You are an overachiever, running on an expectations treadmill that never stops or slows down. You know you don’t get enough sleep. And you know it matters. After a good night’s rest, you are sharp. You think clearly. You are a better leader, spouse, and parent.
As a busy executive, you get paid to make decisions and ensure your team acts on them wisely. Lack of sleep hurts your core cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving. This makes it more difficult to learn effectively. Second, it affects your interpretation of events. This hurts your ability to assess situations accurately and make sound decisions. In an always-on world, functioning on little sleep has become a badge of honor. But sleep specialists say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong.
Assess Your Sleep Needs
Most adults need 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep in every 24-hour time period. Pay attention to your body’s cues. That’s one of the first steps toward figuring out whether you’re getting enough rest. For instance, falling asleep on takeoff during every flight, or on the subway home every night, are signs of sleep deprivation.
Another way is to assess your sleep needs over a two-week period. Your schedule should be flexible, so during vacation is best. Pick a consistent bedtime when you normally feel tired and do not set your alarm. If you are sleep deprived, you may sleep longer. By going to bed at the same time and allowing yourself to wake up naturally, you’ll eventually establish a pattern. Once you know how much sleep you need, make it a priority to maintain a regular sleep schedule even on weekends. This will help set your body’s internal clock.
Control Your Exposure to Light
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure. It helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Your brain secretes more melatonin when it’s dark, making you drowsy—and less when it’s light, making you alert. Avoid bright screens or lights an hour or two before bed. Skip late-night television. The light from a TV suppresses melatonin and besides, many programs are stimulating rather than relaxing. Make your room dark when it is time to fall asleep. Expose yourself to natural light in the morning when you wake.
Get Regular Exercise
Regular exercise improves the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative stages of sleep. The more vigorously you exercise, the more powerful the sleep benefits. Even light exercise, such as walking for 10 minutes a day, helps improve sleep quality. It can take a few months before you experience the benefits of regular activity, so be patient.
Keep a Healthy, Nutritional Diet
Your daily eating habits definitely play a role in how well you sleep, especially the food you eat just before bedtime. Cut back on caffeine after lunch. Try to avoid big meals at night. As relaxing as a nightcap may be, alcohol interferes with your sleep cycle. And drinking too many liquids before bed may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night.
Relax Your Mind
Do you find yourself struggling to fall asleep and worried about your upcoming day? Are you waking up during the night, stressed about work or the list of things you have to do? Breaking the mental habit of anxiety isn’t easy. Begin by clearing all negative thoughts. And remember, the more you stimulate your brain during the day, the harder it can be to unwind at night. Focus on one task at a time, and avoid constant interruptions. Try setting aside specific times in your day to check emails, look at your phone, and react to social media.
When you wake up during the night, stay out of your head. Focus on relaxation techniques. Take a breath in, and then breathe out slowly. If you wake up feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and then let it go.
Healthy sleep habits make a big difference in your quality of life. You can’t always control the factors that interfere with your day. By moving to a routine that prioritizes sleep, you will feel healthier, more rested, and much better equipped to achieve the performance you crave.
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