a problem. The brain will listen and respond and do what is being asked of it.

If somebody wants an orange but they ask the shop keeper for an apple, they’re getting an apple!

But overall, no. Once people know how to sleep and actively choose to prioritize it in the right way, then they can sleep just as well now, as people did in the past.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

Fortunately, the 2 most essential pieces of sleep advice I have had the opportunity to cover in detail in the questions above, but they are so important they are worth repeating, these are:

1) People should only go to bed when they are ‘can’t keep their eyes open sleepy​

2) They should get up at the same time every day.

If everybody on the planet knew and did this, we would all be sleeping so much better. Had I known this 20 years ago I would never have developed insomnia.

The others are:

3) Get light.

Get plenty of light (natural or artificial) as soon as possible and throughout the first third of the day.

4) Spend less time in bed.

People who have trouble sleeping typically try to force sleep by spending more time in bed. Doing so serves to increase the amount of time spent in bed awake in an anxious, hyper-aroused state; this conditions the brain to see the bed as a place of worry and wakefulness rather than sleep and fragments the sleep drive.

The fastest way to regulate the sleep drive and tackle the hyperarousal that can mask the drive to sleep is to spend less time in bed.

5) If somebody sleeps poorly they should do — nothing!

Even good sleepers will have poor nights of sleep, and stressful events that cause a short-term sleep problem cannot be avoided. When this happens, people shouldn’t try to force or to protect sleep. They just need to follow the 4 tips above and sleep will right itself.

Top 5 sleep points video:

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

If they are just as happy in bed awake than they are asleep, wonderful! Do nothing, just allow sleep to come and it will. But if they start trying to make themselves sleep and start to become anxious, stressed or agitated if it doesn’t come, they should leave the bedroom, do something relaxing and enjoyable and return to bed when they feel sleepy again.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

If somebody generally sleeps well then napping can be great and there is no problem with it. I occasionally have naps but recommend keeping naps short to under 30 minutes and before 3pm. But yes, naps can affect the ability to sleep at night, so if somebody is having trouble sleeping at night, or using naps regularly to compensate for poor quality sleep then they should avoid napping.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve read that both George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston sleep poorly, so I’d like to fly out, help them, eat something covered in cheese, fly home.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For both my corporate work offering webinars, seminars etc. And a link to my book/audiobook to help you sleep please visit:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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