What Happens to Your Competence When You Shortchange Sleep (and What to Do Instead)

Personal Effectiveness and Preparing for Change - © Hilary Samuel

You want to get that report written, emails responded to and documents read. So you stay up a few extra hours or set the alarm to get up earlier. The rationale is that with more time awake, more will get done.

In fact, the opposite is true.

It is a fallacy that the capacity for thinking rests in the waking mind. With this perspective, it’s easy to swap sleep for being awake when we get too busy.

In fact, there is a synergistic relationship between the state of wakefulness and sleep. When we are awake, we absorb information. When we sleep, we consolidate and reconfigure this information into knowledge.

Shortchanging sleep reduces this capacity.

Continued as a long-term strategy, the thinking mind can get severely compromised – and your productivity at work suffers.

There is a lot going on in your mind while you sleep.  It is sorting memories, deciding which to emphasis and consolidate. Emotions are being processed to keep you mentally stable. Events of the day are being processed to enhance capacity for problem-solving and inventiveness.

All this happens during a series of sleep phases that repeat themselves over the course of the night. These phases are identified as different brainwave frequencies with unique signature patterns.

Phases 1 & 2 are light sleep. You experience this when you are just dropping off to sleep, and you revisit this state multiple times over the night.

Phases 3 & 4 are deep sleep. You are not easily awoken during deep sleep. At this time your brain is manifesting deep synchronous waves of electrical energy that start at the front of the brain and ripple to the back, over and over several times a minute.

Then there is REM sleep. The signature pattern is a brainwave that is similar to that of the waking mind, fast and erratic, coupled with rapid eye movement, from which REM gets its name.

Each phase is specialized to accomplish a specific function to support the waking mind.

• Phases 1 & 2 – light sleep: refreshes the capacity to store new memories and absorb new information

• Phases 3 & 4 – deep sleep: enhances the ability to access information and learning when you need it later

• REM – dreaming sleep: allows the mind to make new associations and develop meaning

Over the course of a night our sleeping brain progresses through 5 phases of sleep, each necessary for the proper functioning of the waking mind.

These phases are repeated over approximately 90 minutes. In other words, within 90 minutes your sleeping brain goes through light sleep (phases 1&2), deep sleep (phases 3&4) and REM sleep.

Over the course of one night of sleep, your brain will repeat this 90-minute cycle approximately 5 times.

However, each of these 90 minute cycles is not identical. The first half of the night is dominated by deep sleep. The second half of the night is governed by REM and light sleep. Each 90 minute cycle goes through all 5 phases, but as the night wears on less and less time is spent in the deeper phases of sleep and more and more time is spent in the light and REM phases of sleep.

What happens when you shortchange your sleep

It is important to know what happens when you miss sleep at one end or the other.

When you wake up too early, you will get less REM and light sleep.

This compromises your ability to learn new things the following day, the capacity for which is acquired during light sleep.

Missing REM means that you will have less access to the wisdom of your prior experience; during REM you would have processed the events of the day and interwoven them with previous encounters, making meaning and developing more know-how through dreaming.

When you go to bed too late, you may miss much of your deep sleep. Among other things, during deep sleep information from the day before is transferred into long term storage. What that means when you miss deep sleep, is that it is that much harder to recall what you learned the day before.

Getting less sleep in order to make up time to get things done is a losing battle.  The less sleep, the less your capacity for learning new things and developing discernment and foresight as you go.

What to do instead

Create a regular routine

Good sleep depends on regularity. That’s because the body relies on signals from the brain to tell it when to wake up and when to fall asleep. These signals are influenced by body clocks called zietgebers, the most important of which is light.

Wake up in the morning at a consistent time of day and get daylight in your eyes as soon as possible. This sets your internal clock and tells your brain to wake up fully. From this signal, the time to fall asleep is also set.

Develop a consistent wind-down routine before going to bed. This should start 60-90 minutes before bed time. One of the most important things to do during this time is to avoid blue light. Blue light tells the brain to wake up. You can avoid blue light by turning your screens to night mode – or even better, not look at your phone, ipad or computer screens at all during this time.

Whatever you do during your wind-down routine, it should be relaxing, enjoyable and not stimulating.

With a regular routine, your time asleep will function effectively to give you the rest that you need.  Your sleep will compliment the work of your waking mind.  Sleep will become a productivity enhancement to give you optimized thinking capacity.

Find your productive hours and use them wisely

Your productive hours are the time of day when you feel most alert. For many people this is the morning. Your most productive hours are when you should schedule the things that require the most concentration, ingenuity and aptitude. This is the time to get that report written, or draft out a new project.

The best way to ensure that you use your productive time wisely, is to schedule it in your calendar as a reoccurring meeting.  Treat this as a sacred date with yourself and don’t let others infringe on it.  Then plan ahead as to how to best use this time.

Don’t give into sleep procrastination

Because our lives are often so busy and hectic, many people procrastinate going to bed at night. There is a temptation to stretch the downtime this represents and to avoid going to bed.

The hours at the end of the day, however, are the least valuable to you. It is well past the time that your brain is working at its best. Once you have been awake for 16 hours, the mind starts to steeply decline in effectiveness. You may drift into watching TV or Netflix, but what value is that to you? You are just coasting along and avoiding sleep.

Further, sleep procrastination sets up a vicious cycle.  When you avoid the time you naturally feel sleepy, the mind pushes into a kind of “second wind” and feels alert again for a few hours. Once you catch the next wave of sleepiness, you will have lost valuable sleep time, only to be awoken too early to start the next day. This is when you are in danger of getting into a state of chronic sleep deprivation.

Additionally, sleep procrastination sets you up to miss an important dose of the essential deep sleep you should be getting during the first 90-minute sleep cycle of the night. This sets you back in terms of consolidating learning and memory for the next day. Thinking, productivity and effectiveness becomes that much harder.  Your productive time becomes a struggle.

Sleep procrastination sets you up for a downward trend of less productivity, trying to make it up by staying awake, getting less sleep, and so on.  Missing sleep to make up for productivity in itself makes your thinking less effective and less productive.

The bottom line

Protect your sleep; this is the time that your brain is enhancing your capacity for thinking, learning, and making wise decisions. Without adequate sleep, you simply can’t realize your full potential – at work or in your personal life.

Hilary Samuel is a Sleep for Wellbeing Expert. She helps people get the rest, vitality and enhanced energy they are yearning for through great sleep and other natural means. She is the owner of Asleep at Last https://www.asleepatlast.com/ 

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