Sleep or Death?

Posted on Posted in Words on Personal Effectiveness, Words on Work-Life Balance
Richard Branson and his employees need more sleep.
Image from Virgin Australia

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Sir Richard Branson posted a blog on June 1, 2016, detailing his adventures in Australia. In that blog, he included a cheeky photo of himself with a sleeping employee at the airport. He reposted that photo to his Instagram, and, as of this moment, the photo has 17,968 likes and 612 comments. The majority of those comments are some variation on, “That poor guy! I’m sure he was fired the moment after that photo was taken.” Sleeping on the job? How shameful!

Most of those folks probably don’t know Richard Branson’s style and philosophy very well (he once wrote, “Sleep is incredibly valuable for a busy life, and I try to get it whenever and wherever I can…”). Later in his blog, after giving the employee some good-natured ribbing, Branson wrote, “To be fair, he was on standby, getting some much-needed rest.”In the struggle for work-life balance, sleep usually gets short shrift. You want to maximize your impact at work and at home, so you go to bed later than you should and you wake up early to get a head start on the day. Five hours of sleep ought to do it, right? No sense wasting all that valuable time in bed, eh? And napping at work? Wouldn’t dream of it! That’s a good way to get canned, right?

Maybe not.

I must admit, I’m right there with you. In fact, I’m writing this at midnight, knowing full well that I’m planning to wake up at 5:30. It feels like I’m cheating the system, but it turns out I’m setting myself up for failure. It turns out that — though scientists aren’t actually completely certain why — we really need sleep. And when we don’t get enough of it on a consistent basis, we suffer. Those extra hours of wakefulness we squeeze out are not only less productive, but they’re actually causing us long-term damage. Let’s look at the data.

Odds Are You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

There have been a number of studies recently about the sleep habits of folks in the United States. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

  • Harvard Business Review: In a recent survey of more than 180 business leaders, 43% of respondents said they don’t get enough sleep at least four nights a week.
  • Gallup: Gallup’s latest look at sleep found that 40% of adults in the United States get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Lining up nicely with Gallup, the CDC’s research on sleep found that 30% of employed adults in the United States (that’s about 40 million people) get six or fewer hours of sleep a night.

How does that data compare to your experience? If you’re like most of my friends, family, and clients, this probably sounds familiar. Maybe you “catch up” on sleep on the weekends (you can’t; more about that later). Or maybe you go out to blow off steam on the weekends and get even less sleep. Either way, you’re probably sleep deprived.

But does it really matter? I mean, I can get by on just a few hours of sleep a night, right? It’s not doing me any harm.


The Real Costs of Sleep Deprivation

Again, scientists don’t fully understand why the body needs sleep. Some research suggests that sleep enables us to synthesize and assimilate all the things we’ve learned during the day. Other researchers hypothesize that our bodies build up a substance throughout the day that slows down our brains and bodies, and that sleeping helps us purge that substance. The really compelling research, though, has looked at correlations between sleep deprivation and its effects on our bodies, our minds, and our performance.

One study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that, after being awake for 17-19 hours, research subjects’ performance on a wide range of tasks (not just those involving reaction time) was equivalent to a person with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%! That’s enough for a Driving While Ability Impaired (DWAI) in my home state of Colorado. After 20 hours, the BAC equivalent doubled to 0.1%, which is bad enough to be legally drunk in most of the States. That’s just a single day.

Another study, published by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found that chronic sleep deprivation can be as destructive to performance as one all-nighter. Subjects in the study who slept six hours per night for two weeks performed as poorly as those who stayed up continuously for 24 hours. In fact, both performed like people who were legally drunk.

And here you were thinking, “I get six hours of sleep a night. That’s pretty good, right?” Wrong.

And if you’re not convinced yet, check out this Huffington Post article from Healthy Living Executive Editor Laura Schocker. The author pulled together a number of research studies into her article, “Here’s a Horrifying Picture of What Sleep Loss Will Do to You.” To make it even more horrifying, Alissa Scheller put together the infographic below to really drive the short-term and long-term points home.

The Real Costs of Sleep Deprivation

The Real Benefits of Good Sleep

Maybe you’re not the sort of person who’s motivated by all the bad things that can happen to you if you don’t sleep enough. Well, it turns out there are also a ton of benefits to getting enough sleep, beyond just the flip side of all the costs listed above.

One study found a correlation between sufficient sleep and problem-solving abilities. In the research, participants who’d had a good night’s sleep were twice as likely to find a hidden shortcut in a task as those who slept poorly. Think that has relevance to your work performance? How about to your ability to be a better parent?

Another study at Northwestern University, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that better sleep correlated to better memory storage and retrieval. If you’ve ever had that frustrating experience of not being able to remember something when you need to, this is highly compelling stuff.

Finally, sleep experts have been looking at the relationship between sleep and hormones that regulate all kinds of critical physiological functions. Their sleep research has found powerful correlation between getting good sleep and well-regulated hormones, which can have cumulative effects on the likelihood of experiencing strokes, heart disease, cancers, and all manner of health issues. People with good sleep habits aren’t just feeling better — they’re also functioning a lot better than the somnambulant lot of us.

