Updated: Oct 1, 2019
We need to change the way that we talk about sleep.
Our cultural attitude to sleep has come to a bizarre crossroads. On the one hand, there's more interest than ever in talking about sleep. There's plenty of data and studies establishing that sleep is essential to our health and performance. Our society has all the gadgets and apps that we could ever need to help us sleep (slightly ironic, seeing as technology is a major culprit in terms of disrupting sleep ...). But still, we don't value sleep like we should. It's partially due to a lack of information, but there's a bigger problem ingrained in our culture and our habits. Even if you have the information and the tools, there's a lingering feeling that you just don't have time to sleep longer or to change your habits to promote better sleep. We're all too busy, too important, too distracted, too connected, too ambitious.
I've seen it time and time again at university and in offices among senior staff and aspiring young professionals. There's almost a sense of superiority attached to claims of consistently little sleep. We tend to accept that it's an admirable trait to trade in sleep for tasks.
And it's easy to neglect sleep. The health and fitness paradigm centres on training and nutrition. But sleep is often the missing link in the chain for fat loss, muscle gain, strength and performance.
If you consistently short change your sleep, you're settling for functioning at less than your best.
You won't be fully alert or able to maintain peak concentration. You float through the motions of each day.
You'll be more susceptible to emotional mayhem, and little problems appear as big ones.
You find it more difficult to handle problems, make decisions and think creatively.
You can't be bothered doing things, even things that you usually like to do.
You can't seem to form and retain memories properly. It's like information sifts through your head.
Sleep is a natural thing. Your body should be able to sleep. If your ability to sleep changes - for example, if your sleep is fragmented, longer or shorter than normal, or you feel more fatigued after the same amount of sleep than you normally do, etc. - and this persists for a period of time (ie, it's not just a one off that can be explained), then that's a cue to stop and consider the reason behind it.
Is it your patterns and environment at night? Do you have pre-bed habits that sabotage your sleep?
Do you have trouble switching off your mind when it's time for sleep? How often have you had trouble falling asleep because your mind wouldn't stop racing, thinking of all the things that you want or need to do? Do you ever feel 'tired but wired'?
Is it your circumstances? Do you feel stressed about something, or mentally preoccupied
What's your diet like? Could you be deficient in nutrients that promote sleep?
What's your training like at the moment? Do you feel jittery and fidgety after training? Can you calm your mind and body to enable sleep?
Sleep time is not 'lost' time
'If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.'
- Allan Rechtschaffen, University of Chicago sleep researcher.
Sleep is not empty time. It's a rich time for our brains and bodies to repair and refresh. While we sleep, we repair neurons, consolidate memories and cleanse and reset chemicals in the brain. This directly impacts so many things, from our ability to learn, appetite, immune function and even our mood. This 'behind the scenes' maintenance of the brain happens when we sleep because when we're awake, our brain is too busy. If we don't sleep properly, we disrupt this clean up phase.
Our culture neglects sleep
Sleep deprivation is oddly glamourised: for example, 'I'll sleep when I'm dead', 'You snooze you lose.' This attitude is ingrained in our culture - from universities, to huge companies and entrepreneurs.
'I am slammed' translates into 'I am important'.
'I work long hours' means 'I am in demand'.
On the flip side, sleeping in and napping are symbols of luxury and laziness.
This culture is dangerous and unstable. It promotes frenetic attempts to multi-task, grind and ignore your fatigue. It feeds on our ambition, our desire to 'keep up' and today's FOMO culture - that time is money, an hour of work is an hour of productive work, and leisure time is wasted time. In other words, sleep is dispensable.
Why does society treat missed sleep as a status symbol? There's many CEOs, political leaders and athletes that semi-brag about their long hours and scant sleep. It suggests that you must sacrifice sleep to succeed. This attitude is both ignorant and irresponsible. That person may choose to (semi) function on consistently little sleep to accomplish things. But it's certainly not ideal, and it's not healthy for the vast majority of people. Sure, sometimes you may have periods of less sleep than you'd ideally like due to a temporary demand on your time or mind. That's life. It's different to treating sleep as if it's optional. There's a social delusion that it's ok to function on 6, 5 or even 4 hours of sleep rather than 7 or 8 if you need to. But all of the scientific evidence tells us that this isn't true.
'Every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired.'
- Former President Bill Clinton.
Changing your attitude to prioritise sleep
Here's four simple tips you can apply to put your sleep first.
1. Conduct an honest self-assessment. Is the quality of your sleep really up to scratch? If you often cut your sleep short, sleep poorly or feel fatigued, your body may not register that it's tired because it's so used to it. It becomes your normal.
2. Realise that it's contradictory to consistently prioritise other things ahead of sleep. It's a lose lose. A lack of sleep compromises your ability to think clearly, learn information and skills, recover and adapt to training, and handle your emotions. Even if I'm completely absorbed in a task, I know that I can't work at my best if I cut sleep. I notice the brain fog on just one night of less than 7 hours sleep. I miss things if I'm even just a little tired. Imagine what you might miss if your mind is constantly in a haze of sleep deprivation? It's not about the number of hours worked - it's about blocks of productive work. More time worked does not equal more productive time worked. Does it really make sense to sit in front of your computer in a daze for 8 hours if you could complete the same task in 4 hours if you're fresh?
3. Be vigilant and call out your habits that nudge your bed time later, or interrupt your sleep. This requires more than just good intentions. If you don't put in place deliberate and actionable steps to prioritise your sleep, it will inevitably take the back seat. The usual suspects here are phones, tablets, laptops and social media feeds. Social media is a common culprit - it combines blue light and clever feeds programmed to put your mind on high alert.
4. Be realistic. If you have a big project, a huge event or you're under pressure, there's going to be times that you're completely in the zone and it starts to creep into your sleep time. That's reality. If turning off your analytical brain is an issue, think ahead and set boundaries to protect your sleep. It's all a matter of shifting your perspective. Focus on prioritising quality sleep so that you're mentally fresh and better able to make decisions and retain information each day, rather than adding another hour (and then another, and another) to your evening.
'Never waste any time you could spend sleeping'.
- Frank Knight, Cofounder of the Chicago School of Economics.
The take home message
Rather than resist sleep and rest and try to reduce it to the bare minimum, we should embrace it and view it as an essential prerequisite for our ability to get things done.