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To Be a Peak Performer, Start with More Sleep (Sleep Series 1/4)

The benefits of sleep might be more than you think

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“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is a mantra uttered by some of my clients who are trying to max out their waking moments.  But in fact, the best way to live productively is to do just the opposite –  invest in good quality sleep every day.  It is one of the most important factors to being a peak performer and successful leader. If some of us are finding that during this global quarantine, we have some spare time on our hands that would normally be spent on commuting or attending social events, I would say, now is a great time to prioritize sleep.

The Problems with Sleep Deprivation:

According to a Gallup poll, about 100 years ago, people slept on average 9 hours per night. Now, the average is closer to 6.8 hours with 40% banking less than 6.  Sleep is not just a luxury, it is a necessity, and the lack of it can cause an onslaught of problems.  According to Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, “Sleeping less than 6-7 hours have long-term health consequences, including a weakened immune system, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorder, diabetes, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.  World leaders Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher both talked about sleeping 4 hours developed the latter condition.  Denmark has even begun paying compensation to women nurses who developed breast cancer after working night shifts because the government realized the deleterious effects lack of sleep could have.

And it is not just physical health in jeopardy, but our mental health is impacted every bit as profoundly. According to Psychologist Ron Friedman, sleep deprivation changes the way we see the world. Upsetting things are much more distressing when we are tired.  We have reduced energy levels and increased anxiety which impacts our mood and our behavior – we are much more likely to blow things out of proportion and lose our temper with colleagues and loved ones.  UC Berkeley researchers have found that sleep-deprived people feel lonelier and less inclined to engage with others, avoiding close contact in much the same way as people with social anxiety. Jeff Bezos noted yet another ramification, “When I get six hours, my decision-making is 5% – 20% less solid.” 

The Bountiful Benefits of Sleep:

1. Fosters good health.  When you sleep, your brain flushes out toxins that build up over the course of the day and when you do not do that, you run the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions.  During sleep, your body produces hormones and proteins that build your immune system. Friedman noted, “those who sleep only six hours a night are 50% more likely to get sick.”  Additionally, the nightly release of growth hormone makes your bones stronger and increases your muscle mass. 

2. Positively impacts memory and learning.  Sleep’s primary purpose is memory consolidation.  New memories are formed when a person engages with information to be learned (i.e., memorizing a list of words or mastering a piano concerto). However, according to Matthew Walker, these memories are initially quite vulnerable. To stick, they must be solidified, improved, and shifted from short- term into more efficient and long-term storage regions within the brain, which happens during the NREM sleep stage. This process of “memory consolidation” occurs when connections between brain cells and among brain regions are strengthened; time spent asleep plays a role in preserving memory. Consequently, while awake, memory tasks can be performed more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety.  When you are sleep deprived, it is harder to focus attention optimally and learn efficiently to store those insights. 

3. Enhances problem solving and creativity. Research shows that the average person has about 60,000 thoughts every day. When we sleep, our minds are busy consolidating, organizing, and reviewing experiences, as well as generating insights.  Our brain tests out connections between vast stores of information and is biased towards seeking out the most distant, non-obvious associations in ways our waking brain would never attempt. Our sleeping brain allows us to take freshly minted memories, collide them with an entire back catalog to spark creative insights and forge novel links between unrelated pieces of information. This REM stage, also responsible for dreams allows us to take a step back, make sense of this collection, and glean overarching insights.  It fosters impressive problem-solving skills — you essentially wake with new solutions to previously intractable problems.  Larry Page said the idea of Google came to him in a dream. Indeed, the brain you take to bed is not the same as when you wake up. 

4. Improves happiness and performance. Quality sleep is linked to greater energy and happiness. Walker adds, “Just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you.” This will make you feel more connected and filled with positive feelings.

Sleep is also tied to performance, such as better alertness, enhanced cognitive functioning, better judgment, stronger productivity, and fewer mistakes.  Researchers at Stanford University took 11 members of the school basketball team and were made to sleep 8.5 hours every night, while the rest of the team slept 6.5 hours.  At the end of 5.5 weeks, the performance of those who kept their normal routine of 6.5 hours did not change.  In contrast, the group that was now sleeping 8.5 hours became different players.  Their free throw percentage shot up by 9%, their 3-point shooting jumped 9.2%, and they were even running faster, shaving half a second off their sprint time. In every sport tested, performance went up. In tennis, players hit fewer faults, ran faster, and got to more balls.

Many people may believe that they can outwit sleep, that they can survive on less than 6 hours, but that is only because they might be making this call while being sleep deprived so their judgment may be blurred. Getting high-quality sleep consistently will positively impact every area of your life.

Quote of the day:Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn. -Gandhi

Q: What is the biggest cost sleep is having on you?  How can you prioritize sleep? Comment and share below, we would love to hear!

The next blog in this sleep series 2/4 will focus on top tips for being a super sleeper

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Are you inspired by the way you lead yourself? As a Leadership Coach, I partner with people to grow their leadership ability so they can live their best life and develop others more effectively. Contact me to learn more.

Enjoy the numerous benefits of sleep

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