The Fallacy of Catching Up on Sleep

Maybe you’re thinking you can get your five hours a night during the week, and then catch up on the weekend. Well, Dr. Steven Feinsilver, director of Center for Sleep Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, says that’s going to be harder than you think.

If you sleep five hours a night Sunday through Thursday, your total sleep debt, assuming a 7-hour target, is 10 hours. To “catch up” on Friday night, you’d need to get those 10 hours PLUS your nightly 7, for a grand total of 17 hours of sleep. And there’s not much research that shows you’d actually get the same benefits as you would’ve had from a consistent night’s sleep. In fact, research suggests that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is more restorative than fasting and bingeing on sleep.

You’re Not Special When It Comes to Sleep

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably read this article with a sneer, thinking that you’re not like most people. You can get by on four hours a night without missing a beat. Those other people probably need their seven hours, but you were just born lucky.

I’m afraid the odds are stacked against us here too. Most sleep researchers agree that sleep needs vary from person to person. But they also agree that maybe 5% of the population, at most, can achieve peak performance with less than seven hours per night. And they’re really not sure what the long-term effects might be for those folks.

For what it’s worth, there’s also a small percentage of the population that needs 9-10 hours of sleep per night. Maybe we’re special in that way.

Sleep: What Are You Gonna Do About It?

If you’ve been swayed by all this to start sleeping better, it’s time to change your behaviors to make it happen. Here are few different frameworks for getting a better night’s sleep.

Having trouble falling asleep? Try these lucky 13 great ideas, taken from awesome blogger Eric Barker,  the employee engagement experts at Limeade, and Richard Wiseman, author of Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep, 

  1. Avoid blue light from screens in the hour before going to bed. The light from your phone, tablet, or laptop inhibits the release of melatonin, making it harder for your brain to power down. In fact, there’s research that says our bodies respond to the screens as they do to bright sunlight. If you can’t bear to put your phone away an hour before bedtime, you can try turning down the brightness of the screen or wearing super-cool orange glasses that filter out the harmful wavelengths.
  2. Think of an animal for each letter of the alphabet. This is an advanced version of counting sheep that actually makes your brain feel tired.
  3. Face your bed toward the door, but in the spot furthest from the door. Your limbic system — the part of your brain responsible for emotion, motivation, and the fight-or-flight response — has a hard time calming down when it feels like predators can sneak up on it. Facing your bed toward the door and at the position in the room furthest from the door comforts that old part of your brain and enables it to relax.
  4. Fake a yawn. This one comes from the “act as if” school. When you do things that your brain and body associate with being sleepy, like yawning, you actually start to get sleepy. Fake until you make it to sleep.
  5. Eat a banana. The nutrients in bananas induce relaxation and sleepiness.
  6. Listen to relaxing musicWiseman points us to a piece of music that has been scientifically designed to induce sleep. Give it a try.
  7. Fall asleep on your right side. Research suggests we get better sleep when we fall asleep on the right side of our bodies. If you’re pregnant, it’s the opposite. Either way, try to avoid falling asleep on your back or on your front.
  8. Try to stay awake. If pretending to be sleepy (tip #4) doesn’t work, try the opposite. The effort to stay awake is often enough to remind your brain that it’s time to sleep.
  9. Wear socks. As it turns out, the comfort of having our feet contained can be enough to calm our brains and whisk us off to dreamland.
  10. Before you go to bed, try writing down what you want to accomplish tomorrow. Thanks to the Zeigarnik Effect, our brains do a phenomenal job of repeatedly reminding us of unfinished business. Writing it down helps your brain feel like those to-do items are under control.
  11. While you’re writing, also write down three good things that happened that day and why they went well. Dr. Martin Seligman, a key figure in the field of positive psychology, has found that we feel more relaxed and optimistic when we take time each day to notice what went well.
  12. Track your sleep. I use a Jawbone UP2, but most fitness trackers these days also tell you about your sleep. Set some goals (seven hours a night is mine) and then check every day to see how you’re doing and what you need to change.
  13. Create the right sleeping environment. Most of us do best with dark, quiet, and temperatures between 54 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bonus: Get Better at Napping

One of the bonus strategies for getting more and better sleep is the much-maligned practice of napping. Notice that Sir Richard didn’t wake the napping employee — probably because he knows that naps have been found to enhance positive emotions, get rid of negative emotions, improve performance, and increase alertness. There was even a study that found naps improve problem-solving abilities.

One of the most common objections that adults have to napping is that they wake up feeling groggy and disoriented. Here’s a trick to try that I learned from the aforementioned Richard Wiseman: right before you tuck in for that 20-minute nap (a pretty ideal duration for a nap, by the way, because it’s restorative without taking you into the deep zone), drink a cup of fully caffeinated coffee. It takes your body about 20 minutes to start using that caffeine, so by the time you wake up, it’ll just be kicking in, and you’ll wake up feeling alert and alive.

A caution about this trick though: don’t try it too late in the day. For the average person, half the caffeine from that cup will still be in your body five to seven hours later, so the trick could backfire and make it hard for you to get to sleep that night and, as you now know, one night of bad sleep can have serious consequences.