The concept of sleep, health and productivity being directly related isn’t exactly a new one. However, it’s one I’d been steadfastly ignoring for most of my adult life, up until a few months ago.
In a 2013 study, the University of Surrey found that over 700 genes, including the ones that look after the immune system, are adversely affected if you sleep less than six hours a night, over the course of a week. This will probably look different for each person, but it can often result in reduced productivity, wellbeing and cognitive function.
The problem I was facing before Christmas was that I constantly had a lot to do, but not enough time to do it in (join the club, right?). Stress was starting to creep in, which – surprise, surprise – affected how much sleep I was getting.
On weekdays, I would be up early to head into work. At the weekend I wanted to get things done that I couldn’t fit in during the week, but instead I was using the time to catch up on my sleep. So, I ended up using my time really badly, no matter what day it was!
As my StrengthsFinder results will tell you, I always like to know why I’m doing something, and what information is available to support that reasoning (and I know what you’re thinking – I must be super fun at parties).
So, when I read that the key to getting more out of my day and getting better sleep was steadying my ‘circadian rhythm’, I got a bit immersed in it. What is it? How could stabilising it help me? Did someone just make it up to lure in gullible, sleep-deprived fools like me?
Most of us aim for ‘monophasic’ sleep – an unbroken stretch of seven or eight hours’ sleep every night. However, there are also plenty of people who survive on less sleep during the night and a few power naps during the day (dubbed ‘polyphasic’ sleep).
However much sleep you need, or however often you need it, stabilising your circadian rhythm is all about getting good quality sleep, consistently. That means working out when the best time to go to sleep and wake up is, and doing that every day.
An average sleep cycle is 90 minutes, which is split into three phases:
- Light sleep
- Deep sleep
- REM sleep
According to smart people, when you’re in the REM sleep phase, your body goes into a state of semi-paralysis and your breathing slows right down. That sounds terrifying but it’s really just your body conserving energy and repairing itself quietly while you sleep. If you’re feeling under the weather, or are nursing any kind of injury, each sleep cycle is gently healing your body and making life better.
If you’re pulled abruptly out of that deep/REM sleep phase, it doesn’t matter if you’ve had two or eight hours of sleep, you’re likely to feel pretty awful when you wake up.
How does this all work in practice?
Sleeping in 90 minute cycles is a nice theoretical idea, but I would imagine it’s a rare (non-existent?) human who falls asleep instantly, sleeps in uninterrupted, 90-minute cycles, and magically wakes up exactly as one ends, feeling refreshed.
I tried a few things to help with getting this right. I wanted enough sleep, and the right kind. One thing that really helped was the Sleep Cycle app. It tracks how long you’ve slept, how much of that was deep sleep and the overall quality of your night’s sleep.
It’s probably a little bit faddy, but I have found that using it for a month has helped me to see the effect of changing how much sleep I’m getting. It’s always interesting to see a link between my energy levels during the day and the amount/quality of my sleep the night before. It allowed me to make changes and figure out what worked best.
Once I began to see clear patterns, I started to change my routine to make sure I got between 6-7 hours every night, and no more (or less). The result is that waking up at the same time every morning gives me a much better chance of being productive every day, rather than just on the days I’m getting up to go to the office.
What difference has this made?
Initially, the only noticeable difference was that I was shattered all the time! After about a week, I started to notice the benefits.
It’s easy just to think ‘I’m tired’ and assume that the solution for everyone is simply ‘get more sleep’. For some people, that doesn’t seem possible when just getting a few solid hours is a luxury.
For me, it was all about consistency. I’ve found that six hours’ sleep every night is pretty much perfect for me. Which is decidedly average, and what most people need! However, it was news to me, as when I started this, I was convinced that I needed to catch up on ‘missed’ sleep. But having a consistent ‘start’ and ‘stop’ time every day has meant that my body clock has steadied, so I’m no longer tired at 4 in the afternoon. I’m more productive and have so much more energy.
Considering the effect that lack of good-quality sleep can have on our work and home life, it makes sense to take a bit of time to figure it all out and get the best out of the day. You’re not lazy if you sleep longer than the ‘average’, and you’re not sleep-deprived if you only sleep five hours a night – if it’s what’s right for you, and not just what your circumstances demand. Figuring that out can make all the difference to your productivity and your overall wellbeing.
Had enough of my amateur sleep-based ramblings? Here’s some additional bedtime reading, if you’re interested: