Why Getting Enough Sleep Makes You Smarter
I used to think sleep was for wimps. After all, being an insomniac throughout my teens, twenties and up until my early thirties meant I had more time for socializing, reading and getting things done. Until the day that attitude came back to kick me in the butt. I stayed up late arguing with the guy in my life at the time and then, when my brain wouldn’t calm down, watched a movie until about 4:00 a.m. Was super groggy when I arose a few hours later.
Hardly anyone worked from home back in those days, and I had to drive into the office. Arrived at my desk to see the reminder about an important meeting with financial analysts to talk about the company I worked for, which had just gone public. For context, numbers aren’t my thing. I knew our Chief Financial Officer would be doing most of the talking, but as the head of communications, I had to sound relatively intelligent about our brand image. And boy, was that a stretch. Nearly nodded off four or five times in the meeting, as every mention of EBITDA or dividends was akin to taking a shot of Nyquil.
After it ended, I made a lame excuse about not feeling well and dashed home. The incident didn’t permanently damage my career, but I sure felt like an idiot — and it changed the importance I put on sleep moving forward.
Over the years, I could see how getting enough shut eye seemed to make me smarter and more productive. Then a few years ago, I read this really compelling Harvard Business Review article about the proven link between effective leadership and sleep.
Citing research reported in the Occupational & Environmental Medicine Journal, Nick van Dam, McKinsey’s global chief learning officer, and sleep expert Els van der Helm, wrote that moderate sleep deprivation, which they define as about 17–19 hours of wakefulness, individual performance on range of tasks is equal to that of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which is the legal drinking limit in many countries. Yikes!
You see, the brain’s prefrontal cortex directs what psychologists call executive functioning, including all the higher-order cognitive processes, such as problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, and executing plans. As the authors explain, while other brain areas can cope relatively well with too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. Basic visual and motor skills deteriorate when people are deprived of sleep, but not nearly to the same extent as higher-order mental skills. A good night of sleep is essential for effectively solving problems, seeking out different perspectives, increased engagement and supporting others — the very skills needed for effective leadership at work or in any part of our lives.
These days, getting enough sleep is a top priority for me. I average at least seven hours most nights and on the weekends that gets closer to eight. If I don’t get enough sleep, I will reschedule my early morning workouts for later in the day. Besides boosting my brain power, sleeping well also helps me eat healthier and feel more balanced overall.
How to Get Better Sleep
Tried counting sheep or drinking a warm glass of milk, but still having a hard-time getting to sleep at night? Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have found that about 25 percent of Americans experience acute insomnia each year. However, sleepless nights don’t have to be your norm. Here are 5 ways to get a better night of sleep by taking a few steps to plan ahead:
1. Kick your smart phone out of the bedroom.
You aren’t doing yourself any favors by texting non-stop before bedtime. Blue spectrum light from devices triggers daytime hormones and suppresses melatonin, plus they emit radiation that can disrupt sleep. If you prefer to read books or check social feeds from tablets or your phone, at least check out apps that are blue light blockers. Ideally though, it’s better for your bedtime routine to keep devices out of sight, out of mind.
Monitoring a crisis situation or expecting an important call? Motivational speaker and television personality Mel Robbins has compromised by moving her smart phone nearby into the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom. That way she doesn’t miss a last-minute call from news shows asking for commentary on breaking situations, but it doesn’t disrupt her shut eye as the rule.
2. Create a sleep sanctuary.
According to experts at Mii Amo Destination Spa in Sedona, Arizona, you can start creating a sleep sanctuary by keeping work out of the bedroom, add fresh air whenever possible and adding plants to naturally soak up toxins. They recommend keeping your bedroom cool; the optimum room temperature for sleep is 60–68 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, sleeping in total darkness is best since light in your bedroom suppresses melatonin. Hey, I’m a believer. Using a sleep mask has improved the quality and consistency of my slumber.
3. Develop consistent bedtime rituals.
Creating a regular pre-bedtime routine tells your body it is time to start shifting into sleep mode. Keeping near that same schedule, even on weekends, will help you fall asleep easier. Can’t fall asleep sometimes because your mind never shuts down? Plan to take things down a notch at least an hour or two before your desired bedtime. Some people use meditation apps or listen to bedtime stories for grownups. Others drink hot drink teas or take supplements like valerian or melatonin that can help you relax and welcome shut-eye.
4. Be mindful about beverage consumption.
Since caffeine impacts the nervous and endocrine system, consider cutting back on highly caffeinated drinks by early afternoon. REM sleep is disrupted when there is alcohol in your system, so experts advise to stop drinking at least three hours before bed and drink a cup of water for every cup of alcohol in your system. Watch late night water consumption too though. Try to get your minimum of eight glasses a day in early and mainly sip water during the evening so you don’t wake up constantly to relieve a full bladder.
5. Avoid post-dinner snacking.
One of my fondest memories of freshman year of college was being able to order pizza after midnight, usually after drinking at a party — no wonder I doubled the typical “Freshman 15” weight gain within six months. Nutritionists recommend not eating at least two to three hours before bedtime to promote healthy digestion, avoid heartburn and get a better night of sleep. Super hungry and it won’t pass? Then pick a light, easily digestible snack like a banana and avoid intensive snacking.
Feeling jealous whenever you see a meme of a hibernating bear or Snow White waking up from a great night of slumber, what with the birds and other cute animals helping her get dressed in the morning? Okay, that is weirdly specific, but that meme makes me want to take a nap every time. The point is sleep is great for your mind and your body. Getting enough slumber will improve your well-being in so many ways, so make it a top priority.
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