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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.

Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Sleep

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and burnout while increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will introduce you to the massive body of research that shows sleep is essential for performing at your best, both mentally and physically—and that not making sleep a priority can have serious consequences on every aspect of your life.

We’ve all had days when we’ve sacrificed sleep to check a few more items off our to-do lists. But once you understand how important sleep is, and that getting enough isn’t as hard as it might seem, you’ll never look back. We’ll show you how simple it can be to get good sleep with our Thrive Global Microsteps—simple, science-backed changes you can start acting on today. 

We’ll introduce you to the New Role Models Of Success, living proof that sleep benefits you both personally and professionally. Like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Eight hours of sleep makes a big difference for me, and I try hard to make that a priority,” he told Thrive. “For me, that’s the needed amount to feel energized and excited. If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion. When you’re talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity.” Television anchor Tamron Hall tells Thrive that naps are her secret life hack, and Brad Stulberg, human performance expert and author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success says he makes a point of sleeping 8 hours each night.

In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve collected the best products and technology to help you make good sleep part of your everyday life.

Putting sleep at the top of your priority list is essential for your own work (one 2016 McKinsey study found that 43 percent of leaders weren’t getting enough sleep), but supporting your team in their own sleep goals is crucial, too. Our Managerial Takeaways section offers advice for managers to be role models and support systems for their direct reports as they work toward getting good sleep every night. Being a sleep-first manager can take many forms, but you can start with small but impactful actions like not sending late-night emails, and not rewarding employees for burning the midnight oil. Remember, your team is likely to respond to whatever incentives you set up. And when the team is well-rested, you’ll see such a meaningful difference in performance that you’ll never encourage all-nighters again.

By the end of this guide, you’ll know just how critical sleep is to keep your brain and body functioning at their best. A key part of that journey is the ever-growing body of research showing how elemental sleep really is, and that’s where we’ll start.

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. Another found 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. Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices—and gently escort them out of your bedroom!

    Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.

  2. Take a hot bath or shower before you go to sleep.

    Treat your transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. A bath or shower can ease this transition and help you symbolically wash the day away. 

  3. Get thirty minutes more sleep.

    Make it a priority to get just thirty minutes more sleep than you’re getting now. If you need help, try setting an alarm on your phone to start winding down for bedtime. When you think of sleep as an actual appointment—a meeting of sorts, with yourself—you’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves and work your way up to getting all the sleep you need.

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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