This is the section on sleep from my book Create Space that addresses the importance of sleep and how to get a good night’s rest.
I want to return to the issue of sleep. I have found, again and again, that it is an underlying factor in all sorts of performance issues. Without adequate rest, and a feeling of being refreshed, you won’t be able to make use of any space that you create to think, do or connect because you will not have the energy or presence to do so. If you are wired, and pushing on through exhaustion you will think poorly, not deliver to your best and neglect and let people down.
I worked once with a high-flying executive called Philippe who felt that one thing holding him back was that other people were able to get into the office before him, so were more visible and able to deliver more. He had tried getting up really early, but after a few weeks had felt shattered and had gone back to his usual sleeping habits.
First I outlined to him the consensus research on sleep – most people need a good eight hours sleep but some need a little more and others less. Some very rare people need a lot less. The former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, famously slept only four hours a night, and it didn’t seem to dim her focus or productivity. However, most of us aren’t like Maggie and, in the long run, having less than your own, individually required quota of sleep is unsustainable. It isn’t about ‘will power’ or tricks and techniques, it’s about what your body needs.
Philippe said that he felt he needed to sleep until 7.30 am at the latest. He said he went to bed ‘around 11 pm’. I asked him to keep a detailed sleep diary (you can see this in full in my book). I also asked him to let himself sleep in at the weekend and wake up naturally. (His wife wasn’t so pleased about this but she agreed to help in the end, for the purposes of research). Overall, he said he felt OK, but was a bit tired by Friday, and actually quite refreshed by the end of the weekend.
So as not to draw conclusions based on just one example, I had him repeat the experiment for the next three weeks. The results were basically the same. I suggested that the diary indicated that he needed about 8½ hours of sleep. This was how long he slept at the weekend if he didn’t set his alarm. If we added up his sleeping time during the working week he was getting about 15 per cent less sleep than he needed.
Some experts say that sleep is as important as breathing to our metabolism. Imagine if you were getting 15 per cent less oxygen than you need. If you’ve ever climbed up a really high mountain you’ll know the effects of altitude sickness – symptoms akin to flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a bad hangover.
Wetalked a bit about how he spent his time before going to sleep, and he recognised that it was less about what he needed to do, or even enjoyed doing, and more about what he was used to doing. His night-time routine was not a choice he had consciously made; it was just a habit.
This exercise provided the space Philippe needed to become aware of what he was doing and to rethink things. He set out to create a new habit. First he needed a clear goal. He decided he wanted to get up a full hour earlier so he could extend his working day. He also accepted his need to have 8½ hours sleep a night. Seemingly impossibly conflicting goals? Not really. He committed to switching everything off and going to sleep at 11 pm every night. This meant that he still had two hours after the kids were settled down to do some tidying, look at Facebook and watch a TV show, or even a movie. It took about a month for him to get used to this new routine but with perseverance and discipline he did it.
Some other strategies are: establish a regular bedtime and routine, and try to go to bed and wake up at a similar time each day; lower the temperature of your room by a couple of degrees (the ideal room temperature is thought to be 20º Celsius); acknowledge that caffeine interferes with REM sleep so monitor the effect that it has on you (lots of people find it messes with their sleep ifdrunk after 3 pm, but figure out what works for you); finally, consider turning screens off an hour before bed – not only is this good for your mind (giving it time to wind down so you won’t go to bed so wired), but you also lessen exposure to the blue light from the screens which inhibits the release of sleep-inducing hormones. If you must look at a laptop screen in the evenings, install a red light removal app, such as f.lux.
When I spoke to Philippe a few months later he said his new routine now came completely naturally and he felt more refreshed and energised at work. He could even go out late one night in the week and still get up at his usual time without feeling too bad. Just by becoming aware of his patterns and habits, and committing to a quite small change in behaviour, he had literally created significantly more space in his life.
Ask yourself: Did I sleep well last night? Deep down, in my bones, how tired am I right now? What is my night-time regime – and why? What would I like my sleep goals to be? How am I going to make that happen?