(Originally appeared on https://www.daniellezeigler.com/blog/improve-productivity-happiness-sleep)
Sleep is important, we know that.
7-9 hours per night is supposedly the magic number, but who really gets that much each night? With back-back work meetings, business travel, catching up with friends/significant other, and getting groceries (to attempt to meal prep), I’m sure you’ve been able to manage on less than 7 hours of sleep.
But what if I told you getting “enough sleep” isn’t just important, it’s crucial for your immediate and long term health?
And what if you could actually get more done in a day if you slept longer?
Preposterous? Maybe not….
My new found relationship with sleep
A few years ago I was always exhausted in the evenings, no energy to do much of anything after working all day. I figured this was just due to tough 6am workouts followed by a day of work. But then the exhaustion every night led to a short temper, a consistently foggy mind, and just frustration with being tired all the time (even on weekends)!
I decided to start ignoring my alarm and wake-up “naturally”, when my body was ready to get up, not by blaring alarm. My new wake-up time became an hour later(!), yet I still managed to fit in my workout, work a full day, plus have the time and energy to enjoy my evenings (and not spend the weekends ‘catching up’ on sleep).
I was more enjoyable to be around and my brain became sharp again leading to success in my then, corporate career. Was this emotional and career success really the result of a little extra sleep each day?
On average the optimal length of sleep is 7-9 hours (1), meaning actual sleep not, “lying in your bed contemplating the world’s problems for an hour” type of sleep.
Now I’m sure you’re thinking, “7-9 hours of sleep is great, but I CAN operate just fine on 6 hours of sleep. I never feel sleepy and I am doing quite well for myself (I’m a smart gal!)”. Well consider this, only about 1% of the population can function properly with less than 6 hours of sleep (these people generally need 4-5 hours) (1). Maybe that’s not you…
The best way to find out how much sleep you actually need is to do what I stumbled upon, the natural sleep experiment. Go to bed when you’re tired and wake up when you feel rested (do not use an alarm clock!). And if you wake-up at 3am but don’t feel rested, go back to sleep until you do. You may be surprised that your optimal length is not 6 or even 7 hours, but rather 8 or 9. I now average 8.5 hours of sleep each night meaning I’m lying in bed for 9 hours.
So what if you consistently get less sleep than you’re optimal amount but you can function fine and never feel that sleepy…or nothing a cup of coffee can’t fix! Is it really that bad? Actually it can be….
Can you really get by on less sleep?
In a 2003 sleep study, participants had to sleep for a designated amount of time each night for 14 days. One group had to sleep for 4 hours, the second group for 6 hours, the third group for 8 hours, and the fourth group couldn’t sleep at all (but for 3 nights only). The results were intriguing.
They found that participants who slept under 8 hours per night (the 4 and 6 hour groups) performed considerably worse on cognitive tests than those who slept for the 8 hours. And these test results were equivalent to the results of the group that had no sleep for 2 nights!
What’s scarier is that moderate sleep restriction (i.e. any amount under your optimal amount) can impair your neuro-behavioral function that makes you feel “sleepy”. In other words, your body and mind are tired and performing at a poorer level, yet you don’t feel sleepy. (2)
As an ambitious woman, if you’re not operating at your full capacity each day, solving those complex business problems or coming up with creative ideas are going to be a lot harder.
In another study run in a similar fashion, they found the participants that had 7 hours of sleep or less also exhibited this cognitive decline. However after a few days of less than optimal sleep this decline stabilized.
This means that yes, your body does attempt to adjust to the restricted sleep but it does so at a lower cognitive level; a new “normal” (3).
This may explain why you feel “normal” after a few nights of little sleep but in fact you are functioning at a lower cognitive level! You may not even notice this performance change since the effects are gradual over a few days, plus your brain may suppress that “sleepy” or tired feeling. Sounds pretty terrible to me.
But wait, there’s more!
In that same study they found that the sleep deprived group (5 and 7 hours of sleep per night) still had not recovered to full brain operational capacity after 3 nights of normal sleep (8 hours). (3).
So no, you can’t just “catch up on sleep” on the weekends, it’ll take you longer than 3 days to get back to your best brainy-self. And another downside to restricting sleep, you may even feel physically ill (I know I do!) since sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as a disease or physical stress does (4).
Aside from not operating at your sharpest, short-term sleep deprivation (6 hours and less per night) also impairs your judgment, makes you retain fat, and is harder for your body to repair itself after a workout. And in the long term? Your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia are significantly greater (6).
Increased Sleep= Increased Productivity
Wow! All of those consequences just for skipping out on precious sleep. Not just does it affect your health but also your daily performance at work and life. Let’s move on to the more positive stuff…
Can we actually get more done in a day whilst getting more sleep?
I know it worked for me, but let’s look at some science behind it.
Improved Problem Solving
Aside from letting our bodies and brains recover from the day, sleep also helps us create new brain cells (4) and consolidate and make connections across the info we received during the day (7). With a refreshed brain you can draw on those creative juices and develop that new product you’ve been stuck on.
Or perhaps you were trying to solve a complicated business problem today? Get a good night’s sleep and overnight your brain can make the connections it needs to in order to solve it!
Move and Think Quicker
In those previous studies it was also found that restricted sleep resulted in slower reaction time (3). If you get less than 7 hours of sleep you’re operating at a lower cognitive level and have a slower reaction time, so think how quickly your body and brain will move when you’re well rested!
You may have a never-ending “to do” list for the day, but at your cognitive-best your brain will help you conquer that list in the smartest and most efficient way!
I know this works for me, I now have the energy and brain power to strategize and complete my to-do list every day with some spare time for a good book (or Netflix).
At work, think how valuable faster reaction time is. Quicker and smarter responses to tough questions can save you during a business meeting or proposal.
This point is my favourite and I don’t think we need scientific studies (although there is some) to figure out that more sleep equals a better mood. And we know happiness leads to so many positive outcomes in life (given the amount of books written on happiness as of late)!
One study found that getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night results in higher self-esteem and optimism. (9) We know confidence is needed to succeed in business, so what better way to build that than with high self-esteem! I know my happy demeanor at work (and life) definitely played a role in me getting that job promotion.
Investing in sleep is investing in your happiness and success.
How can we sleep more to be crazy productive and happy?
Not getting enough sleep is terrible but getting those additional hours of sleep is easier said than done. So where do we start?
What’s 1 thing you can cut down by 15 minutes in order to get to bed earlier or sleep in later?
Do that for the entire week. Then try to add another 15 minutes of sleep time until you reach your optimal amount of sleep each night.
This is just one simple way to add in more sleep.
You may need to rearrange your schedule slightly which can be a bit of a pain at first. Soon you’ll get into a groove and getting 7-9 hours will become a breeze!
Remember, an extra 15, 30, or 60+ minutes of sleep is a small sacrifice compared to an entire day of low productivity and energy.
(7) The Idiot Brain – Dean Burnett (2016)