And why you don’t need to get up at 5 a.m. to become a CEO
Productivity demands that we pack as much into 24 hours as is humanly possible — and then some. So I did what any sane person in my place would do — I decided to get some sleep.
But this wasn’t just a quick cat-nap, or, heaven forbid, one of those 10-minute power naps that had become all the rage a few years ago. It was a full, uninterrupted 9 hours of sleep. Every day — for the last 11 years of my life. That has included times when I was in college, working my first — and subsequent — jobs, clearing one of the most competitive examinations in the world, moving cities, and the toughest of them all — being a new mom.
I don’t do this because I am lazy. On the contrary, I get a lot of work done during the working day. DAY being the keyword. Nights are for sleeping. I believe — and this is backed up by science — that sleeping well has been indisputably THE key to achieving my goals and staying sane, in that order. Here is why and how you can do so while remaining as productive as you are currently (or more), why you cannot simply ‘catch-up’ on the weekends, and the consequences of ignoring this dictum in the long-term.
Why you must sleep for 9 hours a day — the Science:
The National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Health Index (SHI) measures sleep duration, sleep quality, and disordered sleep, to calculate the total SHI. Americans rated a 76 on the overall sleep index, brought down by a score of just 68 in the sleep quality sub-index (as compared to scores of 79 and 81 on sleep duration and disordered sleep respectively). Drilling down into this sub-index, the self-reported scores, i.e. what Americans are themselves scoring their sleep quality as, was scored a mere 49. Just 3 in 10 rated their sleep quality as excellent (11%) or very good (19%). Thirty-five percent described their sleep quality as “good,” 22% as “fair,” and 12% as “poor.” Overall health was highly associated with sleep quality. Sixty-seven percent of those with less than good sleep quality also report “poor” or “only fair” health, with 27 percent reporting otherwise “good” health. Low life satisfaction and high stress were also related to sleep quality. Apparently, we have a problem with sleeping well.
But how does that relate to productivity? For that, I refer to findings by the National Safety Council (NSC), which estimates that fatigued workers cost employers about $1,200 to $3,100 per employee in declining job performance each year, while sleepy workers are estimated to cost employers up to $411 billion a year in health-related, lost productivity.
But forget about what it costs the Big Industry. What about you, as an individual?
A study conducted on 30 participants revealed that the highest mean productivity rating was for individuals who slept more than nine hours. Another study found that on an individual level, sleep deprivation translates to 11 lost days of productivity and $2,280 in lost wages each year. Sleeping less is costing you money personally.
But if simply higher productivity and higher wages aren’t enough motivation for you to sleep more, consider this.
Sleep deprivation is linked to higher mortality risk.
An individual that sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a ten percent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. An individual sleeping between six to seven hours per day still has a four percent higher mortality risk.
The easiest way to avoid all these problems with productivity, health, and even mortality? Sleep More.
How to sleep like a baby — some research and some anecdotal evidence:
Now that I have you convinced that sleeping is definitely worth your time, let us see how you can get some more winks in. There are two major roadblocks to getting adequate sleep — having no time to sleep, or being unable to sleep.
How to find more time to sleep
- Stop putting the horse before the cart. You have too much work, and hence you can’t sleep? No, that is incorrect. The correct causation here is, you do not sleep enough, causing you to be unproductive during the day, and hence you have work overflowing into all other compartments of your life. It is extremely difficult to break this vicious cycle once you are in it, especially since all of us seem quite capable of convincing ourselves that we can ‘will’ ourselves to be at our productive best, no matter the fact that you have slept a grand total of 8 hours in the last three days. Pause and smell the science — you cannot be at your optimal level if you are sleep deprived. This acceptance is the first step towards a sleepier future.
- Prioritize your most urgent tasks the first thing in the morning, and leave the knick-knacks towards the end of the day. Here is a great way to keep a running to-do of important things. This way, once your bedtime arrives, but you still have some work left, you can drop the work with no guilt since it wasn’t one of your most important tasks of the day. If the house isn’t clean, it isn’t clean.
- And that brings me to the most important tip — have a bedtime. I know you are an adult who has earned the right to not have a bedtime. But you are also an adult who is responsible for your own health and mortality. Having a bedtime not only helps you to wind down and complete tasks so that they do not bleed into your sleep time, but also helps you sleep well and through the night.
- Schedule your sleep as if it is an important non-negotiable meeting. That means declining invites that clash with this all-important meeting (nights out on town), preparing for the meeting beforehand (giving enough time for you to wind down, get comfortable and sleepy), and sticking to the schedule. It is the most important meeting that you will ever attend when it comes to your career and even your personal life.
- Make it a habit. Once you have internalized the thought that you need 9 hours of sleep, the rest of the work will miraculously get done in the remaining time. Ever heard of Parkinson’s law? Work always expands to fill the time available. This will be even more visible to you, once your productivity returns to non-sleep-deprived levels, and work gets done in half the time you usually took.
- Glance at the next day’s to-do list, or problems that you are wrestling with, a few minutes before sleeping. I have noticed that somehow my ideas become a lot more fleshed out in the morning as if my brain has been working on them in the background through the night. I use this trick for novel plots, article ideas, and even personal problems.
