6 Things I Learned in My Sleepless Year

How regularly losing sleep impacted my life, work, and relationships

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As a busy social entrepreneur, my self-care rituals are what keep me sane, healthy, and able to work towards my mission with purpose and focus. Like so many of us today, my daily schedule is packed wall-to-wall with travel, meetings, work engagements, family commitments and social activities—and on good days, I thrive in my dynamic lifestyle.

But it takes work for me to stay grounded. Amid the chaos, daily meditation, diaphragm breathing, mindfulness check-ins, and aromatherapy keep me focused and better able to handle stress. I eat well, exercise often, take supplements, and rely on a therapist, trainer, acupuncturist, and life coach to keep my mental, physical, and spiritual health in check. 

But, as we’re increasingly hearing from experts, the greatest of all self-care rituals is sleep. And for me, it also happens to be the hardest one.

I learned about the immeasurable value of sleep—and how horrible it feels not to get enough—when I wrote my first book (which is all about the power of authenticity, so you can count on my authenticity here!). For nearly a full year, juggling a rigorous writing schedule with running my consulting firm and trying to maintain a healthy personal life left me, in a word, exhausted. To fit it all in, I worked very long hours—which meant sleeping only 4-6 hours a night and pulling all-nighters 3-4 times per month.

Ironically, I was writing a book about well-being, which draws on my experiences and expertise as a leadership, diversity, and mindfulness professional. And yet, I struggled to maintain my own well-being when the foundational building block of sleep was removed. It’s well known that lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on the body and mind, but during this time, I learned a few personal lessons about why quality sleep—and enough of it—is a non-negotiable for me.

1. When I’m sleep deprived, it’s harder to be mindful. Mindfulness is all about present awareness, and when I’m tired, I’m far less able to be present. It’s nearly impossible to stay in the moment when you’re fighting to focus from one moment to the next. When I am teaching mindfulness, I encourage others to make use of present moment awareness throughout the day, but when I was losing sleep, my own rituals were very hard to maintain. A well-rested brain, on the other hand, is fertile ground for mindfulness.

2. I’m more likely to engage in biased behavior when I’m tired. I teach diversity and inclusion for a living and here’s what I can tell you: we all have biases—it’s just part of how the brain works. But when I teach leaders how to interrupt their own biases, I point to mindfulness as a key tool for noticing, and altering, biased thoughts and behaviors. We need mindfulness to be conscious of the biases, blindspots, and negative stereotypes we hold about people who are not like us, and a lack of sleep will prevent us from being able to do this effectively.

3. I treat others better when I’ve had enough sleep. When I’ve had enough sleep, I’m chipper, pleasant, patient, and warm and fuzzy! But when I’m sleep deprived, I’m downright impatient, irritable, edgy, and I tend to be more direct, shedding the (very important!) niceties when interacting with others. Basically a lack of sleep makes me feel like I’m not good to others. But when I get more sleep, I’m better able to exercise my emotional intelligence and connect to others. In this way, quality of sleep has a major impact on my personal relationships.

4. Giving up sleep creates a domino-effect on my other self-care rituals. Without sleep, I struggle to get through my “must-dos”, which often means not making it down the list to my “should dos” and “would be nice to dos.” I’m more likely to cancel wellness appointments and fitness training sessions, skip meals, and forgo meditating when tired, so my health is impacted greatly on these days.

5. After a good night’s sleep, I’m better at my job. As part of my work, I regularly speak in public, so it’s critical for me to be sharp, coherent, and present. On a stage I must be able to respond and tune in to my audience on the fly—something that’s much harder to do when my brain is slowed down by fatigue. The days I’m on fire on stage are the days I’ve slept well, and the days I struggle are when I haven’t.

6. Lack of sleep decreases the quality of my waking time—and my productivity. While in the moment if may feel like cutting sleep adds hours to my day, for me it has the countereffect of making those waking hours far less productive. The decreased physical abilities and mental fogginess that result from sleeplessness make it tougher to produce excellent quality work. When you’re trying to do too much, something has to give!

I know now that trying to cram more into my day by giving up precious hours of sleep is simply not worth it. I’m a much better person after a good night’s sleep – which shows up in my work, how I treat others, and how I treat myself.

I’m better equipped to be the person I want to be when I’m rested. I still continue to struggle to get a full eight hours of sleep every night, but I am trying. Because I know that prioritizing sleep and drawing boundaries about when I’m willing to give it up has made a big difference in my life and in my business. Sleep is a journey for me, and I’m on it!

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