Sleep articles are a tired topic in productivity blogs, and I’m feeling a tiny bit ashamed to be adding another to the world (although the irony that an article on sleep quality might be just the thing to put you to sleep would be a silver lining!).
However, at my stage of life – one dominated by a desire to maximise personal growth and make ActiveInbox as great as I can – quality sleep is an absolute cornerstone.
Not to mention, having recently stumbled rather inelegantly into my 30s, I’m conceding I may no longer be immortal; thus I’ve begrudgingly making the topic of my long-term health ‘an issue’ to be improved.
Then there’s the fact I’ve evolved – somewhat haphazardly I admit – into being a manager of a team. My emotional stability is now tested daily (!), and their well being is an equal concern, meaning sufficient sleep is further nuzzling for attention.
Fortunately, timing is on our side. After millennia of being tolerated as a completely mysterious activity (we spend a 1/3 of our lives being completely vulnerable, and unproductive); in the last decade – and the last few years in particular – researchers have made several major breakthroughs in understanding sleep and its huge importance to us.
Benefits of Sleep
We all know ‘insufficient sleep is bad’, but imagine if there was a pill that offered you…
- Faster Learning & Creative Breakthroughs
Ever noticed how you can slog on a problem all afternoon and get nowhere, then come into work the next morning and solve it in 10 minutes?
And we even solve problems in our sleep. A study in 2007 showed that sleep helps us create unusual connections in our mind between things that we have experienced or learned previously, and therefore solve problems that otherwise we could not solve. That old saying – ‘sleep on it’ – is right on the money.
- Better Management & Teamwork
A bad night’s sleep can ruin your workday, and ruin everyone else’s also, primarily because you have no buffer to emotional stress.
- Motivation and focus
It’s not just that tiredness slows you down (although it really does), it denies you any chance of entry to flow state – the feeling where everything comes easily to you, and you never watch the clock ticking from 9 til 5.
- A Longer Life
When we sleep our body carries out vital maintenance on our brain that keeps it healthy. Studies have shown many people with sleep disorders experience severe neurological diseases because they are not getting the necessary time to rid the brain of toxins that build up during the day.
There’s also a strong link between heart disease and diabetes and insufficient sleep.
But still a problem persists…How can I get enough sleep to make the most of my mind & body, in the least amount of time so I can make the most of my life?
Scientific ways to aid sleep
The fundamental thing to know about sleep is that it isn’t about hours, it’s about the number of complete cycles. Quality really is better than quantity!
You ideally need 4-6 cycles per night, and they last 90 minutes each. They consist of 4 stages cycling from NW to REM and back:
- N1 – Transition to sleep
- N2 – Light sleep
- N3 – Deep sleep. This is where the magic happens, and if this bit gets interrupted, you effectively lose the cycle.
- REM – Dream sleep.
The question is, how can we get enough time for sufficient cycles, and not lose any to interruption?
Rule 1: Wake up at the same time everyday (it helps your body predict)
Sleep – and your sleep cycles – are largely controlled by a small group of cells in the center of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). These tiny cells control something called the Circadian Rhythm – basically your “body clock”.
The good news is you can master your body clock, which is a major benefit to getting quality sleep:
Waking up at the same time each day lets your body plan to get enough complete cycles, so you’ll be naturally inclined to drop off at the right time.
By keeping one variable (your wake time) static, you easily adapt your bed time to repay a debt or enjoy a surplus of sleep.
A regular wake time stops your body interrupting your deep sleep (N3). Ever had a late Friday night, but then been incapable of sleeping in on Saturday? That’s because your body has adapted to weekday time and is fighting to wake you up. This means it’s a false economy to think “I got to bed late, I’ll just set the alarm 30 minutes later”.
How can you effectively alter your body clock?
Give it a chance: it takes at least 2-3 days, and up to a week, to alter your rhythm.
But for your efforts, you will get the reward of waking up naturally fresh before your alarm clock!
As soon as the alarm goes off, flood yourself with light – there’s nothing stronger to regulate and anchor your circadian rhythm (your body clock).
Just. Get. Up! Make it easier by knowing why you want to get up, by briefly planning your morning the previous evening.
Rule 2: Allow your body to tell you when it wants to sleep
Once you’ve got a regular wake time, the trick is to listen to your body when it wants to sleep – enjoying the surplus when you have it, and paying the debt when you need.
The key is to avoid anything that is sneakily stimulating:
- No blue light an hour before bed.
Dan Pardi from Stanford University explains the problem this can cause for office workers: “We’re not getting enough bright light exposure during the day, and then in the evening, we’re getting too much artificial light exposure. Both of those have the consequence of causing our rhythms to get out of sync”.
Blue light – found in the modern screens of our phones, computers & TVs -has the same wavelengths as you find in daylight so it can trick our body into thinking that it’s still the middle of the day.
So, in the evening if you are using a computer screen in the hour before bed, enable high contrast mode (Mac: ctrl + ⌥ + ⌘ + 8; Windows: Left shift + Left Alt + Print Screen) – or get a browser extension like Chrome’s Night Reading Mode which inverts colours in the same way to reduce the blue light spectrum. You can also turn down the brightness on your mobile devices.
- Cut out coffee after midday, and caffeine after 4pm.
It’s too cliche to dwell on, but coffee is the devil when it comes to sleep (I mean, that IS the point!). The half life of coffee is just under 6 hours, so if you drink 200mg at midday, you’ll still have 100mg in you at 6pm.
Over the years, I’ve settled on a routine of a strong espresso to kickstart the day, then green tea until 3pm to smooth the come down (it’s methadone to coffee’s heroin, if you will – and pretty magical in its own right).