- A special one for new parents, since it is physically impossible to sleep for 9 hours uninterruptedly. Add an hour to your sleep schedule. It is not just the amount of sleep that matters, it is also the quality, specifically the REM or deep sleep that you get. Your brain has an added obstacle of waking up every few hours, which keeps it away from reaching that stage. Give it some extra time to maximize REM sleep.
How to sleep if you are unable to do so
- The first and foremost trick for this — skip your nap. Even a ten-minute nap during the day can make you refreshed enough that you find it difficult to go to sleep when you are actually supposed to.
- Get tired. Physical exertion is paramount to the body signaling that it needs rest. For some people, such exertion just before bedtime can be counterproductive and lead to wakefulness. In others, it is just what the doctor ordered. In any case, it is only the timing that differs — find out what works for you. But exercising or otherwise exerting yourself is mandatory.
- Take a bath or don’t. Again, here, it depends on the person. Some people find a bath extremely relaxing and can make it a part of their bedtime routine. Others find that it invigorates them. Find out which camp you belong to, and act accordingly.
- Ensure that you get both light and darkness. Think of your body as a machine. Light charges it and darkness drains it. During the day (or whenever it is that you have to work), expose yourself to natural light, f available, of course. During the night (or when you need to sleep), darken your environment. That includes screens too.
- Do NOT snooze. The snooze button is one of the worst things you can do for your sleep. Jump (or crawl) out of bed at the first alarm. This will be torturous for the first few days, but you will notice that you are much less grumpy in the morning.
- Accept your body’s natural timings. There is enough evidence to show that it is not healthy for everybody to get up at 5 a.m. (like all the CEOs in the world, apparently) and hit the bed at 8 p.m. Figure out when you are naturally the most alert and work around that.
Can I ‘bank’ my sleep?
A lot of us (most, I would say) get less sleep during the weekday and more on the weekends. On average, then, our sleep would be adequate.
However, research shows that subjects who cut their sleep down by five hours during the week but made up for it on the weekend with extra sleep (nullifying the sleep deficit) still paid a cost in terms of excess calorie intake after dinner, reduced energy expenditure, increased weight, and detrimental changes in how the body uses insulin. These subjects had broadly similar results to those who remained sleep-deprived across a weekend without catch-up sleep.
So, in short, weekend sleep-ins feel luxurious, but don’t do much in terms of making up for sleep-deprived workdays. What you need, is to consistently hit your minimum sleep requirements on most days, to reap the benefits.
What is the worst that will happen though?
Having a sleep deficit can have an impact on most areas of your life, apart from the usual ones like fatigue and irritability that you already know about:
- Can lead to a person taking longer to recover from illness
- Increased risk of chronic illness
- Sleep deprivation can also result in an increased risk of new and advanced respiratory diseases
- A lack of sleep can affect body weight
- Sleep deprivation can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and other serious illnesses like stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers
- Insufficient sleep can affect hormone production, including growth hormones and testosterone in men
- Decreased sex drive; relationship problems
- Premature skin aging
- Impaired motor skills and increased risk of accidents; hallucinations and delirium
Do I really need 9 hours?
Okay, let’s get to the point here. You want to not have all these major health problems, but is 9 whole hours of sleeping the only way?
According to the National Institute of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours per night. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? In reality, though, it’s a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation. Most adults need somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day.
However, the only way to find out how much you need is by experimenting. One good rule of thumb is to find out how much you sleep without being awoken by an alarm clock. This experiment, of course, is not to be performed when you are highly sleep-deprived and could potentially sleep for ten hours without waking up, in the body’s desperate attempt to restore itself. Another is, how much sleep makes you feel well-rested and energetic, without needing to nap during the day. But make sure that your magic number lies within the recommended range of 7 to 9 hours.
I found out long ago that I need at least 8 and ideally 9 hours of sleep to function at my peak. And that is true of a lot of people. So, instead of denying it and trying to condition my body into performing at 7 or 8 hours of sleep, I consider it the price for being high-performing the rest of the day. Instead of spending nights trying to catch up to assignments or getting through the syllabus before an examination, I sleep. In fact, I have even skipped portions of the syllabus altogether in favor of sleeping for an hour more. I know that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t even retain what I had studied. The cost-benefit analysis always falls to the side of sleep.
Does that mean that I never have late nights? No. But I ensure that those are exceptions — highly restricted exceptions. My boundaries are clear to all those who love me. You deliver a baby in the middle of the night? I’m there. You want to meet for a late dinner and post-dinner coffee? Yes, I would love to meet but let us do brunch instead. It isn’t about being stuck up or a bore, it is simply that skipping out on sleep ruins at least a couple of days for me. According to one study, it takes FOUR days to recover from just one hour of lost sleep. I simply don’t have that kind of time to waste trying to recover from a sleep hangover.
So what action points are you taking away from this? Let us recap quickly:
- Figure out when you are the most alert. This will give you your chronotype — whether you are a morning lark or a night own. Try and fit in a sleep schedule around this.
- Calculate how much sleep you need. This might take you a few days of experimenting.
- Schedule your sleep on your calendar.
- Group your urgent tasks in the morning and leave smaller unimportant ones for bedtime.
- Drop some tasks in order to sleep on time and adequately. Don’t worry, the cost-benefit works out.
- Make it a consistent habit, and communicate that to your loved ones.
Here’s cheering to a good night’s sleep for everyone!
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