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How Much Sleep Do We Really Need to Work Productively?

Aug 8, 2012 8 min readLife Hacking

Every one of us, on average, will be sleeping 24 years in our lifetime. That’s a pretty long time if you ask me and makes it even more important to know exactly how the phenomenon of sleep impacts us.

And still, there are so many unanswered questions evolving around sleep and how much we need of it. In fact, Most of what we know about sleep we’ve learned in the past 25 years.

One of the biggest problems I’ve discovered is that sleep is such an over talked 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.

With this post, I’ve set out to uncover once and for all 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.

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Eliminating the 8 hours per night sleep myth

Everyone I’ve asked the question “how much sleep do I need” has an answer to the question. 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:

“We’ve all been told you ought to sleep 8 hr., but there was never any evidence.”

Says one of the most acclaimed researchers about sleep Daniel Kripke in an interview. In his most recent study Kripke found that “people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive”.

how much should i sleep

What’s even more interesting here is that sleeping longer than that might actually be worse for your health mentioning that: “Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr.”

Personally, as an 8 hour/night sleeper, this definitely opened my eyes and I have started to experiment by decreasing my sleeping time slightly and 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?

“Working overtime doesn’t increase your output. It makes you stupid.”

Now this part is one of the most fascinating aspects about sleep I believe. Did it ever happen to you that someone who got only 4 hours of sleep a night looks just as attentive, fresh and up to his game like you, who spent your 7.5 hours in bed?

Well, the answer is – that someone who is severely sleep deprived is in fact as attentive and awake as you are. With one big difference to you. 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 any exercise. That is, given it is a non repeated exercise and 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. Once we start to lose focus and 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,”

says Clifford Saper from Harvard. In the following 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 at 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. “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 of what we can actually do, to optimize our sleeping habits to new heights and sleep our way to success as Arianna Huffington puts it.

When it comes to developing focused techniques that help you work on a better sleeping habit, 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:

1.) Start napping every day – here is why and how:

There is a confession I have to make, at least at this point. 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 puts an equal focus on napping for many years and posted his insights in this great post about napping.

–       As Michael points out in his post, some of the core benefits of napping is 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 3pm 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% for a good 1,5 hour session 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, yet 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:

  • Especially if you work in a big office, or you tend to feel others might consider you slacking off. 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 is of course 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.

2.) 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.”

Writes Joel 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:

– One of the things Joel is doing every night before going to bed is a 20 minute walk on a set down and specific route and 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 part that has worked greatly and Joel has taught me 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, this is for example, that I 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.

3.) Making sure you are tired in every dimension:

A key part of the book by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz about The Power of Full Engagement, is to be aware that for the highest quality of sleep, you need to be drained, both physically and mentally to some extent.

Making sure that you have both 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.

Here is also a great article about whether exercise is a requirement for sleep.

Quick last fact: Women need more sleep than men

Here is a super interesting last fact. 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? This is because women’s brains are wired differently from men’s and are more complex, so their sleep need will be slightly greater, says Horne in his book.

Sleep and how we deal with it every day is a fascinating topic I believe. What are your tips that you’ve found to make your more productive when it comes to sleep? Do you think some of the tips above might be helpful to trigger a better daily workflow?

Photocredit: The Phineas, Colton Witt

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