The Counterintuitive Series 1: “Sleep your way to the top” Arianna Huffington

In our hyper-competitive, 24/7, productivity-obsessed world, not only has sleep become a dirty word but lack of sleep has become a sign of virility.  Comparing notes at the water cooler on how little sleep we got the night before, what time we worked til and how early we got up for our morning tennis game are commonly considered signs of success, power and wealth.  Rumours abound of the limited sleep our leaders require.  Margaret Thatcher famously got by on 4 hours sleep a night, while ex Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was dubbed Kevin 24/7 for his round-the-clock ‘work ethic’.  Conversely, sleeping a full 8 hours, or heaven-forbid, taking a mid-afternoon nap, are considered almost criminally lazy.

I became extremely, in fact obsessively, interested in sleep after three years of deprivation when our son was born.  Those late night feeds, broken nights and desperately early mornings, at a bare minimum impacted my productivity (like I cared!) but far more importantly, my temperament, my mental health, my physical wellbeing and my relationships with all those close to me. I was writing off days, months and years of my life where I was feeling anywhere from ‘slightly under-the-weather’ to ‘complete zombie unfit to interact with the world’.  Oh, and I put on weight because I often turned to food for energy and had no resistance to temptation.

When I heard Richard Wiseman interviewed on the radio about his book ‘Night School’ therefore, I promptly pulled over, hopped online, bought it and have been implementing his strategies to great effect ever since.  I’ve included some quotes of his below, but I highly recommend grabbing a copy of the book for the good stuff.  It’s an extremely entertaining as well as educational read. Night School

Let’s start with some facts about the impact of sleep deprivation on the world.

“Increased workloads, twenty four hour a day media, and permanent Internet access has combined to create a world that now never sleeps.  The statistics are staggering, with surveys revealing that a third of both British and American adults do not get the sleep that they need, and that the vast majority of children arrive at school overtired.  In 2010 British doctors issued more than fifteen million prescriptions for sleeping pills, and around one in ten adults now regularly take some form of sleep-related medication.”

And now for the serious stuff which gets fleshed out in detail later in the book:

“The epidemic of sleep deprivation is having a catastrophic impact on our lives.  Around a quarter of drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel, and fatigue is responsible for thousands of fatal road accidents each year.” (Wiseman later discusses a similar level of fatal accidents with medication and surgery as a result of sleep deprivation in hospitals).  “Poor sleeping habits also reduce productivity, prevent learning, disrupt relationships, cramp creative thinking and sap self-control……. Some of the latest research suggests that poor sleep in adults is also associated with depression and obesity, and may cause children to exhibit many of the symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Worst of all, even a small lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on health, and is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and an early death.”

And of course, antithetically, the benefits of a good night's sleep, are multi-fold. Not only are almost every type of sickness or ailment improved with consistently good sleep, but you look better, feel better, are more productive and have better relationships. There's a wonderfully simple and comprehensive list of benefits here: The Sleep Judge I'm beginning to think that Daft Punk's song "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" is in fact an ode to sleeping well.

The fact that sleep deprivation has become a competitive sport among adults doesn’t help us, but far worse is the instilling of that philosophy in our kids. I was horrified to read in Carl Honore’s phenomenal book ‘Under Pressure’ about “rescuing our kids from hyper-parenting” that there’s a saying among school children in Korea “4 hours sleep pass, 5 hours sleep fail”. It’s a phenomenon taking over the world.  In 2013 Boston College examined the educational attainment and sleep habits of almost one million pupils from more than fifty countries.  Overall nearly HALF of the children needed more sleep.  America topped the ‘sleep deprived’ league table with 80% of 13 and 14 year olds not getting enough sleep.  Competing for the crown were pupils from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia and England.  The issue was especially severe in more affluent countries, with researchers speculating that this was due to excessive use of mobile phones and computers late at night.

Leaving aside the impact on our children’s well-being and marks and returning to the world of adults, media mogul Arianna Huffington calls herself a ‘sleep evangilist’ as a result of a wake-up call (no pun intended!) she experienced after a serious accident resulting from sleep deprivation.  This, from one of her many articles on the subject:

“There’s practically no aspect of life that’s not improved by sleep and, accordingly, diminished by lack of sleep.…….Creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, decision-making; all of these can be enhanced simply by sleeping more. “Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions,” say Dr Stuart Quan and Dr Russell Sanna, from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. “The combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance.” They also point out that lack of sleep was a “significant factor” in the Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.”

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Thinking we can cheat the system and train ourselves into less sleep does not work. Countless experiments unofficially at home and officially in sleep labs have been tried.  There’s only one answer.  To maximise your performance at work, at sport, at life, get the sleep you need.  Get a good night’s sleep at night and take a nap during the day if you can (for 20 minutes between 1.00-3.00 when your circadian rhythm is in a natural trough).  And if you’re still not convinced that a nap is appropriate, consider some of the great thinkers and leaders who were renowned nappers:  Winston Churchill, Lyndon Johnston, Napoleon Bonaparte, John F Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Ronald Regan, Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci.

Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of simple tips online about getting a better night’s sleep.  I love the stuff that MindBodyGreen do with their top 6-10 tips on every topic ever known to man. 

Below is their top 10 on sleeping summarised.  

More here: MindBodyGreen, or you can find a cute video of Wiseman’s top 10 here: Amazing Tips To Improve Your Sleep 

  1. Keep a consistent schedule – try to get to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day
  2. Take a nap during the day – (as above)
  3. Increase your exposure to natural light – get outside for a walk at lunchtime if you can
  4. Naturally boost your melatonin at night – all electronics off at least an hour before bed. The light supresses your natural melatonin. Try relaxing music or a guided meditation instead
  5. Make your bedroom more inviting and calm – to the best of your ability keep it dark, keep it quiet and get the temperature of your bedding right. A dab of lavender oil on a tissue by your bed is helpful
  6. Eat dinner early – a heavy, late dinner takes a lot of digesting
  7. Cut down on caffeine – water and herbal teas from midday on
  8. Get moving – 30 mins a day of exercise during the day works wonders for a good night’s sleep
  9. Relaxing and deep breathing – deep breathing relaxes your body as does a ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ technique, tightening then relaxing the major muscles in your body from your feet up
  10. Don’t stress – if worries are playing on your mind, jot them down on a notepad and remind yourself there’s nothing productive you can do about them now and that you’re more likely to come up with a good solution in the morning.  More often than not you’ll wake up with an idea.

The critical thing is to simply take it seriously.  Buck the trend.  Think counter-intuitively.  Stop listening to a society that tells you you can do more if you sleep less.  If you don’t trust your gut reaction to this idea, trust the science that says the quality of your work and productivity is vastly improved by consistently good sleep and maybe try a scientific experiment in your life for a month prioritising sleep and see what happens. Get in touch and let me know how you go. 

Sleep well. Be well. Good night.

PS Since the writing of this blog, I came across a nice article on the subject of sleep in Time Magazine here: 

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