Last week, I took a couple of days off. And unlike most other times when we end taking active vacations, my family and I decided to just unwind and not have any plans for the time off. Things had been quite hectic the weeks before and so, among other things, I decided to catch up on sleep.
Like many of you, I have struggled with being disciplined about regular and sufficient sleep. I have often felt that I did not need much sleep and could get by for several days with little sleep. I see similar patterns particularly in the younger generation. A lot of our younger team members pride themselves on frequently “burning the midnight oil”.
But the more I have recently read about sleep, I have learnt that we need to take sleeping as seriously as our waking hours. Your sleeping habits have a strong correlation with how productive you are and how healthy you stay. So, while sleep may not seem like an ideal topic for a Monday morning piece, today I want to urge you think harder about how much you’re sleeping and also how well you’re sleeping. This is critical to enable each of you to bring your best self to all that you do.
The fact is that our sleep patterns are changing. Not just yours and mine, but ours as a country and as a people. Across the world, people are sleeping less and less with each passing decade and we now sleep less that than we ever have.
Why should this concern us?
Because studies show that your effectiveness, when sleepy, is actually similar to what it would be, if you were legally drunk. And that’s something to think about. No surprise then, that insomnia and fatigue are among the leading causes for accidents and errors. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to health problems such as hypertension, heart attack, diabetes, weight gain and depression. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US consider insufficient sleep as a public health epidemic.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, wrote a telling article back in 2013, on how she learned the value of sleep, the hard way. What she was trying to do may sound rather familiar to you. “I’d just returned home after a week of taking my daughter on a tour of colleges. The ground rule we had agreed to for the trip was no BlackBerry during the day, so each night I’d stayed up very late to catch up on work. The day after I got back, I suddenly found myself lying on the floor, surrounded by a pool of blood – my own, as it turned out. I had passed out from exhaustion and banged my head on the way down. The result was a broken cheekbone and five stitches under my eyebrow. It was also a wake-up call, leading me to renew my estranged relationship with sleep. And when it comes to wake-up calls, few are as effective as the spilling of your own blood – which, in the old days, was used to seal a contract.” You can read her article on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/wellbeing/healthadvice/10826909/Arianna-Huffington-Why-we-all-need-more-sleep.html
Huffington and Cindi Lieve, the Editor in Chief of Glamour later ran what they called the ‘2010 Sleep Challenge’. They called out to women to join them on what was a one month challenge to get enough sleep. They blogged regularly on it and it caught on quite a bit. Now, while their movement was focused on women and how a nation of sleepy, over worked women wasn’t going to get America anywhere, this is a concern for everyone. Huffington calls herself a ‘sleep evangelist’ now and shares how she has started gently chiding her friends and team members on their sleep habits. She is not alone. Many companies today are talking about this and questioning the age-old assumption that being able to go without sleep is a demonstration of much prowess.
We’re too busy to sleep
Let’s start with the basics. We wear multiple hats, which means that there are also multiple demands being made of us, all the time. We don’t get to be parent, child, friend, partner, manager, team member in silos. It all happens together. We want to do all of it and do it well. And we also want to find time for ourselves, to do the things that we enjoy. Maybe it’s the book you’ve been wanting to read, or the gym routine that you resolved to, or even the language course you found online. But there are only 24 hours in a day. So, we end up with the most obvious alternative – cutting down on the time we sleep. After all, who needs sleep? That too, when there is this very packed life that you could be living otherwise. It’s quite simple. The less time we spend asleep, the more time we have to be awake and active. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “…there will be sleeping enough in the grave”. But it doesn’t quite work like that.
Sleep is not just about rest
Lots happens while you are asleep
Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist, studies the sleep cycles of the brain. In his TED talk Why do we sleep? he shares how most of us know very little about what we spend close to a third of our lives doing – being asleep. Do watch it when you get a chance: https://www.ted.com/talks/russell_foster_why_do_we_sleep?language=en
While you sleep, your brain recharges. There are different stages of sleep, but the most important are as you faller deeper asleep – your Deep Sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep.
This is when your brain is the most active. It is busy sifting, cataloguing, priming your memory. You know how people sometimes suggest that you sleep over a problem? It works literally. Sleep enables you able to come up with solutions to complex problems. Not just that, while you sleep, your brain also triggers the release of hormones regulating energy, mood, and mental agility. Your body is resting and restoring and rebuilding.
What’s the harm in being a little sleepy?
