Why You Need to Make Sleep a Priority


Why You Need to Make Sleep a Priority

What if I told you that I rarely use an alarm clock and usually sleep around 8 hours a night?

Would you get the impression that I’m way too laid-back or relaxed about getting things done and that I must be wasting time? Or would you perhaps think the exact opposite, that I’m giving myself the best chance to reach my potential?

Sleeping long hours can seem like a luxury when running or working in a small business. On the other hand, staying up late, waking up early, and thus missing out on sleep due to work commitments is often seen as a sign of a great work ethic.

Some people I know actually take pride in regularly taking 6 am flights to see their interstate clients and working 8-10 solid hours running interviews and workshops on the same day. No doubt, they are committed to giving 100%. But are they making the smartest choice about how they use their time and energy?

Here are a few tips to challenge your thinking around productivity and help you make sleep a priority.

Sleep is transformative.

During sleep, while we’re lying motionless and seemingly idle, a great deal of physiological and neurological changes occur in our bodies which are not only preserving our health but also getting us ready to perform to our optimum after we wake.

Sleeping impacts our ability to concentrate, think clearly and creatively and communicate effectively. It influences our capacity to solve problems, learn new information and recall from memory.

Our mood and emotional intelligence are also affected; for example, we tend to be more level-headed, optimistic and empathic when feeling well rested, and more anxious, inflexible and irritable when we are sleep-deprived.

Interestingly, the lack of sleep impacts our cognitive abilities in similar ways of consuming alcohol. Our reaction time slows down drastically, and we struggle to focus and make intelligent decisions.

Can we push through?

Nonetheless, we often overestimate our ability to push through. After all, with our discipline and willpower, we should be able to overcome such banal set-backs as having one or a few short nights.

I’m also guilty of this at times. For example, I’d put way too much on my to-do list for those few days recently when my sleep pattern would inevitably be disrupted by jet lag. Now I find myself behind schedule; in fact, I planned to write this article a week ago.

True, it’s certainly possible to act like a warrior for brief periods, perhaps with the help of caffeine or adrenaline, ignoring our biological needs.

Working under time pressure is already the norm, but certain jobs really can’t wait, and then we need to push ourselves hard. Which comes at a cost.

I have even found myself in situations where I felt I was being tested if I was able to perform feeling tired, groggy and spaced out. (I’m sure you know this unpleasant state which sometimes lingers on for a couple of days after a severely disrupted night.) Although I did manage to impress most of the time, a come down sooner or later was inevitable.

Several unproductive days followed, with long hours spent procrastinating, shuffling things around, or staring at the screen blankly while binging on chocolate. Once I recovered and evaluated my overall performance for the previous week, with some highs but mostly lows, the results didn’t look good.

No shortcuts.

Studies show that the vast majority of people need 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.

While good habits and lifestyle choices – such as healthy diet, exercise, meditation and other restorative breaks – can certainly help maintain our physical and mental energy, none of these can substitute for quality sleep time.

Sleeping in on weekends to pay off some of our sleep debt accumulated during a hectic week is not a great option either; this habit can even disrupt our circadian rhythm and do more harm than good, as shown by research.

There are no shortcuts. No other creature in nature willfully deprives themselves of sleeping, which is worth contemplating.

My take is that instead of trying to trade some bedtime for productive time, most likely in vain, we’re better off appreciating the innate intelligence of human physiology. Although sleeping is still not fully understood by science, we know that whatever happens to our minds and bodies while we snooze is an incredible gift.

For the sake of our health, wellbeing and performance, we need to make sleep a priority, challenge the stigma around sleeping long hours and have a hard look at how we evaluate work performance and define work ethic.

Sleep more, achieve more.

I’m fully aware that this idea of sleeping more – and consequently working fewer hours – in order to improve our work performance sounds counterintuitive. We’re stretched thin, and some of us can’t even remember the last time when we were able to stay in bed as much as we really needed.

After spending less time sitting in front of your screen and more time doing other things you love, and feeling happier, healthier and more relaxed, you will actually sleep better.

Once you start to prioritise sleep (if you haven’t done that already), I’m convinced that you’ll start to see some results. Instead of working long hours for diminishing returns, you’ll find it easier to get on a roll, and likely achieve more in a day than you have in the past.  

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