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Why Sleep is the Most Powerful Performance Booster

Science confirms it: to live and work better, sleep needs to be a top priority.

If you’re like many working adults, your nightly routine might look something like this: you stay up later than you planned answering emails you didn’t get to that day or simply staring at a screen (your phone, tablet or TV) until the moment you get into bed in an attempt to “de-stress.” (Or worse yet, you’re watching in bed.) Either way, your sleep is suffering. And whether you realize it or not, it’s affecting your physical health, your mental health and your performance both at work and at home.

An overwhelming amount of research shows that far from being wasted time, sleep is an essential and active function that we can’t shortchange. If you want to perform at your very best, from your judgement, creativity, resilience and productivity at the office to your mental and emotional well-being, you need to start thinking of sleep as the best performance booster at your disposal.

How Your Sleep Affects Every Aspect of Your Performance

Being sleep-deprived tanks our productivity. According to 2016 research from the RAND Corporation, lost productivity due to insufficient sleep costs $680 billion each year across the U.S., Japan, Germany, the UK, and Canada. And as research from Harvard Medical School found, insomnia can cost the average U.S. employee the equivalent of 11.3 days of lost productivity each year.

But you don’t have to be up all night to see the effects of lost sleep—the ill effects of sleep deprivation kick in far earlier than most realize. People who got 6 hours of sleep a night for two weeks (just one hour short of the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, and what many get on a average basis) functioned just as poorly during the day as people who were forced to stay awake for two nights in a row, according to a study in the journal Sleep. Sleep deprivation also leads to poor decision-making,which is, of course, key to performing at our best.

Even more startling is the widely-cited study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which shows that after being awake for just 17 to 19 hours (not unusual for many), our cognitive impairment is on par with having a blood alcohol level of .05 percent—and being up just a bit longer leaves you impaired at a BAC level of .1 percent, which is legally drunk in the U.S.

This might help explain why: research published in Science suggests that when we sleep, our brain clears away dangerous buildup, or, as lead study author Dr. Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester explained, “It’s like a dishwasher that keeps flushing through to wash the dirt away.” You wouldn’t eat off of a dirty plate, and you shouldn’t expect to do your best thinking with a tired brain. Plus, getting more sleep could boost your brainpower. Another study found that people who got more than the bare minimum amount of sleep they needed had more gray matter volume in their brain, which has been linked to better psychological well-being, and greater emotional intelligence.

And not surprisingly, this affects our mental well-being as well. One survey in Great Britain found that poor sleepers are seven times more likely to report feeling helpless and five times more likely to say they feel alone. Getting enough REM sleep could also help reduce brain activity that’s linked to emotional stress, meaning you feel less stressed after a good night’s rest, according to a study in Current Biology. Anotherfound that even if you’re sleep-deprived, getting an extra hour under the sheets per night can boost your daily happiness more than a $60,000 raise. On the flip side, research links poor sleep to higher stress levels, which hurts performance in all aspects of life.

And let’s not overlook your physical health. As Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic put it, “Sleep is the most underrated health habit.” Getting too little of it is linked to heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, faster brain aging and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.

Sleep is so critical to how we function that even the U.S. military has studied it. Researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found that sleep deprivation led to lower scores on emotional intelligence, interpersonal functioning and empathy, assertiveness, impulse control and positive thinking. (In a word, yikes!) That’s not a position you want to be in, whether you’re on the battlefield or in the boardroom. And if you prioritize your sleep, you won’t be.

Commit to Making Changes Now

With all of this information at your disposal, you can see that it’s time to stop making sleep an afterthought. Use these Microsteps to move sleep from the bottom of your priority list to the top.

  1. Turn off all of your devices and gently escort them outside of your bedroom at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. The blue light emitted from our devices suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone which signals us to sleep. Our phones are also repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep—our to-do lists, our in-boxes, our anxieties. So putting your phone to bed as a regular part of your bedtime ritual makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone.

  2. Create a ritual before you fall asleep—take a hot bath, do some light stretching, or read a book (a real book, not on a screen) that has nothing to do with work. Experts agree that the routine and rhythm of a sleep ritual helps condition your mind and body to relax, wind down and begin to leave the worries and stresses of the day behind.

  3. Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Sleeping and waking at the same time daily helps regulate your circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep, sleep soundly and wake up feeling energized.

The benefits of being well-rested will be clear quickly, and you’ll be motivated to keep getting your 7 to 9 hours per night.

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