When you start cutting down your sleep, even if it is by a bit, you are doing much more harm than just stifling yawns at meetings. By missing sleep, you are actually hampering your memory and cognitive capacity, not to mention ruining your mood and probably biasing the decisions you make through the day. You’re more on edge, unhappy, anxious and less likely to be able to deal with uncertainty or complexity. When you sleep less, you cut down on your REM sleep and that impacts your ability to multitask, which is critical for managers. And that’s just short term. There is enough research to testify to the longer-lasting impact on your health. So, it certainly isn’t helping us become more productive. To put it a little more in perspective, there’s a reason why Amnesty International counts sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
Many of you reading this probably think that all these problems associated with sleep deprivation won’t impact you. You have figured a way around it; how to cut down on sleep and still do a great job. After all, that’s what years at college and then the grind in the corporate world taught you. What’s a little bit of being tired? You know, that slow, constant, almost jet-lag like feeling that may have become familiar? Not so. It will catch up with you.
Sleeping less doesn’t make you a better team member
You sleeping less doesn’t help your company. Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project and author of Be Excellent at Anything, in his article Sleep is More Important than Food, talks about how sleep deprivation among employees poses risks, not just to them, but to their companies as well. He points out how people, the world over, are doing difficult jobs, that require concentration. They are running heavy and dangerous machinery, making critical business decisions, interacting with customers and shareholders and many of them are doing this, while being exhausted. So, you end up finding managers who are otherwise smart and in control, doing things that they wouldn’t do, had they just not been so tired. Being sleepy affects their mood and judgement. So, they end up getting angry at their team members, making decisions that may not be in the best interest of their companies and misrepresenting information or making mistakes in front of different stakeholders. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found insomnia the cause of 2,74,000 workplace accidents and errors every year, which amounts to USD 31 billion in additional costs to companies.
Sleep is not an indulgence. Nor is it a marker of how much time you have to spare. It is an absolute necessity for you to be able to perform to your best. Quite simply, if you sleep enough, you will be more fresh and by translation, more alert and attentive. That makes you more productive.
Change how you spend the last 30 minutes of your day to start sleeping better
Think about the end of the day, as ‘your’ time. Enjoy it. Look forward to it. Don’t make it about being so exhausted from the day gone by and so stressed out about the day ahead, that you’re pretty much just collapsing into bed, without much thought. You will be too distracted to be able to sleep peacefully and that in turn, will make you more uneasy.
Falling asleep doesn’t happen that easily. Not for all of us, anyway. Like with exercise, as ironic as this may sound, you need to prep for it a bit. Research suggests that you should think about how you spend the 30 minutes before you fall asleep. Make this the time when you slow down and wind up your day. Get into the mood, slowly. Here are some simple tips that you could follow:
- Fix a bed time – Before you do anything else, commit to this. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Once you have this fitted into a routine, it will be much easier to stick to.
- Set an alarm – Having an alarm that lets you know it is time to start winding up helps. It’s too easy to get distracted otherwise, by the TV show you’re watching or the email that you are replying to.
- Keep away negative energy – You may not have had the best day, and there might be lots on your mind, but try and keep it away from your bed time. Sometimes, jotting down unsolved thoughts helps. The science behind it says that when you write things down, they don’t remain in your active memory and so, you end up sleeping more peacefully.
- Meditate before bed– Sure, there are always pills that can help you fall asleep easier. But give meditation a shot, if you haven’t. Reflecting quietly can have a tremendously calming influence.
- Take a walk– For those of you who enjoy it, a light stroll before bed can be very relaxing. You could try this by yourself, or take along your partner or children and make it quality family time.
- Watch your caffeine intake – Make a no caffeine promise to yourself. Cut down on your intake at least 5 hours or so before you sleep.
- Sleep like a mushroom– This one is easy, if a little strange, to remember. Cool, dark and quiet. That’s the ideal sleeping space. Switch the ringer off your phone. Turn down the temperature in the room. Turn off the lights. Melatonin, a hormone created by our brain, actually senses when it is dark and then helps prep us to fall asleep. So, darkening your room really helps. Blue light in particular, like what shines off phones and laptops, suppresses the creation of melatonin.
- Track your sleep– A number of fitness trackers like the UP and FitBit can track your sleep, show you patterns and suggest what you need to do differently; almost coach you on.
Getting insufficient sleep isn’t something that should be a concern just for you. It is equally so for your partner and children, family and friends. You may not have given this much thought earlier, but you should, now. Maybe you could even try a 30-day sleep challenge and see the difference for yourself.
If any of you have personal experiences that we could learn from, or tips that you have found useful, do share them with us. I look forward to hearing from you.