Do you see what I did there? Among the many New Year’s promises I’ve indulged in over the years, this is my most favourite…
In a busy world where performance and the ability to make good decisions is prioritised, we do a great job of sabotaging our own success by not sleeping enough. And it's more than just performance that suffers.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is phrase trotted out by "resilient" high performers and busy wannabees alike. But the truth is, the less you sleep, the shorter your life will be. And although scientists can’t pinpoint why that is or why we sleep, we do know it’s absolutely essential.
The Wonder Cure.
Imagine this. I come to you with a miracle cure that could reduce your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart failure, help push back the effects of Alzheimer’s, strengthen your immune system, balance your blood sugar levels, help you make healthy choices when reaching for something to eat, make you calmer, more rational, improve decision making, learning and both mental and physical performance. All without a single negative side effect...
Now imagine this cure that imparts almost superhuman powers was free and available to everyone.
I suspect you know where I'm going here. We already have it. It’s called sleep.
But for lots of reasons, some of us either can’t, or choose to ignore it. If you are anything like me my favourite excuse was "I've got too much to do and there’s just not enough hours in the day.” Oh really? Why don’t we put that to the test?
Most modern smartphones come with a function that measures and displays your ‘screen time’ over a day – you know, that day that’s ‘too short’.
So it can be a rude awakening to find that you somehow managed to spend three hours on face-tagram and twita-whatsa-tube, or binge-watching all eight series of the Walking Dead (although I'm more of a Game of Thrones kind of guy myself!)
Ignore sleep at your peril.
Just ask any new parent or night shift worker what happens to you if you don't get enough sleep. The disruption to your circadian rhythm can cause a real-life case of Jekyll and Hyde. You become short tempered. You become more impulsive and emotionally irrational. Diet can go out of the window as you reach for the sugary stuff and caffeine to get through the day.
The scientists agree. An article published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a British study of 91,000 adults in the UK, found that individuals with more disruptions to their circadian rhythm (like increased activity at night, decreased activity during the day or both) were more likely to have decreased feelings of well-being and to have reduced cognitive functioning.
They were also significantly more likely to have symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder or major depression.
And there's even more. In his fascinating book “Why We Sleep” Matthew Walker lays it out with frightening honesty. Basically, without sufficient sleep, we could experience the opposite of all the “wonder cure” benefits I described earlier. It's one of those books you just can't put down.
What can we do about it?
It’s a New Year. We can resolve to get more sleep and make that sleep regular. I understand why some may find that a challenge. We've all been there when it doesn't seem to matter how many damned sheep you count, the lights just won’t go out. Clock-watching makes you anxious and wakes your brain up even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
One solution is to adopt a routine. The NHS offers advice with 10 tips to beat insomnia. The very first tip is to keep regular sleep hours.
You should also observe good sleep hygiene. That doesn't mean ablutions and a shower before bed (although a bath could help). It means making your bedroom a sleep-inducing chamber- as dark as possible, without the distraction of standby lights and TV. It's all to do with the natural effect of light on our sleepy brains.
It also means cutting down on caffeine and not over-indulging in food or "medicinal" nightcaps, especially late at night. (Hmm, I may have to reconsider my Friday night takeaway strategy!)
Some thoughts on ‘shut-eye’.
“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” Aristotle.
Like many people, I’m a fan of getting up early in the morning to seize the day, unleash the ‘miracle morning’ and ‘eat the frog’. Yes, all that productivity stuff is great, but let’s make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of the essential phases of sleep that are so important for our physical and mental health.
I prefer a quote most commonly attributed (perhaps incorrectly) to Benjamin Franklin:
“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”.
It’s the “Early to bed” part that does it for me (although the rest of it sounds pretty good too).
A question of priorities.
Busy people have busy lives. Sometimes it's not possible to squeeze it all in. But here's a sobering thought. It doesn't matter who you are, where you live or how much you earn. We all have 24 hours in a day. What we choose to do in those 24 hours is a reflection of our priorities. It’s abundantly clear that squeezing out more productivity at the expense of sleep is a decision that all the science says will catch up with us.
So here’s a gentle challenge for the start of 2019: What you are prioritising over sleep and what can you do to redress that balance. Go on, you deserve it.
Among New Year’s resolutions, personal commitments to improved diet and more exercise are right up there. Sleep should be up there too. Unfortunately, our ‘sleep train’ is all too easily derailed by our terrible habits.
I’ll leave you with one final thought from author Matthew Walker:
“Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.”
Happy resetting. And Happy New Year.