Secret Success Factors Vol. 1: Sleep

Everyone has little secrets of success, or hidden gems, that are either counter-intuitive or under-appreciated and therefore a little bit surprising.  Or they make a lot of sense but nobody has the time or willpower to try them.

My first hidden gem success factor is . . . . wait for it . . . . sleep!

This one seems like a no-brainer, right?  We all want more sleep, and we hate being tired throughout the day.  Most of us understand that sleep plays an important role in our overall health.  But most people don’t see sleep as an integral component of their career.  And since this is a blog about getting ahead in your career, not about health and wellness, we’ll focus on that.

Sleep is just as important as food.  Significant physiological changes occur to our bodies as we lose sleep, both in specific cases like an all night cram session and as a result of chronic lack of sleep.  Even a single night of only 4 hours of sleep can make an impact on our ability to function at work the next day.  From a 60 Minutes news story on the Science of Sleep:

“Well, the first finding, and it stunned us, was there’s a cumulative impairment that develops in your ability to think fast, to react quickly, to remember things. And it starts right away,” Dinges says. “A single night at four hours or five hours or even six, can in most people, begin to show effects in your attention and your memory and the speed with which you think. A second night it gets worse. A third night worse. Each day adds an additional burden or deficit to your cognitive ability.”  (David Dinges)

I can’t speak for everyone, but I use attention, memory, and the speed with which I think all the time.  In fact, without those attributes, or even operating at reduced capacity, I would significantly under perform in my job.

Impaired mental faculties aren’t the only casualty of insomnia.  What about all the early morning meetings that have been missed because someone didn’t hear the alarm?  Or tried to hit snooze but hit off instead?  And most importantly: falling asleep in meetings.  There is no way to easily recover from dozing off in a meeting when you’re young (or any age, really).  Or being caught in your cube with your head on the desk.

But instead of admitting that sleep is important to our careers and trying just as hard to get 8 solid hours a night as we do to impress the boss, we work until midnight and roll in at 6AM the next day to make sure we’re the last to leave and the first to arrive.  In the very short-term it may be okay, but study after study shows that the hours we do put in at work are not quality hours.  Yet we live in a cycle of sleep deprivation and compensation.  That’s why Starbucks and 5 Hour Energy are so popular.  These help with alertness immediately, but can cause dehydration and dependence.  Two large coffees in the morning can lead to a pretty tough afternoon.  So then what do we do?  Get more coffee, or switch to Diet Coke.  The cycle continues.

One trick I learned when I’m running on coffee after a long night of work (or whatever) is to continuously drink water.  I drink twice as much water as I think I should, and that seems to keep me more alert.  Especially in the afternoon after the caffeine starts to wear off.  For serious consumer of caffeine, the diuretic effect is significantly reduced.  But for occasional users like me, it’s significant.  That’s why I have to keep a steady stream of water going at all times.

There aren’t too many jobs or lifestyles that preclude 8 hours of sleep a night.  It’s a matter of personal choice.  I guess what I’m saying is, unless you’re one of the 17% of American’s adult population with serious insomnia, GET 8 HOURS OF SLEEP EVERY NIGHT.  You’ll be better off refreshed and alert at work the next day.  And while it might not seem like a big deal at the time, over the long haul it’ll reap rewards.  Once in a while it’s okay to run a deficit, but only if you fully understand the consequences.

I’m working on a new theory to support this.  I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a great idea while I’ve been tired.  All my innovative plans or “ah-ha moments” came when I was well-rested.  Heck, half of them came when I wasn’t even at work.  Which is all the more reason to stay rested.

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