The Science Behind Sleep and Productivity

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nathan Jones.

Research says that it takes about 10,000 hours to master something.

Considering that the average human life expectancy today is about 78 years according to the CDC, and we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, it figures that every human being should be able to master the art of sleep about 22 times over during their lifetime.

So why is it that so many people have trouble sleeping? And why isn’t sleep something we take more seriously?

The truth is that sleep isn’t something many people think too deeply about. After all, it’s upon us before we know it. Our bodies typically force us into it if we haven’t had enough. In many ways, sleep is an involuntary fact of life. That is, until it isn’t.

The CDC also estimates that between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from some form of sleep deprivation, making up about 20 percent of the general population. Ask any number of them why they have trouble catching z’s and they’re likely to respond that they don’t quite know. For one reason or another, they can’t fall asleep, can’t stay asleep, or the quality of what little shuteye they do get isn’t enough to recharge their batteries. That same CDC study states that almost 30 percent of adults reported sleeping less than six hours a night from 2005-2007 and closer to 40 percent reported unintentionally falling asleep at least once a month. For all the ways technology has improved human life, it has wreaked havoc on our slumber.

Fortunately, like many other bodily functions, sleep is something of a science and, like any science, there are formulas for success and formulas for failure. Modern life falls into the latter category. The basic tenets of life these days, the 24-hour news cycle, ubiquitous electronic devices, even a simple light bulb, are partially to blame for our collectively poor sleep. Simply put, we’ve gotten into bad sleep habits. Thanks, Thomas Edison.

The good news is that if sleep is indeed a science, there are steps to improve it.

First, it’s important to dispel the myth of the perfect eight hours. Scientist Roger Ekirch, a professor at Virginia Tech, helped accomplish this late last century when he published his study noting that over the course of history, humans made a habit of sleeping in two stints, with a wakeful break in between. The pattern may have been a product of necessity, as waking in the middle of the night allowed for a number of important, less-modern chores: stoking the fire in a country home, keeping a lookout for looters, praying, heading to the outhouse, and even procreating (midnight sex, it turns out, is actually the best kind). Only in the last 100 years or so have we switched to sleeping through the night, which begs the question: do we trust the first 200,000 years of human sleep patterns or the last 100 more?

With all that in mind, there is a case for tying our circadian rhythms more to a traditional mainstay: the sun. Going to sleep as close to dusk as possible (with some leeway worked in for daylight savings time) and rising at dawn has been linked to greater productivity and creativity. Consider that rising just one hour earlier gains you an extra 15 days of consciousness over the course of a year. Turns out the early bird catches the worm because he has so much more time to hunt for it.

But what about improving the quality of the sleep you get beforehand?

This is where the science comes in. A 2002 study found that those that slept fewer than five hours a night had noticeably inhibited cognitive abilities. Those that slept 5-7 hours initially saw their cognition drop and then stabilize over time, albeit at lower-than-normal levels. And those that slept at least nine hours a night kept functioning at maximum cognitive capacity. To summarize: getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night as an adult will leave you performing at your peak.

To do that, it’s important to practice what any good scientist or doctor would: good hygiene. Sleep hygiene consists of a number of factors and implementing as many of them as possible will lead to better quality rest and leave you feeling spry in the morning.

Sleep tips:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to set your circadian rhythm.
  • Only use your bed for sleep and sex to mentally condition yourself for those activities between the sheets.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dimly lit.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine close to bedtime.
  • Avoid all screens, especially those with blue spectrum light (think smartphones and televisions) for a few hours before bed.
  • Stay hydrated but don’t hydrate right before hitting the sack.
  • If you do wake up? Be gentle with yourself and don’t stress about it. Do something relaxing like reading an easy book, drinking some decaffeinated tea, or if you have a sleeping partner, use the time to show them how much you love them.
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