An Internet series called TED talks is a fascinating diversion these days. The series consist of experts in various fields sharing leading edge ideas and discoveries. The other evening I was scrolling through the latest of the TED talks and came across Russell Foster speaking on the subject of sleep. Foster is a circadian neuroscientist who studies the sleep cycles of the human brain.
While listening to Foster’s lecture, it occurred to me that having a successful career can be greatly aided by paying attention to one’s sleep habits and improving on them. This may seem contrary to the image of a hard-working agent who never rests, but research suggests that spending quality sleep time is actually time well spent.
Sleep is the single most important physiological activity of the human brain. A person living to the age of 90 will have spent 32 years asleep. Interestingly enough, the brain does not shut down during sleep, quite the contrary. There are some areas of the brain that are more active during sleep. Some genes are only turned on during memory consolidation periods of sleep.
However, sleep is complicated. Researchers have theories on what sleep is, but they don’t really know why we sleep.
The need for sleep is not restricted to humans. Other mammals and birds share with humans the two broad types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). However, the sleep process seems to have a greater impact on human brain activity in the areas of memory consolidation and the creative areas of the brain. An adult reaches the REM stage of sleep every 90 minutes, but the function of REM is uncertain. What is certain is that without proper REM sleep, the ability to learn and retain information is clearly impaired, according to scientific research into the subject.
Our society is sleep deprived. We live in an aura of artificial light that affects natural sleep cycles. As a result we keep strange hours. We suffer from jet lag, shift work, late-night computer addictions and various other factors that limit the time resting. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Sleep is for wimps”. According to Foster and other neuroscientists, Thatcher couldn’t be more wrong.
So, what happens when we don’t get our eight hours of proper sleep? Lack of sleep has a real nasty downside. For starters, things like mood change, stress, anger, impulsive actions, chemical dependence, lack of concentration, poor memory and lack of creativity will result from sleep deprivation. Heart problems, obesity and even mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia have been linked to lack of sleep. For a professional, any one of these side-effects of the lack of sleep can really impair the ability to fulfill the job description.
On the other side of the coin, getting proper sleep will give you many of the attributes for a successful career. Sleep increases concentration, attention, decision making, creativity, social skills, maintaining a healthy weight and overall cardiovascular health. A study conducted in 2007 by researchers Turner, Drummond and Brown showed that working memory was clearly reduced by 38 per cent when one was sleep deprived. Another University of California psychiatry study of more than one million adults found that people who live the longest reported a regular sleep habit of seven to eight hours. Having good regular sleeping habits pays big dividends in health and effectiveness.
Some cultures have the accepted practice of taking an afternoon nap after lunch. Despite stereotypes and social bias, this is not a sign of laziness. Studies have demonstrated that taking a short “power nap” actually helps in overall wellness. The “siesta” has been associated with a 37-per-cent reduction in heart disease.
The idea of the “power nap” is not new. Salvador Dali, the famous surrealist painter, would often sleep in a chair while holding a spoon. When he went into the sleep phase, his hand would loosen and the spoon would fall. The noise would awaken him, and he felt refreshed and ready to work again.
Recent studies have proven that short naps during the day can be as good for some types of memory tasks as a solid night of sleep. NASA has conducted numerous studies and research into the effects of sleep patterns as part of its interest in the effects of space travel. The research has confirmed the importance of naps for memory, alertness, response time and other cognitive skills.
This is a far better outcome than a sleep deprived individual having his brain shut down into the phenomenon known as micro-sleep. Many industrial accidents and traffic tragedies have been caused by micro-sleep. We have all experienced the uncontrollable experience of micro-sleep during a boring lecture, an overly long sermon or an early-morning sales meeting. It’s that feeling when your eyes begin to close and your head slowly begins to drop despite your best efforts to engage your attention.
So, how do we create the atmosphere conducive to healthy sleep? Foster suggests reducing exposure to light a good half an hour before sleep. Have a dark room with a slightly cool temperature and don’t drink coffee after 3 pm.
Perhaps brokerages should provide a quiet dark room for those who need a power nap in the mid-afternoon and remove the stigma of short rest periods during office hours. It might provide as much benefit as an in-house gym, or café-style office area. That being said, having a power nap during a quiet open house is not recommended practice!
The conclusion in all of this is; if you want to be your absolute best in business and achieve greater success through capitalizing on your full potential, remember that quality sleep is a scientifically proven, valuable and important tool in achieving your goals. The plus side of developing and maintaining good sleep habits far out-weigh the negative results of sleep deprivation, regardless of what our current social mores may be.
Writer and journalist Tim Butcher once wrote, “Sleep is God. Go worship.”