Let’s talk about sleep

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I have mixed emotions when it comes to sleep. To start with, I am going to cover all the things about it that I appreciate.

  1. It is essential to survival.

Now that I have covered everything I enjoy about sleep, onto the criticism…okay, perhaps I am being one-sided in my analysis. I will concede that is important to day-to-day functioning and that we all require it to varying extents. Speaking in generalities, females need more sleep than males and more sleep is needed the older you get. There are exceptions of course, such as my father, who happily functions on a paltry four hours a night, but these are the generalizations. Furthermore, there are variations between individuals in the amount of sleep needed, but experts tend to place the magic number for cognitive function around 6 or more hours a night. The keyword here being cognitive function, as military veterans will point out that physically repetitive tasks can be performed on 2-4 hours for several weeks.

Alright, so I have told you a bunch of common sense information that you likely already know, but what does this have to do with productivity? Well, sleep represents a daily block of unproductive time no matter how you cut it. You can make the arguments for using long periods of sleep to reflect on information or allow greater productivity in your waking hours, but if I fall asleep at the kitchen table while doing my taxes (tis the season), I am not going to wake up to their completion. The question then becomes how do we structure our sleep to allow maximum productivity (and while we are at it, lets include emotional well-being as well).

Well, there are a few schools of thought on this. One is what I call the polyphasic arguments. These typically involve messing around with your sleep cycle patterns to maximize the time in REM sleep (the portion of sleep that rejuvenates us mentally and physically) and reducing non-REM (non-rejuvenating sleep) time. There are a few variations on this, with the Uberman strategy being a popular example you can read about here. These practices boil down to sleeping in short naps every few hours, but with a net reduction in the overall amount of sleep required per day. The reason most people don’t do these extreme living practices is that they require, well extreme lifestyle changes to your lifestyle to accommodate them. Namely, they DEMAND regular naps and failure to do so results in practitioners rapidly hitting a mental wall. Also, the long term effects on the body are unknown, as people find these solutions hard to stick to in the long term. With that said, despite having a reputation for not sleeping, I have never actually attempted a polyphasic sleep cycle in earnest, so I can’t comment from personal experience. Go ahead and give it a try if you are curious, but my suspicion is that there is a reason that this habit hasn’t caught on with more people.

The flip-side are those who argue sleep is uniformly associated with mental and physical rejuvenation and that we should not challenge how much an individual sleeps, as this is what their body requires to recharge. I challenge this argument. I challenge anyone who says that ten to twelve hours of sleep is essential to function. I won’t deny that some sleep is essential and that six to nine hours is a spectrum that most people fall in. But to be naturally in the ten to twelve hour range without extenuating life circumstances (illness, pregnancy, children, etc.) is something that I find difficult to accept. If you are sleeping ten to twelve hours a day that leaves less than half the day to do EVERYTHING.

I can accept however, that people develop the habit of sleeping ten to twelve hours a day, just as we can develop a habit of sleeping six to eight hours a night. I experienced this change in sleeping habits a month ago, when I began physiotherapy to deal with my Carpal Tunnel. Given the ultimatum of physiotherapy and more sleep or the loss of feeling in my hands, I reluctantly chose the former. Within two weeks (the golden standard for making or breaking a habit), I found myself sleeping eight hours a night whereas for many years, I only slept six to seven hours maximum.

Over the last month, I haven’t noticed a change in my energy levels nor have I found myself any more productive with eight hours sleep. With that said, if it allows a greater physiological recovery (i.e. a return of feeling to my hands), the choice of adopting eight hours is a no-brainer. Once my medical concerns have passed however, I fully intend to return to my old sleep schedule, as I know that my body can handle six to seven hours of sleep indefinitely. This decision comes from a place of experience however, as I have experimented with varying amounts of sleep extensively over the last six years (university tends to do that to you) and discovered the sweet spot of six to seven hours that works for me.

That does not mean that I encourage everyone else to run on six to seven hours ad infinitum. What I do encourage is that you experiment with your sleep cycle. Try to sleep six hours a night, five days a week for two to three week and see what happens. Try seven hours and see what happens. Play around with the sleep time, but be sure to adhere to the sleep plan for a period of two to three weeks in order to give your body time to break the old sleeping habit. If after experimenting, you still find yourselves needing eight or nine hours of sleep, well that looks like what your body is going to need at this stage in your life. But maybe you will find that your body needs less and you just gained valuable time, daily, to pursue your dreams. Try it out and let me know!

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