(Some people argue for cutting out coffee altogether, but the smell, anticipation and taste is one of life’s simple pleasures, and I’m not ready to give it up. Also the rich association between the Age of Enlightenment and coffee shops is too romantic to ignore).
- Free your mind from anxiety
If you find your brain ticking over everything you must do tomorrow, borrow a principle from GTD, and get things off your brain and into a to do list, ideally kept next to your bed (and not a stimulating mobile phone!).
Of course, your brain isn’t always so rationally controllable: it seems to think it’s a good idea to prepare you for a stressful day by not letting you sleep. If this happens, try completely focusing on slow breathing for several minutes. This is a double benefit: those slower breaths will reduce your heart rate, and by focusing 100% on the breaths, there’s no room for anxiety-inducing thoughts.
And one more thing to stop worry keeping you awake: remember you can run a sleep debt for several days. One night’s bad sleep will not impair you as much as you think the next day!
- Get back out of bed if you really can’t sleep
Psychologists recommend that insomniacs don’t lie in the dark trying to force themselves to sleep – it only reinforces the association between bed and not sleeping, harming your ability to nod off in the future.
The simplest rule is to only turn the lights off after you’re already starting to feel sleepy (which should come soon enough, if you follow the above).
Rule 3: Eat well to sleep well
Your diet, in addition to all it’s other health benefits, plays a key role in keeping you asleep.
Stop your food clock from waking you up
We have a secondary ‘food clock’ that takes over when we’re hungry, so by maintaining regular meal times to teach your body when to expect food, and making sure it has enough food to get through the night, stops you waking up too early.
But choose your times carefully… eating a meal late at night before we sleep can throw your sleep off balance and studies in mice at the University of Geneva have shown that it can make you less energetic and alert during the day.
Avoid excess salt and sugar, to stop your body waking you up for the toilet
Both will make it more likely you wake up in the middle of the night, busting for the toilet and busting your current deep sleep cycle.
Salt and sugar will induce you to take in extra water, which will eventually end up in your bladder, loudly demanding removal at some inconvenient time.
Worse, salt triggers the kidneys to temporarily draw in more water, effectively ‘hiding’ it from your bladder for a few hours… Until you’re well and truly fast asleep.
Keep a healthy weight to sleep better
This isn’t a quick-win tip, but there’s a strong link between obesity and poor, fragmented sleep.
Those linked papers also reiterate the importance of unbroken sleep: people with fragmented sleep reported feeling just as tired as people with real sleep deprivation.
Rule 4: Invest in your bedroom!
Get the optimal mattress and highest cotton-count sheets you can afford
Your mattress is, quite literally, the foundation of a good night’s sleep. It also happens to be a part of the furniture, and thus the last thing you think about when you’re struggling to nod off.
So, do you go for pocket sprung, memory foam, open sprung, latex, foam or a combination? It’s a personal choice best answered in a reputable bed shop, but there are two desirable attributes:
Protecting you from discomfort (anyone who has ever had a spring stuck in their hip will know what I mean).
Memory foam is popular for comfort, but beware a pure memory foam mattress retains heat, and degrades after a couple of years.
Insulating you from your partner’s nocturnal marathons (fellow men, we suffer particularly badly with this!).
Pocket sprung mattresses are the most protective, as they isolate movement just to the springs directly under each person (in contrast, an open sprung mattress is just one big spring running throughout the mattress, transmitting all movement).
It’s an expensive outlay, but even at an extreme of $2000, over 10 years, that’s 55c/night. For a chirpier life and more productive work day, I think it’s tremendously cost-effective.
Keep it dark
Remember, light has the most powerful influence on your Circadian Rhythm – aka your body clock.
Without heavy duty curtains, or blackout blinds, your body will begin waking up as soon as the sun rises, possibly hours before your alarm, interrupting those precious cycles.
Keep it cool (temperature, that is)
No one seems to agree on the ideal temperature for your body, but your head is a different matter: cooler is better. Ideally, keep your room at about 65F/18C.
Rule 5: You can have too much sleep – know what you need
The essence of this article is to get enough sleep, but as efficiently as possible so you don’t miss out on life.
Which is fortunate, because there’s a strong correlation between getting more than 8 hours sleep a night and premature death. It could be excess inactivity, mattress pressure, or it could be that people with underlying disorders sleep more (either way, if you find yourself permanently tired and you’re sure you’re getting quality sleep, see a doctor).
So despite the standard recommendation to get 8 hours sleep, the most efficient idea is to get a multiple of sleep cycles, which are 90 minutes each: 7.5 hours being 5 cycles. (Obviously if you’ve built up a sleep debt, you need to pay that off first; and heavy exercise would temporarily increase your requirements).
It’s worth noting that genetics do play a role: some rare and lucky people really do only need 4 hours sleep a night – but sadly that’s probably not you and it’s definitely not me. Next time you’re on holiday, you might try to establish a baseline for how much sleep you need (see the end of the linked article).
However you do it, getting enough quality sleep is essential if you want to make the most of your life and work.
We constantly hear about top CEOs who sleep 4 hours a day and run multi-billion dollar companies with energy and wisdom.
But the reality is that trying to emulate them isn’t a good idea – scientifically or logically.
Being a senior executive in a big company (apparently the standard definition of success) REQUIRES you to sleep as little as possible because you’re always on call and always have a mountain of critical work to do. And appearing to work your ass off is just essential when you are being paid many millions of pounds every year. That doesn’t mean that everyone else is more likely to become a FTSE 100 exec if they sleep less. The science says you are less likely.
So, want to remember more of the important things and figure out those tough problems? Want to deal with other people in a smart and emotionally intelligent way to get the most out of your relationships? Want to achieve a state of focus and steady enjoyment in your work? Want to live a longer life? Want to spend the bare minimum of it asleep?
Just get more quality sleep!
This was written by Andy Mitchell