“In my long political career,” Bill Clinton told a post-presidency audience, “most of the mistakes I made, I made when I was too tired. Too many members of the Congress in both parties are sleep deprived. It clouds your judgment, and it undermines your ability to be relaxed and respectful in dealing with your adversaries.”
Great, the US government is run by people who don’t get enough sleep.
A bravado culture of sleep deprivation
Actually, in the frenetic pace of our 24/7 world, sleep is one of the first things many of us are willing to sacrifice in order to get more done. A Wall Street trader goes to bed at 11 or midnight and wakes up at 2:30 am to track opening activity on the German stock exchange. M&A lawyers work through the night, go to a nearby hotel in the morning instead of going home and come back to the office after a few hours of sleep.
Working parents with young children deal with reduced and interrupted sleep. No wonder Starbucks has a secret menu that includes the “Red Eye” and “Black Eye” coffee drinks with extra shots of espresso.
Die young and fat
Despite our attempts at denial, however, the reality is that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a serious toll. Getting less than the eight hours of sleep on a regular basis as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation affects:
- physical health — leading to digestive disorders, high blood pressure, weakened immune systems and weight gain (lack of sleep interferes with your leptin levels, the hormone that tells you when to stop eating), just to name a few.
- mental functioning – i.e. your ability to concentrate, retain information, solve problems and make good judgments (sleep improves split-second decision-making by 4.3%).
- not to mention, quality of life (unless you enjoy being cranky, irritable and hyper-sensitive).
Great performers understand this, and typically, they sleep significantly more than the rest of us. In Anders Ericcson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 ½ hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap. And according to this infographic, pro athletes sleep 9 – 12 hours a day (with Tiger Woods as a glaring exception — and we know what kind of questionable judgment calls he makes!).
How to get started
1. Go to bed earlier. An obvious one, yes. It’s no easier to go to bed earlier now than when we were kids begging our parents to let us stay up just a little longer (but probably easier than getting up earlier). So start off modestly: aim to get to bed 15 minutes earlier and incrementally move your bedtime earlier from there.
2. Take time to wind down. About 30-45 minutes beforehand, turn off the computer or TV and avoid activities that require alert thinking. If you find your mind racing, grab a pad of paper and jot down what’s occupying you.
3. Sleep in complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light can disrupt your internal clock. Make sure any LED lights are covered or turned away and there’s no light coming through the windows.
Have you successfully changed your sleep habits? Please share in the comments below!