In a game of inches, in a society where everyone’s trying to win, what makes the difference? What pushes someone over the finish line first? Training? Maybe, but lots of people exercise. Motivation? Possibly, but all racers have drive. It’s something simpler than that, and if you take it seriously, you could have an edge on a lot of people. Proper sleep — or more specifically, optimizing that sleep — is one of the greatest keys to truly reaping the benefits of sleep and enhancing your overall performance.
The Benefits of Sleep, and How a Lack of Sleep Is Hurting You
Not getting enough sleep might seem like a good way to prove that you're driven and motivated to get shit done, but it'll actually have the opposite effect. A regular lack of sleep can affect cognitive faculties such as mental fatigue and emotional well-being, as well as lower the body’s ability to fight chronic illnesses.
In fact, tough guys who say “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” may find that statement coming true sooner than expected. Research from Harvard Medical School reveals that sleeping five hours or less per night increases the risk of death from all causes by roughly 15%.
What about those leaders who built corporate empires, ruled vast nations, worked incredibly long hours, and generally crushed it on a regular basis on little more than a nightly nap? People like Winston Churchill, who got by on four or five hours of sleep? Or Marissa Mayer, who famously worked 130 hours a week while at Google?
They’re outliers. And even still, who’s to know what else they could have achieved with a little more sleep?
Researchers at the Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, while investigating whether people could severely reduce their sleep without consequences, discovered that while those who slept less initially saw a decline in their cognitive performance, eventually their feelings of tiredness plateaued and became their new normal.
But in this new normal, while the brain’s faculties continued to free fall, the tired people stopped noticing because they didn’t feel any more beat than usual. In other words, lack of sleep doesn’t spark your stamina. It slows you down — you’re just too tired to notice.
5 Tips to Maximize the Benefits of Sleep in Your Daily Routine
So how do you ditch the “sleep is for the weak” mantra and get the kind of sleep that will truly make you fighting fit? Here are five ways to make sure you are optimizing your rest and reaping all of the benefits of sleep that you need to not only survive, but thrive.
1. Think Quality AND Quantity: Get the Right Kind of Sleep
The quality of your sleep is as important (and perhaps more so) than the number of hours you clock. Two studies carried out by Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, found that measures of health, well-being, and sleepiness were more directly related to quality, not quantity, of sleep.
That said, the participants slept an average of seven hours a night, which is also the number of hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
2. Stick to Your Sleep Schedule
Sleep regularity has been found to improve well-being more than attempts to “catch up” by lengthening sleep time on ad-hoc nights. Think about it: sleeping in once a week as an answer to unusually late nights and early mornings doesn't really allow you to feel like you've received the benefits of sleep. Snoozing your alarm or sleeping in can actually cause you to feel more tired and lethargic in the long run. A rigid sleep routine is a notable part of the U.S. military’s basic training. Nightly “lights out” at 9 p.m. is strictly followed by ringing alarm at 5 a.m.
Lawrence Epstein, M.D., co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, states in his book that being in sync with your internal clock is key to good sleep, so try hitting the sack and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
3. Don’t Skip Your Workout — It Promotes Better Sleep
According to a poll from the National Sleep Foundation, people who run, cycle, swim and participate in competitive sports sleep better and feel mentally sharper throughout the day than those who don’t. Believe it or not, working out directly correlates to the quality of rest and maximizing the benefits of sleep for your body.
Related: Want Better Sleep? Go for a Run.
In the survey, 83% of the individuals who claimed to be vigorous exercisers reported regular, satisfying sleep while less than half of the non-exercisers did.
4. Take Naps to Recharge When You're Wiped
Humans are monophasic sleepers, which means they sleep once during a 24-hour period. However, we used to be biphasic. Ancient Romans (wise in the ways of the benefits of sleep) always retired for a noon-day nap, which they called a “sexta” (the root of the Spanish word, “siesta”). Further historical research has highlighted the habit of a first and second sleep in pre-industrial Britain.
In modern times, we fight our tiredness, but it may be better to give in and take a 20-minute to two-hour nap, as it can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. In fact, a NASA study on tired military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved their performance by 34% and alertness by 100%.
5. Make Your Bed Every Day
Not smoothing out your bedspread each morning may also be harming your slumber and not allowing you to reap the benefits of sleep. According to a survey from the National Sleep Foundation, seven out of 10 people said they made their bed every day (or almost every day), and were 19% more likely to report getting a good night’s sleep than those who didn’t make their bed.
Navy SEALS are also taught about the importance of making their bed as a means of accomplishing their first task of the day. In his 2014 commencement speech to students at the University of Texas in Austin, Admiral William H. McRaven noted that making your bed every morning reinforces the idea that little things in life matter and are the steps to bigger accomplishments.
“And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better,” McRaven said.