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A Good Night’s Sleep – How Does it Really Impact Our Well-Being?

April 09, 2014

The notion that sleeping better makes you a better person seems so obvious and simple that it comes off as trite. It’s like — tell me something I don’t know! And yet having the framework to prioritize personal well-being is such a rare thing to find nowadays.

Does getting a good nights’ sleep influence your day, even if it’s a little?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve been working with Scott on this blog, as I’ve been listening to and reading what Arianna Huffington is saying about alternate success metrics, and as I’ve not only been talking with close friends about what it means to sacrifice ourselves to our work lives, but also carefully examining my own habits in the matter.

It boils down to this: does getting a good nights’ sleep influence your day, even if it’s a little?

Productivity is hard to quantify, creativity even more so. So we tend to want to think about it in terms of hours worked and deliverables. How much time did you spend doing this thing? How much output did you make?

When you’re not sleeping well, you aren’t doing your best work, and you’re certainly not doing efficient work.

Unfortunately those things say nothing about whether the time was spent efficiently or thoughtfully, and whether those deliverables are something you are proud of, that reflect the individual experiences and character you bring to your work. And my instinct is that no, when you’re not sleeping well, you aren’t doing your best work, and you’re certainly not doing efficient work.

But we still fetishize this idea. Occasionally I’ll say to someone “Oh man, I worked my butt off last week. I didn’t get to sleep until 2am, and I didn’t do laundry, and I only ate what was within arms’ reach at my desk…” ad nauseam about all the ‘signs’ that I was a very hard worker to the detriment of everything else. But there’s a weird little sense of pride here, because when I hear the response “That sounds really tough!” it feels like I’m being congratulated a little bit. Not a ton, but just enough to reinforce the idea that working long hours = good.

“I have so much I need to get done,” your mind pleads. “I can’t afford to just go sleep when I have all of these tasks that I have to finish.”

The problem is that when you are tired, uninspired and burnt out, you’re less productive. What that means is, it might take you two hours if you kept “powering through” (we even allude to how strong and awesome someone is if they just keep their nose to the grind!) to finish your work. But if you just went to sleep, maybe you could do it in ONE hour the next morning. And you’d certainly do it better.

Would it really, truly matter if you sent that email/document tomorrow morning instead of in the middle of the night?

Our tired, irrational brains have a hard time understanding that. At that stressed, frustrated moment, all we can think is “I have to get this done, no matter what.” But how many times in the history of your work has a deadline been at 2am? Would it really, truly matter if you sent that email/document tomorrow morning instead of in the middle of the night? (Sometimes, rarely, it might. But I’ll bet most of the time, it wouldn’t matter a bit, and in fact, the only person that would notice is you.)

Sometimes this kind of bad habit and cycle occurs at a company/organization level, instead of the individual one. It’s much harder to change, because there are so many stakeholders involved. And it becomes even harder to understand that people’s well-beings are the driver of a successful product.

As with most things, it starts small and it starts with awareness.

I’ve had numerous close friends who I’ve seen struggle to maintain their sense of balance and sanity when crunched at a job. It’s all for some project to “succeed”, right? But what kind of warped definition of success do we have, if it requires the people who work on it to push themselves to that kind of extreme in order to make it happen? It’s just not worth it. Sure the end result could be a financially successful launch, but it comes at a much much higher cost in terms of people’s faith in their company, their managers and their culture.

So how can we begin to actively change this framework so that we can break out of this bad cycle?

As with most things, it starts small and it starts with awareness.

On the awareness side, I think it’s good to check in with yourself on a regular basis and start to understand what makes you tick — what made me happy this last week? What frustrated me? Did I drink enough water? Get enough sleep? Did I feed myself a good combination of nutrients but also treat myself to some well-deserved ice cream?

Hopefully one of these questions will let you confirm for yourself that your well-being affects your work quality/endurance.

On the habits side – I’m a big fan of research like BJ Fogg’s about Tiny Habits (the premise is that you can change your behavior for the better by setting up ‘trigger actions’ for yourself – over time, the triggers will matter less and you’ll have adopted those habits instinctively as a result), and books like The Power of Habit.

In practice – it might look something like this. I notice that when I stop using digital devices earlier in the evening, I will go to sleep earlier (and I know that going to sleep earlier makes me better rested and more productive during the day). So, I create a ‘trigger’ that’s small – for example, at 10pm, I will shut down my laptop and plug my phone in. Sure, I can always turn it back on, or unplug my phone again, but maybe that little bit of extra effort I’d need to expend would force me to think – “Do I really need to do this right now?” And before long, this kind of behavior could snowball.

I’m just now really starting to be more conscious of how my behaviors affect my mood and well-being, and still constantly reading and digesting information about doing so. This has been a LONG post, so it’s past time to turn it over to you!

What do you think about the connection between physical well-being and mental well-being? Have you read any books or articles discussing this topic? Have you talked to friends about what their habits are?

— Robin Yang, Bloom Creative Lead