Sleep deprived? Try these 6 things to improve your sleep quality.

by Stephen Danos

As you look to build resolutions and goals lists for 2020, you might want to add getting better sleep to the top of your list. Today, the average American gets fewer than seven hours of sleep per night which leads most to operating in a sleep-deprived state.

On top of that, a new study found that sleep deprivation impacts more than just attention; it disrupts placekeeping for activities that require multiple steps and increases the potential for making mistakes by 30% when you’re interrupted.

Frankly put, you need to get a healthier dose of sleep per night — between seven and nine hours — if you want to be more effective when you’re awake.

For the past six months, I’ve obsessed over Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, Ph.D., which I learned about from Walker’s Ted Talk “Sleep is your superpower.” 

A world-renowned neuroscience professor, scientist, sleep researcher, and director of the Center of Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Walker wrote the definitive book on sleep. In it, he’s shared the results from decades of sleep studies that show why sleep is so important for being healthy, unlocking creativity, and staying productive.

In Why We Sleep, Walker states that “sleep deprivation degrades many of the key faculties required for most forms of employment.” Here are six things you can do to get better sleep and say goodnight to the causes of sleep deprivation that disrupt your abilities, using Walker’s bestselling book as a guide.

Illustration of the sun

1. Get more natural light.

A combination of digital devices, screens, and artificial light exposure disrupt our circadian rhythms and “sleep pressure,” which is caused by adenosine. This naturally-occurring chemical builds up in your brain during the day, which increases your desire to sleep the longer you’re awake. I’ll kick this over to Walker, who discusses what stops you from sleeping in “Chapter 13: iPads, Factory Whistles, and Nightcaps”:

“One hundred years post-Edison, we now understand the biological mechanisms by which the electric lightbulbs managed to veto our natural timing and quality of sleep...The artificial light that bathes our modern indoor worlds will therefore halt the forward progress of biological time that is normally signaled by the evening surge in melatonin.”

What’s the result for you? When you want to go to sleep at 10 p.m., your mind and body can sometimes be delayed by up to four hours, as you lack the required amount of sleep-inducing adenosine. We’re basically in a perpetual state of jet lag, which is why a lot of people are constantly tired at work and, as a result, are less effective with a higher risk of getting sick.

Some companies are reforming their facilities to promote better sleep for their employees. While not everyone works at a company that pays you to sleep or has circadian lighting systems, there are a few things you can do to improve your sleep quality. 

Here’s what you can do: First, make sure you’re going outside and getting natural sunlight exposure for at least 30-minutes per day. If you live in a place (like the Pacific Northwest) that is overcast half of the year, invest in a natural daylight lamp. Walker suggests trying to “wake up with the sun or use very bright lights in the morning.” In addition, you really need to ditch gadgets and TV in the hours before bedtime. 

2. Practice mindfulness to aid concentration.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a lack of sleep shatters your ability to concentrate on even the most basic tasks. For a moment, forget about being able to focus on your work. If you’re suffering from even a tiny bit of sleep deprivation, it can prove fatal during your daily commute, whether or not you’re the one driving.

How does this manifest? Well, these “momentary lapse[s] in concentration” are officially called microsleep. As Walker has learned, “during microsleep, your brain becomes blind to the outside world for a brief moment—and not just in the visual domain, but in all channels of perception.” 

A study cited in Why We Sleep conducted by David Dinges, an educator and American sleep researcher, was designed to find out how long a person can be sleep deprived before it impairs their performance. The results showed that sleep deprivation led to slowed reaction time and, in some participants, a lack of response during brief moments. How does this apply to your work?  Again, here’s Walker:

“After four hours of sleep for six nights, participants’ performance was just as bad as those who had not slept for twenty-four hours straight—that is, a 400 percent increase in the number of microsleeps.”

Simply put, you can’t expect your mind to be at peak performance if you’re sleeping only a handful of hours per night throughout the workweek. This will ultimately disrupt your productivity and, while you might not be concerned with how this impacts your employer’s bottom line, it costs the U.S. economy roughly $411 billion in lost productivity per year

Another study that Walker cites “found that insufficient sleep costs almost $2,000 per employee per year in lost productivity” for larger companies in the U.S. If your company has 1,000 employees, that’s a loss of $2 million annually.

Here’s what you can do: Practice mindfulness. If you’re having trouble concentrating, instead of thinking about everything that you need to do, take a mindful moment to focus on just one thing. For example, you can focus on your breathing, meditate, or look out your window at a tree. And while doing so, try to experience the moment with all of your senses. If you can reduce anxiety, you might be able to increase your overall calmness, which is helpful for sleeping.   

