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Tired: The Hell of Trading Sleep for Work

We’re trading sleep for work at an alarming rate—pun intended.

Every time a busy American entrepreneur bemoans the pace of a crazy, caffeinated life, puts a little hemorrhoid cream under the eyes to take down the bags, or resorts to moisturizer-and-makeup-Armageddon-plan-C, a little devil gets his horns.

If Beelzebub has a few devils put aside for you every week, this blog post isn't going to fix you. It might give you some ideas for winning a little ground back, though, and hopefully it will give you some ideas to help you sleep better at night. Literally.

This is mostly a blog post about things you already know:

    • You need a full night of sleep every night.

    • If you're a grownup, a "full night of sleep" means 7-8 hours, and neither one of us is the exception (but I promise you're still special).

    • Insufficient sleep makes smart people look dumb, organized people look like flakes, and pretty people look... well, less pretty.

You know you need sleep. But, why?

First, simplest answer: We don't completely know. We do know enough to be sure that you want to keep doing it, though.

Consider that people who don't sleep die. While a host of accompanying symptoms contribute, sleep is the most significant factor. It would be hard to say that a thing is unimportant if its lack kills you. Right?

And if the lack of sleep itself doesn't kill you...

According the the  Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation, sleep is a major player in maintaining your immune system. In fact, studies find that animals who don't sleep "lose all immune function." So whether a lack of sleep will kill you outright, it can certainly set some wayward germ up to do it.

As if that threat isn't enough, lack of sleep can affect your reaction time as much as being legally drunk. Whether you make a mistake on the road or the person in front of you does, your sleepy reaction time makes you the menace. It's not just on the road, either. In fact, people averaging less than six hours of sleep are 13% more likely to kick the bucket at work than those who average seven or more.

Worker sleep deprivation is a suspected factor in major disasters from Chernobyl, to the Challenger Explosion, to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In other words, even if sleeplessness doesn't kill you it can still use you to kill other people (and waterfowl).

If not being sick, not dying, and not killing other people aren’t significant to you, consider these sleep benefits:

  1. Sleep helps your brain move the day's experiences into long term memory and cement learning.
  2. Sleep improves your body's ability to regulate your metabolism and temperature.
  3. Most tissue growth and repair occurs during sleep.
  4. People with healthy sleep habits make more money... 
  5. ...and waste less of it (well rested people make more balanced decisions about risk and spend less money on expensive lattes).
  6. Beatles fans unite: Love might buy you money. Follow the logic: A recent british study suggests that sleep quality correlates to a high quality of life seven times more than a 50% income bump. Even higher on the study's quality of life list is a healthy sex life—which also improves the quality of sleep, which makes you more money! Win-win-win!

But, again, the problem isn't that we don't know sleep is good for us. The problem is that it's hard to get enough sleep when you have to do all the things. And you know it's a trap designed by little devils because when we get into the cycle of sacrificing sleep for productivity we actually become less productive, which:

  1. makes us feel like we need to be doing more things, and
  2. makes us crazy, both of which convince us to
  3. skip more sleep.

Little devils indeed.

Some (more) science

We know those things. And we suspect that there's a lie somewhere in what we tell ourselves when we trade sleep for things we "need to do." But sleep is abstract and variable, and check marked to-dos feel soooo good.

What if sleep were a little less abstract? While mysteries abound, we have learned a good deal about what happens during sleep (and, by extension, what many of us are missing out on).

Sleep isn’t simply “down time.”

Scientists agree that people move in sequence through four (formerly five*) different sleep stages for about 90 minutes . You get as many of those 90 minute cycles as you can fit in your night. Contrary to what many people guess, our brains are doing a lot of unique work while our bodies rest. That work seems to vary by stage—and even though we don't yet fully understand what happens in each stage, it's clear they're all important. *Note: The four stage model combines slow wave stages 3 and 4 from an older model which is still in use and often cited. 

Check out this infographic for information about how your brain deals with sleep, how each sleep stage benefits you, and how much sleep you need.

Infographic Data Sources:
Your Brain and Sleep, Day and Night:
American Chemical Society

National Institutes of Health

Sleep Stages:
American Sleep Association

How much Sleep do we Need?
Center for Disease Control

If all that feels like the curse and admonition of a puritanical great-great-great grandparent, don’t fret. There are things we can do to fight the little devils.

