I’ve always been a champion of sleep, as I know that I’m nowhere near as good without enough of it. No one is. It doesn’t matter how powerful, how successful, or how smart you are.
But when I read recent statistics released by the American Psychological Association (APA) about America’s sleep habits, I surmised that most of us either flat out don’t believe in sleep’s cure-all powers, or we just don’t know where else to steal the time. We are shaving hours off our nights to keep up, routinely cutting back on the very thing that has the power to make us healthier and more productive.
The APA reported that most adults sleep 6.7 hours a night on average—not the recommended 7 to 9 hours per night—and only 20 percent of people say that their sleep quality is good or excellent. So not only are we not getting enough—80 percent of us think the sleep we are getting could be a whole lot better. Even more staggering is that although we know this, nearly 50% of people worldwide continue to report that they experience sleep deprivation.
Sleep is proven to be a magic elixir that can prevent all manner of physical, mental, and emotional maladies—and even arm you with more momentum and mental acuity during your waking hours. So what really happens when you don’t get to bed?
Your Life On Too Little Sleep
Research has shown that even short-term sleep loss slows cognitive performance and diminishes creativity. Long term, studies show that we put ourselves at risk of depression, obesity, and heart disease when we don’t get sufficient Z’s. Sleep regulates every system in the body (which you can read more about here). Without enough of it, your health along with everything else in your life takes a pretty immediate hit.
It’s clear that our culture still rewards burning the candle at both ends, and we mistakenly think we can outsmart our own bodies by skimping on sleep to achieve more. Believe me, I know that the pull to do more can be overwhelming. I struggle myself with shutting down my laptop and detaching from my phone when it’s time to close up shop for the night. But when we don’t, we face much more than just tiredness. We become less effective at leading our lives. (Read about the signs of burnout.)
Case in point: Arianna Huffington, who has bravely gone public with a story that will make you reconsider how you define success, recapped her sleep wake-up call in this compelling interview with Marie Forleo. Left with a broken cheekbone and five stitches over her right eye from an exhaustion-induced fall, the president and editor in chief of The Huffington Post Media Group had an epiphany. What did any of her work matter if she wasn’t alive and healthy?
The Stress and Sleep Connection
Your sleep deficit might not land you in an emergency room right away, but it will quickly short-change your ability to cope with life. Statistically, adults who get less than eight hours a night are more easily overwhelmed, irritated, and impatient in their everyday lives. They also feel less focused and engaged at work. There’s no denying it: When you’re slack-jawed, slumped over your desk and staring blankly at your screen, you’re a mere shadow of your well-rested self. This is not the image any of us has of success.
Sacrificing sleep to get more done is downright risky—sleeping four or five hours a night for a week is akin to having a blood alcohol level of .1%. Would you want a perpetually intoxicated person running your life for even a day?
How Your Job Influences Your Sleep
When we know better, you think we’d do better. Yet part of it is a leadership issue. Many businesses haven’t caught up with the fact that work-life balance policies don’t just help employees—they actually boost the bottom line by increasing productivity and decreasing absenteeism and sick leave.
Research bolsters the case for policy changes in our workforce: Harvard professor and neuroscientist Orfeo Buxton found that employees whose managers support work-life balance had better sleep habits and reported less job strain than their less supported counterparts. If your boss is overscheduling you or expecting 24/7 communication, you may have to work toward setting some boundaries.
Prime Yourself for Better Sleep—No Matter Your Situation
There’s a lot we can do in our own lives to make sleep a priority—we need not wait for permission from anyone other than ourselves. First things first, let’s all stop wearing our exhaustion as a badge of honor! Once you stop flashing that badge, here’s some advice on how to boost your sleep quality and duration.
1. Know how much you ARE getting. Our sleep occurs in 90-minute cycles—and the best night’s rest happens when you avoid interrupting them. Several websites and apps can help you calculate your optimal bedtime and wake-up time—check out sleepyti.me. You could also use a sleep tracker (I use Jawbone) to monitor your sleep quality; based on the kind of sleep I had, I reprioritize my tasks the following day and either double down (if I slept deeply) or put off what can wait (if I tossed and turned).
2. Make your bed a device-free zone. Your bed should feel like a sanctum, not an extension of your office. Keep your phone, laptop, and other devices away from where you sleep and you’ll notice it’s easier to drift off. (Read more on what to do before bed to sleep more soundly.)
3. Let some things go. It’s crazy-making to think you can and should achieve every goal you’ve ever had. Take a cue from Arianna and “complete a project by dropping it.” Certain things will not get done. You might not ever speak fluent French. That’s just fine!
And when you feel anxious about putting a project to bed for the night, keep in mind that it’s not just your health that stands to gain from better sleep habits—it’s your mood, your career, your family, really your entire life.