August 22nd, 2019
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer, The Odyssey
‘A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.’
The Impact of Sleep
I’ve been fortunate to interview consistently successful people across an array of specialisms: organisational leaders, scientists, teachers, sports men and women, soldiers, actors and musicians. A practical characteristic they almost all shared was a focus on getting a good night’s sleep.
This finding is increasingly being backed up by scientific research. While there are some well publicised examples of high achievers claiming to need only four or five hours sleep per night, research suggests that the vast majority of us need seven to eight hours of quality sleep.
In her book, The Source, Dr Tara Swart states that:
- A disturbed night’s sleep can reduce your IQ by 5-8 points the next day
While such a reduction is not enough to inhibit your ability to function, it’s unlikely to lead to your best work.
More starkly, Swart highlights research indicating:
- An entire night’s disturbed sleep (e.g. taking an overnight flight) can reduce your IQ to a level akin to being drunk the next day
In addition to IQ, Swart stresses the replenishing/cleaning impact of sleep and its importance in reducing the risk of dementia. A video summarising Tara’s work can be viewed by clicking here.
“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”
David Benioff, Writer and Director
A lack of sleep can also lower your body’s immune system and start to impact on your mood/what you focus on. An interesting piece of research highlighting the latter, involved a memory test where participants were asked to remember sets of emotionally positive neutral and negative words. Participants who had a poor night’s sleep were able to remember 40% fewer words relative to those who weren’t sleep deprived, but they remembered far more negative words than positive ones. (1)
For me, the result suggests the evolutionary importance of sleep. A lack of it poses a risk to survival and puts our brains on alert for danger, hence the focus on the negative, rather than the positive.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Thomas Dekker, Actor
For all these reasons, sleep is increasingly being prioritised by those wanting to stay resilient and particularly those with management and leadership responsibilities.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, Author
For many, there is no great secret that needs to be discovered in order to get a good night’s sleep. The key is not so much gaining a new understanding to the practice of sleep, but strictly practicing your existing understanding.
Consequently, adhering to the following rules is often enough to get a good night’s sleep:
Significant events e.g. having a child, going through a divorce, facing a bereavement, or a particularly stressful period at work can lead to sleep problems; even if you strictly adhere to the above ‘rules’. Generally though, when such events pass, or become manageable, good sleep returns. For an unlucky few though, sleep can remain elusive, even when the above are followed and no major events are being faced. If this is the case, there are four steps I’d suggest taking:
(i) Seek expert medical advice to rule out potential medical conditions
You may have a medical condition e.g. vitamin deficiency or sleep apnoea that is causing your sleep problems.
(ii) Explore whether your mind has become ‘wired’ for a lack of sleep
I’ve known people who have gone through such a long and sustained period of stress, that sleeplessness has become a habit and they have convinced themselves that they are a ‘bad sleeper’. In addition to the above ‘rules’, such people have often found that relaxation exercises, mindfulness or neurolinguistics programming (NLP) techniques have also been required. In severe cases, where trauma has occurred, exploring therapy and counselling options has also been required to bring about change.
An increasingly common issue I see in my coaching and mentoring work is that the gap between one particularly stressful period at work and the next is becoming shorter and shorter, until work is consistently very stressful. Unless the person’s perspective to stress can change, the harsh reality is often that either the workload needs to change, or the person needs to change jobs.
(iii) Investigate whether your body needs realigned
Sometimes, there’s a physical explanation for poor sleep. For example, if your pelvis, back, shoulder or neck is slightly out of alignment, then lying for long periods can readily become uncomfortable, no matter how good your mattress. Such discomfort leads to you waking up, without always being consciously aware of the discomfort and thus able to connect it with your sleep problems. An initial consultation with an osteopath should identify whether such an issue exists and subsequent treatment can readily realign your body so no discomfort arises during sleep.
Many who solve their sleep problems at this point can often trace back the beginning of their sleep problems to an accident or injury (e.g. a car crash, sport injury). However, this is not always the case.
(iv) You may be part of a special minority
If none of the above apply to you and you are not suffering from having less than six hours sleep a night on a consistent basis, then you could be one of the small minority of people who don’t require as much as everyone else. In which case, don’t worry about and use your extra time wisely!
“If you can’t sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there and worrying. It’s the worry that gets you, not the loss of sleep.”
Dale Carnegie, Writer and Consultant
A Note on Gender, Aging and Sleep
The menopause for women and an ever increasing prostate in men can lead to sleep problems as both genders age. Although medication exists to tackle some of the symptoms of both conditions, efficacy can be mixed and these areas would appear under-researched.
Further Reading and Viewing
In addition to exploring Tara Swart’s video and book which is listed above, the following research may be of interest:
The Work of Satchidananda Panda and The Salk Institute
The Work of Michael Breus
The above links give heavy reference to circadian rhythms, which is the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Panda’s work looks at the interplay between sleep, diet and exercise, while Breus’ research is an update on the view that some of us are ‘larks’ i.e. morning people, while others are ‘owls’ i.e. are most active in the evening. Respecting the circadian rhythm, recognising our specific preferences and adjusting our routine accordingly (when you can), often proves another important step in improving our relationship with sleep.
(1) Walker, The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156, 2009View comments >
November 20th, 2018
Balance is a word that comes up a lot in mch training. This is because mch’s training aims to improve performance and I have found that a common trait of the consistently successful is that their lives are relatively well balanced across a variety of areas. Balance is particularly relevant in mch’s resilience training, which is an increasingly popular training topic. The resilient are invariably able to balance a number of complementary traits, e.g. they are reflective while also being very able to stay in the present. They focus on quality thinking and also readily tap into their emotions. They have high aspirations whilst being content with ‘enough’.
