Let’s go back to when I was eight years old; my sister and I HATED bedtime with a passion. We would be caught sneaking through to each other’s bedrooms to continue playing games and having fun; we would run up and down the stairs complaining to my parents of ailments and illnesses or that we just couldn’t get to sleep! My poor parents didn’t get a night to themselves without one of us kicking up a fuss about the dreaded bedtime routine.
Fast forward 10 years- I was 18 and in my second year of university and still hated sleep. I would go out clubbing four or five times a week whilst studying and working. Sleep was not a priority then either. “Go hard or go home” was the slogan on my 18th birthday sash gifted to me by my good friends. This behaviour continued until I graduated from university and began working a job in a supermarket where I would start as early as 5am and finish as late as 10pm. When I wasn’t prioritising sleep I was getting sick; two rounds of tonsillitis in 6 weeks, and forever run down with a cough or cold. I actually started to think it was normal that my eyes hurt every time I closed them! I knew that something had to change. However, I had never really considered the importance of sleep until my boyfriend suggested I listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast featuring Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist and director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at The University of California, and he had some really insightful things to say on the topic.
So, today’s post was actually suggested by my better half and is aimed at those of you who think you can survive on six hours of sleep or less and still be productive in your daily lives. This is an opportunity to look at sleep as a way of enhancing performance and not a sign of weakness. I have done lots of research from different avenues and I will link all their references below for you to check out yourselves if you wish.
A lack of sleep impacts decision making or creates what I like to describe as brain fog, where you cannot think straight and simple tasks become unmanageable. Alongside Matthew Walker I have read works by Caroline Webb, a researcher in behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience. She believes that to function effectively in the workplace you need to carry out three core daily practices- sleep well, practice mindfulness and remember to exercise. Sleep is hugely important because when we don’t get enough of it less blood flows to the prefrontal cortex where our deliberate system is. This means that without enough sleep it is difficult for us to be creative, create intelligent solutions to problems or act quickly and smartly on our feet when we are placed under pressure. She discusses that sleep deprivation differs from one person to another however generally speaking people need between seven and nine hours to function at their best the next day.
Charles Czeisler, a Harvard professor of sleep also explained that through recent studies we have discovered that those who go a week sleeping between four to five hours a night become mentally impaired the equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. This means that not sleeping enough is like turning up to work drunk the next day. Can we stop and think about that for a second. Those of us who care about producing high quality work would never dream of turning up to an important meeting drunk but we would argue that we HAD to stay up all night preparing for said meeting. Which in reality is as bad as being intoxicated by alcohol.
Matthew Walker explains that a lack of sleep affects every part of our biology and we have to recognise as a society that sleep is fundamental and should be taken more seriously by businesses, the NHS, and the government. But why has sleep deprivation become such a massive issue over the last 75 years? It is largely down to our lifestyles, the technology we use late at night lights up our brains and keeps us stimulated for longer. We are expected to be fully flexible in our jobs and work longer hours in order to succeed or get that promotion that is on offer. Then once people have finished working for the day and driven their commute home they feel guilty for staying late at the office and not spending that time with their family so in order to make that quality time available they sacrifice sleep instead. Nowadays, we have all the connection we could have ever imagined yet we are lonelier and more depressed. Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants which are more widely available to us and they all impair our quality of sleep.
We also view sleep negatively in western society. We look at those who sleep in as lazy and unproductive. We believe that in order to be successful we must be busy and active. This one is very personal to me because when I was at my lowest point all I ever wanted to do was sleep however I felt guilty doing so because I didn’t want my family or friends to think less of me for not getting work done around the house or missing a social engagement because I was tired.
So, the research shows us that sleep is imperative to making smarter more thoughtful decisions and we should be aiming for between seven to nine hours a night in order to unleash our full potential. This week I challenge you to go old school and set yourself a bed time, get into bed earlier than normal; put the phone on aeroplane mode and read a good old fashioned book. Aim for those recommended number of hours sleep and see the difference it can make to your energy levels, your productivity levels and your emotional and mental wellbeing.
Caroline Webb- How to have a good day: The essential toolkit for a productive day at work and beyond
Matthew Walker: Why we sleep
Czeisler, C. & Fryer B. (2006) A Conversation with Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business Review.