Sleep is like a gateway—or, as some experts call it, a “keystone habit.” “Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything,” writes Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. “Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.”
When we think of sleep as a luxury we can’t afford, we pay a price—in terms of our physical and mental health, relationships, performance, focus, and more. But when we make sleep a priority, it becomes a powerful lever, making other important habits and decisions easier.
ENDING OUR COLLECTIVE DELUSION
Throughout history, until our modern era, sleep was respected and even revered. Sleep and dreams have played a singular role in virtually every religion and spiritual tradition. The Greeks and the Romans each had their gods of sleep: Hypnos for the Greeks, Somnus for the Romans.
But somewhere along the line, our culture began to devalue sleep. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says, “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.” We’re only now beginning to come out of a phase that started with the Industrial Revolution, in which sleep became just another obstacle to work.
Consider some of the ways this attitude still shapes our relationship with sleep. All too often, we associate sleep with a lack of ambition or commitment, or consider it a luxury we simply can’t afford. We brag about how little sleep we get, and we celebrate others for pulling all-nighters or burning the candle at both ends. Much of our society is still operating under the collective delusion that sleep is simply time lost to other pursuits, that sleep can be endlessly appropriated to satisfy our fast-paced lives and over-stuffed to-do lists—a delusion perfectly captured in the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
For those who believe they can operate at peak levels without sufficient sleep, the justification usually goes something like this: “Sure, other people need a full night’s sleep in order to function and be healthy and alert. But I’m different.” The truth, however, is that less than 1 percent of the population actually qualifies as “short sleepers”—those rare few who are able to get by on little sleep without experiencing negative consequences. (Though many people would like to believe they can train themselves to gain admission to the short-sleeping 1 percent, the trait is actually the result of a genetic mutation.)
And yet modern science is validating ancient wisdom around the value of sleep. Study after study affirms sleep’s benefits to our well-being, performance, and ability to live a more fulfilling life. Sleep is an essential period of recovery for the body and brain, and it facilitates memory, learning, repair, productivity, emotional intelligence, mood, creativity, and resilience.
Just look at what happens in the brain while we sleep. We may imagine sleep to be a period of idleness, but in reality it’s a time of incredible activity. It’s like bringing in an overnight cleaning crew to clear the toxic waste proteins that accumulate between brain cells. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says sleep is “like a dishwasher” for the brain. As Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote, “Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.”
SETTING THE SCENE FOR SLEEP
Sleep doesn’t exist in a vacuum (unless you’re Michael Phelps, the champion swimmer who retires each night in a low-oxygen, high-altitude sleep chamber). Our ability to get the sleep we need depends heavily on environmental factors. As nice as it sounds, most of us aren’t able to simply fall into restorative sleep the second our head hits the pillow at the end of a demanding and fast-paced day. But if we put just a bit of forethought and effort into creating a more welcoming sleep environment, the outcomes can be transformative.
Let’s start with the bedroom. Personal preferences vary, but research has given us clear guidelines on how to create conditions in our bedroom that will ease our transition to sleep. With Microsteps, we can make small changes to our environment that can yield big results. As Arianna wrote in The Sleep Revolution, “When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us.”
We can start by banishing our phones from our bedroom at a certain time each night. 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. And for those of us who like to end the day with an episode (or four) of our favorite show, it’s worth knowing how this habit can eat into our sleep. For American adults, 88 percent admit they have lost sleep because of binge-watching shows, according to a recent survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Then there’s the temperature of your bedroom. We know that being too hot or too cold can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. And, in fact, there are clear guidelines: the National Sleep Foundation recommends sixty-five degrees and says that sleep is disrupted when the temperature rises above seventy-five degrees or falls below fifty-four degrees.
Just as sleep, as a keystone habit, impacts other parts of our lives, our choices leading up to bedtime affect our sleep—even those activities we might not associate with sleep. For example, it’s true that eating big meals right before bed isn’t a great idea. Late-night snacking or turning to food to power through a late-night work session can backfire. “We have this illusion that with the flip of a switch, we can work at any time and part of that is eating at any time,” said Christopher Colwell, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “But our biological systems . . . work based on having a daily rhythm.”
The way our modern lives are organized makes this hard. It does feel like we are flipping a switch from on mode to off mode, trading the demands of the day for however many hours of sleep we can squeeze in. But with Microsteps we can create bedtime rituals that ease the transition, reduce our stress, and even bring more pleasure to each evening. Taking a bath or shower, sipping chamomile or lavender tea, even putting on pajamas can serve as a symbolic moment when we pass from the arena of action into the realm of recharging.