It is important to note that applying such traits does not immunise you from adversity. There can still be tumultuous times when nothing appears stable and despite your best efforts, life does not seem balanced.
After a recent run, the act of stretching provided an apt analogy, not only for the struggle for balance in tough times, but also for how best we can meet the challenge. Have a look at the following video:
As someone who normally has good balance, I was struck by how difficult it was to do so in this position. Nothing seemed stable or still: the sand was moving from under my foot and the sea was moving around my ankles. Looking out, the boats were continually bobbing up and down and even when I tried to focus on the horizon, it was usurped by the continually moving clouds just above it.
In an analogous way, there have been times in my life when it seems that nothing is stable and nothing can be relied upon.
However, take a look at the next video:
I am in exactly the same spot on the beach. The only difference is that I have turned 180 degrees and am now facing the shore. Doing so has allowed me to focus on a rock above the tide line, and it is now much easier for me to maintain balance. There is now stability in my field of vision, even though the world around me is exactly as before, and I am still impacted by many of the same issues e.g. moving sand under my foot and moving water around my ankles.
So the message here is that in tough times, prioritise perspective. Where you focus your attention is key. Even in tough times, if you position yourself wisely and are disciplined about where you direct your attention, you will hopefully find at least one ‘touch stone’. For me, a ‘touch stone’ is anything that provides stability when so many other areas of life are in flux, or under strain. Common ‘touch stones’ are particular people (a friend, partner, family member), an activity you find enriching, or simply a reminder of some fundamental realities, e.g. I am healthy. I live in safety. I have enough food to eat. Sometimes, the reason for one’s difficulties is that something, or someone, that you considered a ‘touch stone’, is now in flux. However, in my experience, it is very unlikely that all your personal ‘touch stones’ will simultaneously become unstable.
So in tough times, prioritise perspective, know your ‘touch stones’ and focus on the ones that restore as much balance as possible.View comments >
May 9th, 2017
I recently read an excellent book called - ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ The book tells the story of how Ben Hunt-Davis and his crew became Olympic rowing champions. In addition to his riveting story, the coach and comedian, Harriet Beveridge, outlines how elements of Ben’s approach to becoming Olympic champion are equally applicable in helping you and I achieve our goals.
At the risk of stating the obvious, being motivated by a goal can greatly increase the odds of it being achieved. However, no amount of motivation can prevent misfortune and setbacks from occurring and it is during the tough times that motivation can be tested. Something that galvanises motivation is belief. Without belief, the odds start to turn against you and the likelihood of success becomes akin to a throw of the dice. But how is belief developed? A useful acronym Ben and Harriet developed to guide the development of belief is DICE.
Here the mixed metaphor of the above picture (hopefully) becomes clear. To increase the odds of achieving your goal, you’ve got to keep all four wheels of the bus going round and round. While each wheel is independent, all four need to be present. Otherwise, you’ll come to a grinding halt. The four wheels for belief are:
D – Deserved
I – Important
C- Can do
E – Exciting
Having all four of the above greatly increases the odds of success.
This wheel gets to the heart of why so many goals fail – we simply do not believe we are worthy enough to achieve the goal. We all talk to ourselves (whether we’re prepared to admit it or not). Sometimes such self-talk can be positive and affirming, while at other times it can be negative and limiting. In my mentoring work, one of the biggest issues I help mentees with is silencing the limiting self-talk and turning up the volume of the affirming self-talk.
This is not done through wishful thinking, as affirmation and positivity are most powerful when they are based on fact and sound judgement. A very simple and effective way of doing this is to write down five reasons why it is completely reasonable that you should achieve your goal. For example, if your goal is to successfully apply for a job, your reasons may include:
(i) I fit all of the essential criteria
(ii) I have experience of doing well in a similar role
(iii) I have successfully applied for jobs before
(iv) I have prepared fully for the recruitment process
(v) I am genuinely enthusiastic about the role and organisation
Very simply, to stay motivated by a goal, you need to have a compelling answer to the following question:
‘Why is this goal important?’
The answer should sit well with your values, and clearly articulate how it will improve your life and/or the lives of others.
Even if you are not clear initially on how you will achieve your goal, you need to believe it can be done. As the successful car manufacturer, Henry Ford, succinctly put it:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right.”
Excitement is the powerful accompaniment to ‘Importance’ and ‘Can Do’. In addition to being clear on why the goal has value and rationally persuading yourself that it can be achieved, it must stir the emotions. The stronger the emotion the better. Thus, if proving someone wrong puts more fire in your belly than a sense of achievement, then go with the former.
The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, stated that to persuade and convince others requires Logos, Ethos and Pathos: that is logic, an appeal to ethics/credibility and emotion. A great goal requires the same, together with a genuine sense that you deserve it. All the best with your goals!View comments >
November 18th, 2016
Charity sector research shows that stress levels at work are on the rise, but while stress is inevitable, its negative impact is not. The following article, which I wrote for Charity Choice, shares some of the techniques that can help you stay focused and build resilience. While aimed primarily at fundraisers, the techniques are applicable to all roles in all sectors: https://www.charitychoice.co.uk/the-fundraiser/fundraising-in-tough-times-how-to-shape-up-for-the-challenge/673View comments >