How Much Sleep Do You Really Need to Work Productively?
Every one of us, on average, will be sleeping for 24 years in our lifetime. Still, there are many unanswered questions about sleep and how much we need of it. With this post, Leo Widrich sets out to uncover what the most important research has taught us about sleep. And of course, how you can use this knowledge to create an unbeatable daily routine.
One of the biggest problems I’ve discovered is that sleep is such an overly-talked about topic. We get the general idea that we know all about it: how much we need of it, how it impacts us, and why this or that happens when we sleep. Once I took a step back to really think about where our knowledge about sleep comes from, I realized that nearly all of it is based on hear-say or what my mom told me when I was in elementary school.
Eliminating the 8 hours per night sleep myth
Everyone has an answer to “how much sleep do you need”? A common one—and one that I have given on many occasions—is to respond “Oh yes, I need my 8-9 hours of sleep every night, I know that.”
It turns out, that might not be true after all.
One of the most acclaimed sleep researchers, Daniel Kripke, said there’s never been any evidence to back the 8-hour rule. In his most recent study, Kripke found that “people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, live the longest, are happier, and most productive.”
What’s even more interesting here is that sleeping longer than that might actually be worse for your health.
Personally, as an 8 hour/night sleeper, this definitely opened my eyes and I have started to experiment by decreasing my sleeping time slightly to see if 7.5 hours makes a difference.
Of course, the general idea about the “one-fits all sleeping amount” is particularly odd, as Jim Horne, one of Europe’s most acclaimed sleep experts mentions in his book:
“It’s like saying everybody should have size eight shoes, or be five foot eight inches.”
It seems that finding your optimal sleeping time in between Kripke’s finding is a good way to go. It’s certainly something I’m giving a go now.
The trap of too little sleep: What happens to our brains if we don’t have enough sleep?
Now this part is one of the most fascinating aspects about sleep. Have you ever been with someone who got only 4 hours of sleep but looks just as attentive, fresh, and up to his game as you, who spent 7.5 hours in bed?
Well, the answer is this: someone who is severely sleep deprived is in fact as attentive and awake as you are.Here is what a recent study found: The sleep deprived person can in fact deliver the exact same results as someone who isn’t sleep deprived in an exercise, when they give it their best shot. Odd right?
Now onto this though:
The problem lies elsewhere. Whether we are sleep deprived or not, we lose focus at times. And that is precisely where the sleep deprived person lands in a trap. If we start to lose focus but have received the right amount of sleep, our brain can compensate for that and increase attention(see the image below for the increased yellow bits that shift your focus back.). If we are sleep deprived, our brain can’t refocus.
The main finding is that the brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes, but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure.
That’s from Clifford Saper at Harvard. In the image you can see what this means. As you lose focus and your attention is drifting, the yellow bits show how people with enough sleep activate parts in their brain to refocus on the task at hand. Sleep deprived people will have barely any activity in that area (the amygdala reactivity) and will struggle to regain focus.
So really, this can turn into a huge trap. The person bragging that they only slept 4 hours and still do great work, well, they are actually right with what they are saying. The only issue is that, they have no brainpower to steer them back to focus once they lose attention. Even worse so, sleep-deprived people don’t notice their decrease in performance.
Sleep-deprived workers may not know they are impaired. According to Saper, “the periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security when, in fact, the brain’s inconsistency could have dire consequences.”
Sleeping your way to success
Not getting enough sleep is a pain. So now, onto the good stuff: what we can actually do to optimize our sleeping habits to new heights and sleep our way to success.
When it comes to developing focused techniques that work on better sleeping habits, the web isn’t short of answers. Querying some of the smartest brains I know, here are the top 3 things to do in order to have better sleep and work more productively:
Start napping every day—here is why and how
For the past 2 years, since I started working on Buffer, I have been napping every day, for around 20 minutes. One of my favorite writers and New York Times bestselling author Michael Hyatt does the same things for many years and posted his insights in this great post about napping.
As Michael points out, some of the core benefits of napping are that you can restore alertness of your brain with just a few minutes of falling into light sleep.
Personally, I know that my productivity takes a dip at 3 PM every day. This is exactly where I place my nap, and it has been one of the most powerful ways to bring my productivity back to 100% after that.
In a great video Michael pointed me towards, one of the key benefits of napping daily is to simply feel less tired. Although this may sound stupidly obvious, it can help a great deal to contribute to your daily happiness. Check out this quick video on this topic.
To get into a napping routine is often very difficult. Here are the top 3 ways I think you can make it work:
-One of the key things I found here is to make others aware of the fact that you are napping every day.Try and get encouragement from your co-workers or your boss, so you can set yourself up for developing a successful habit.
-Timing very important. In fact, in the video above, the common sentence of “napping doesn’t work for me” is often down to the fact that people nap too long. Don’t let your naps exceed 30 minutes max; personally, 20 minutes has proven to be the optimal timing for me.
-The last tip I find most crucial is to make napping a consistent habit. Keep both the frequency (daily) and the time of day (3pm seems to be a very popular time as productivity dips) the same and consistent.
Develop a sleep ritual—here is how and why:
How can you make this as easy as brushing your teeth every evening? It’s very simple: develop a sleep ritual that will set you up for a great night of sleep ahead. Rituals, different from habits, can be something a lot more compelling: “Whilst habits are often seen as activities you have to force yourself to do, rituals are instead activities which you are pulled towards,” Joel Gascoigne writes in this great post on developing a sleep ritual.
When it comes to creating a sleep ritual, one of the key things is to have the last activity completely disengage you from the tasks of the rest of your day. Here are a few activities you can try to properly disengage:
-A 20 minute walk on a specific route and at a specific time. It is a great way to clear your head and be ready for sleep. For a specific way to develop your evening walk, try Coelho’s speed exercise.
-Another thing that has worked greatly is to read fiction. Different to non-fiction books, it is a great way to completely disengage, enter a different world and mindset, and then be ready for great sleep.
-The last point I had great success with is to have a clear wake-up time by tying it to an immediate event afterwards. If you just set your alarm for say 7:30, but you always hit the snooze button, try something else. Keep the alarm, but plan the first thing you will do and tie it to a specific time. For me, that has been to have breakfast immediately at 7:40. Or that my support session starts at 7:45. Joel hits the gym exactly 5 minutes after wake-up time. Those things can help a great deal to get over the inertia of getting out of bed.
Making sure you are tired in every dimension
A key part of the book The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz, is to be aware that for the highest quality of sleep, you need to be drained, both physically and mentally.
Making sure that you have at least one mentally challenging exercise as well as a physically challenging one, can make all the difference to falling into a deep sleep that recovers all areas of your body.
Quick last fact: Women need more sleep than men
Here is a super interesting last fact: On average, women need a tad bit more sleep than men. The average is 20 minutes more, but some women may need slightly more or less than this. Why? Because women’s brains are wired differently from men’s and are more complex, so their sleep need will be slightly greater, according to Horne.