Things we can do to sleep better:


Light: Light plays a role in our circadian rhythms, which tell us when to sleep and when to wake, among other things. For most people that means that our bodies start dosing us with melatonin when the sun goes down and with serotonin when it comes back up. The melatonin makes us tired, while the serotonin makes us more alert.

Unfortunately, we play games with that mechanism when we stare at screens or bounce our sleep schedules around. And if you work nights you have to do your best to manipulate that whole system.

Reduce your pre-bedtime screen time. Or, if you must look at screens, use blue-light filtering apps that reduce the impact of the lighting on your body’s natural rhythms. Here are a few:

Android: Twilight (free version; $2.99 pro) Also, newer android versions come with a built-in blue light filtering feature:

PC: f.lux (free)

iOS: Night Shift (Built-in [2016 and later]))

Mac: (Built-in [2016 and later])

But, let’s be honest: Where that amazing little microcomputer is concerned, staying up has as much to do with all the things your phone can do as the light it emits. It’s like not making babies: It’s not as fun, but NOT MESSING AROUND is the only sure prevention.

So, you should put your phone in another room.

Finally on this note, night workers are all too familiar with the battle of regulating sleep and light. If that’s you, you probably already know what works. Many night workers use blackout curtains to simulate night /or take medication to regulate sleepiness.

As with trouble in ANY medical area, don’t let a blog diagnose you or recommend treatment. See a doctor if you have serious sleep issues.

Temperature: If you’ve ever enjoyed the cozy heaven of warm blankets on a cold night, you know there’s something to this temperature business.
Your body literally stops regulating temperature during some sleep stages, and keeping cool is helpful in any case. In turn, temperature (heat in particular) can keep you from resting well.
In his list of “5 Tools I Use For Faster And Better Sleep,” Tim Ferris recommends a pricy product called the ChiliPad to regulate sleep temperature and achieve a greater amount of deep sleep. But a fan or open window might be a fair alternative (particularly if thinking about money is already keeping you up).


Get regular:: A study of several Harvard students found that regularity correlates to a higher quality of sleep. Total sleep minutes varied little between students, but those with regular sleep patterns tended to have higher GPAs. The study specified that this could be due to other factors, which makes sense. Does the sleep afford someone a more regular schedule, or is a person’s “together” lifestyle afford them better sleep? No matter whether the sleep schedule is the chicken or the egg, most of us can affect the regularity of our sleep and reap a benefit.

Identify triggers:: Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, suggests that we can both affect and effect (take that, word nerds) regularity by identifying cues and setting—or resetting—routines around them. Think of these as “if-then” patterns. In an interview on Copy Chief Radio, Nate Dye recommends ensuring that the step right after the cue is as small, simple, and specific as possible. Not, "I'll floss all my teeth after I brush," but, "when I set my toothbrush down, I'll pick up the floss and floss the first tooth."

For example, rather than “When I get up, I will run a zillion miles,” you might establish that when you turn off the alarm clock (because your phone is in another room) you’ll put on your socks and running shoes. Getting yourself over that easy threshold gets you closer to the big step than you might think.

Create PM Rituals: So, I know this person who has a recurring calendar appointment tied to an alert on his phone. Every night at eight, his phone says, “Brush teeth.” It’s the dumbest thing— and he’ll confess that he would brush his teeth anyway. But, it serves as the first trigger in a cascade of tasks he completes just to make sure he gets to bed on time. That, in turn, ensures he gets enough sleep before hitting the gym in the morning. The "cascade" is a string of habits, which leads to a string of goals he's sure to work at.

This “cascade” is what Michael Hyatt, author of our current development project book, refers to as a nighttime ritual. It’s simple: you design a chain of events that wind you down, psychologically and physiologically, and you tie them to a trigger. Hyatt’s own ritual includes nine steps. The "brush teeth" person’s isn’t quite so long.

This fits the research: Much like the Harvard students in the study cited above, successful people often use habit chains, or rituals, to be more purposeful and productive. It’s actually something doctors tell insomniacs. Often sleepiness is an issue of conditioning, where the brain decides that the moment you get into bed is when it’s time to…

    • watch T.V.

    • play Candy Crush.

    • worry.

And so on.
Instead, says Dr. Chervin of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center, “keep the bed for sleeping.” He does make a caveat for love making, but that’s it. Everything else “you should try to move...elsewhere.” That includes worrying.

Our nighttime rituals train us to slow down and shut down. That way, the “trigger” of our head hitting the pillow signals "time to doze" instead of "time to make a list of the ninety-four mistakes we’ve made since New Years." Or was it only ninety-two? If you catch yourself in that trap, go worry on the couch.