GOOD SLEEP STARTS EARLIER THAN WE THINK
Naturally, we associate sleep with the nighttime. But one mindset shift we can make that will improve our ability to sleep when nighttime comes around is to identify Microsteps we can take throughout the day.
When we devote small moments throughout the day to re- charging, we create pockets of meaning and connection we may have been missing—without even knowing we were missing them. And it’s not just about shut-eye; it’s about enhancing the quality of every moment we’re awake.
“Over the course of the day, little stressors cumulatively have a pretty big impact on our resting physiological tension,” Simon Rego, chief psychologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, tells Thrive. He likens our daily doses of stress—getting the kids ready for school, rush hour traffic, work pressures, smart- phone notifications—to a pot of water on the stove that reaches a boiling point by the end of the day.
So while sleep might be the last thing on our mind when we’re starting the day, we have an opportunity to set ourselves up for success from the moment we wake up. For example, get- ting exercise throughout the day helps—and it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. University of Pennsylvania researchers showed that those who walked for exercise got better sleep and that, as lead author Michael Grandner put it, “these effects are even stronger for more purposeful activities, such as running and yoga, and even gardening and golf.” Small changes in the course of a busy day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, are sneakily effective.
Many of us depend on caffeine to help us power through our days. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we know when to cut ourselves off, since too much caffeine hinders our ability to sleep at night. We should be aware of how caffeine affects us personally, but also know that caffeine has a half-life of five to six hours. Many experts recommend not consuming caffeinated beverages after 2 p.m.
If we’re not getting the seven or eight hours a night of sleep we need, researchers have found that even short naps can help us course-correct. According to David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, a short nap “primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately.”
SLEEP’S GREAT AWAKENING
As study after study affirms the science-backed connection be- tween sleep and performance, more and more results-driven leaders in every profession are talking about sleep as a superpower—and showing others how to take action through Microsteps—small, incremental, science-backed actions you can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way you live your life. That’s because they’ve realized sleep’s direct connection to decision-making, productivity, and other measures of success.
Jeff Bezos told Thrive that eight hours of sleep a night makes a big difference for him, so he tries hard to make it a priority. “If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion,” he said. “When you’re talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity.” And as Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer for JPMorgan Chase, put it, “Sleep loss deteriorates judgment. When I look back on mistakes I’ve made—hiring the wrong person, approving something that needed more work, or snapping at someone who didn’t deserve it—they all have one thing in common. I was tired. When I’m tired, I put off tough conversations. And when I’m tired, I’m not the leader, the mother, or the person I strive to be. Everything suffers.”
Those who equate sleep with laziness or lack of dedication may want to consider what’s going on in the world of sports. To professional athletes, sleep is all about performance. It’s about what works, about using every available tool to increase the chances of winning.
Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin’s daily routine includes a heavy focus on sleep. In fact, the skier is known for her sleep schedule. In addition to logging an average of nine hours per night, she “is famous for her naps—she requires an hour a day, and has been known to snooze in the snow in the starting area of a race,” according to the New Yorker.
Even if we’re not leading companies or competing for Olympic gold, we have an opportunity to bring about real improvements in our work and life, just by giving sleep the respect it deserves. Whatever challenge we’re facing, whatever accomplishment we’re aiming for, we can remember the words of John Steinbeck, who wrote, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Before bed, escort your devices out of your bedroom. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.
Set an alarm for thirty minutes before your bedtime. Setting an alarm reminds you that if you’re going to get to bed on time, you need to start wrapping things up.
Set a daily caffeine cutoff. Taken too late in the day, caffeine hinders our ability to fall asleep. Switch to decaf after 2 p.m.—your nighttime self will thank you.
Rid your bedroom of unwanted noise. Sound is one of the simplest and most direct impediments to deep sleep. Identify any sources of unwanted noise (starting with your devices) and either remove them from your bedroom or silence them.
Set a news cutoff time at the end of the day. While being informed can help us feel more prepared amid a public health crisis, for example, setting healthy limits to our media consumption can help us have a recharging night’s sleep and put stressful news into perspective.
Excerpted from Your Time To Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps by Marina Khidekel and the Editors of Thrive Global. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.