Work backward: You should ignore this section and just do what the PM Rituals section says. But, if you find yourself hijacking your own rituals and trading sleep for work because you have #THINGSTODO, maybe coming at it from a different angle can help. At least as a short-term remedy to get one solid night of better sleep.

When one’s head is in the way and one is in a sleep-rut... after those two crazy days where one talks to one’s self in crowds and triples the swearing quotient in every otherwise civilized conversation... one might decide to work backward to a decent night's sleep.

All this means is that at the end of today's workday, the one in question stops everything and start doing tasks for tomorrow. Backward.

Like this:

    • Start at the beginning of tomorrow's workday and plan your most important tasks for that day. Set the list aside to work at tomorrow.

    • Do what you can to prepare tomorrow’s meals.

    • Get ready for work: Get out your clothes. Iron them if they need it. Set your bag(s) by the door. Shave if you do that, but I wouldn’t advise putting on makeup if you do that.

    • Will you need gas? Add time to your commute for tomorrow, but don't leave home now.

You get the idea. When tomorrow is ready, focus only on making peace with yourself and the family and getting to bed early.

There is research that suggests setting up tomorrow at the end of today makes you more productive. There is research that says you'll sleep better if you set tomorrow up for success before you end your day. Though "one" didn’t know it when "one" started combating sleep insanity (a scientific term) this way.

Track your sleep: Peter Drucker’s tired maxim, “what gets measured gets managed,” holds true most of the time. Tracking your sleep can help you get more of it for sure, and maybe provide data to help you boost the quality of the sleep you get.

There are about a bajillion or so options for tracking your sleep. They range from phone apps to fitness trackers to your creepy aunt who still checks on you at night when you visit. (Give her a pad and paper. Why not?)

None of them is perfect, but most of them can be effective enough. Especially if the most basic metric—duration—is your focus.

This app in the following examples is Sleep as Android.

Many sleep tracker apps will allow you to “tag” a night’s sleep so you can look for patterns, such as low sleep ratings correlated to alcohol consumption or short nights correlated to sleeping away from home

Here, you can also see how many sleep cycles the sleeper went through and how (ir)regular they were.

One thing I know: Shortly after I started tracking my own sleep about two years ago, I started to sleep longer overall. Which is the point.

Clearly, sleep irregularity is still an issue. Also, this app is attempting an intervention.




Looking at this chronotype graph shows you where your mid-point is in your average night’s sleep. 

Remember that 12 hours after that ought to be about when you hit your nap wall. My advice: Give in. Take between 10 and 20 minutes, and enjoy it. This says my nap time ought to fall around quarter to four.



Mamma’s home remedies and over the counter products can help or hurt, whether it’s moonshine or Melatonin. There is a lot of bunk sleep science out there. Some of it is counterproductive if not dangerous. Here are some safe sleep-science-based suggestions:
Food: Eating near bedtime in general isn’t advised, but if you’re going to do it, you want to go for foods with complex carbs, low sugar, little-or-no protein, no caffeine, and no fat.

Alcohol: Alcohol makes you want to sleep, but it makes you sleep badly. As sleep goes, alcohol is kind of a jerk.

Supplements: Over the counter or under, your sleep meds should be occasional or temporary; otherwise, you should involve your doctor.

Melatonin: Some people swear by it, while others say it has no effect. A regular dose (3mg or less) “may elevate your blood melatonin levels to 1 to 20 times normal.” That’s “up to” a lot. Take it only if you have time to sleep a full 8-ish hours.

Caffeine: Duh, right? But the myth comes from the odd person who says, “I can drink a gallon of coffee and go right to bed.” That person likely isn’t a biological wonder (unless the coffee is very hot)—that person probably just doesn’t get enough sleep.

Ironic Evils

The way we handle sleep as a culture is often a devil’s bargain. Trading sleep for work looks to be helpful. Necessary even. But that’s how devils work. If they’re going to earn their little horns at our expense, let’s make them work a little harder.

What about you? Have you seen a correlation between the amount of sleep you get and your quality of life? Do you have a routine or gadget that helps you stay on track? Share your successes or warnings in the comments below.

At 4BR, we are constantly in pursuit of personal and professional growth—even in our sleep! We’re a different sort of network.

Come visit one of our meetings and experience it for yourself.

Tags: Education

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