Simple illustration showing a box of tissues and a thermometer

 3. Give colds a rest.

A 2018 study found that lost productivity due to illness hit employers hard, costing $530 billion per year. If you’re not getting enough quality sleep on a daily basis, there’s a greater chance that your immune system isn’t up to snuff. When your immune system suffers from perpetual sleep deprivation, the number of “natural killer cells” that patrol your body and attack diseases diminishes, per Walker:

“Sleep fights against infection and sickness by deploying all manner of weaponry within your immune arsenal, cladding you with protection. When you do fall ill, the immune system actively stimulates the sleep system, demanding more bed rest to help reinforce the war effort. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and the invisible suit of immune resilience is rudely stripped from your body.”

This wartime language is very purposeful, as he states that “infectious illness, such as the common cold, influenza, and pneumonia, are among the leading causes of death in developed countries.” This is startling, as it reinforces that during flu season, we really should be aiming for higher quality sleep to build up our immunities and resistance to the illnesses we pass along to each other in our open floor plan offices. 

Here’s what you can do: When you do feel a cold coming on, don’t risk spreading it to your coworkers. If you have sick days, take them. If you have the option, work from home. This way you can rest, drink plenty of fluids, take non-drowsy natural or over-the-counter medications, and sleep when your body is telling you to. 

4. Create a sleep routine and stick with it.

Sleep naturally enhances your memory. Whether you’re taking a course for your own professional development or learning a coding language, you’ll want to get solid sleep before and after you learn new fact-based information. According to Walker, when you’re sleep-deprived, your brain has a hard time making new memories as its learning-related genes are negatively impacted:

“A lack of sleep therefore is a deeply penetrating and corrosive force that enfeebles the memory-making apparatus within your brain, preventing you from constructing lasting memory traces. It is rather like building a sand castle too close to the tide line—the consequences are inevitable.”

It’s also important to note that if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you can’t just sleep longer on the weekends to even it out. “Sleep for memory consolidation is an all-or-nothing event,” Walker says. Any “sleep debt” you acquire can’t just be paid off in installments like a credit card.

Suffice to say this creates inconsistencies in performance, no matter what line of work you’re in. We have plenty of digital aids to fill in the gaps (like calendar apps and work execution platforms), but over-relying on such programs long term isn’t a permanent fix.

Here’s what you can do: Creating routines can have tremendous health benefits, including helping you break bad habits (like de-prioritizing your nightly slumber). With this in mind, whether or not you’re currently sleep-deprived, you should create a relaxing bedtime routine that facilitates sleep. 

The National Sleep Foundation says this should include creating a sleep schedule, so you consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. If you stick to your relaxing ritual, your brain will recognize that once your head hits the pillow, it’s time to snooze. As a bonus, Walker recommends making sure your bedroom is at a cooler temperature (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit). So turn down the thermostat; and if you can invest in a cooling pillow and mattress, go for it.

Illustration of a hot cup of coffee

5. Drink less coffee (sorry).

Comedian Lewis Black once said, "I like coffee because it gives me the illusion that I might be awake." Across the U.S., small startups and major tech companies alike offer free gourmet and cold brew coffee to perk up their employees. 

However, caffeine mutes the naturally occurring chemical adenosine (responsible for “sleep pressure”). What’s more, caffeine’s effectiveness peaks after 30 minutes and it has a half-life of up to seven hours. That means if you drink espresso to counter afternoon drowsiness at 2:30 p.m., 50% of the caffeine can still be in your system by about 9:30 p.m, which is the time you should be winding down to get some shut-eye.  

In the long run, if you drink copious amounts of coffee or black tea to stay awake and work, you’re being counterproductive and are likely to crash pretty hard once the caffeine’s effects wear off. 

This isn’t to say you need to break up with your favorite latte, as caffeine can have both positive and negative effects on your productivity. But over-relying on it to carry you through the day and help you focus on work can lead to a slippery slope of poor sleep quality. 

Here’s what you can do: Walker suggests eliminating caffeine altogether, but that’s simply not possible for most working professionals. If you can’t kick the habit, most experts suggest abstaining from caffeine consumption after noon, staying hydrated, and taking 30-minute walks when you can during the workday so you can feel reinvigorated.   

6. Set expectations with your manager.

Sleep deprivation will not just hamstring your productivity at work, it will also limit your creativity. Every worker uses creativity during the workday, whether they're figuring out new ways to organize information, building new lines of code, or creating illustrations for your marketing department. Walker sums up the importance of sleep on creativity: 

“Sleep provides a nighttime theater in which your brain tests out and builds connection between vast stores of information...In ways your waking brain would never attempt, the sleeping brain fuses together disparate sets of knowledge that foster impressive problem-solving abilities.” 

Walker believes that “sound sleep is clearly sound business.” During his research, he’s found that “under-slept” employees generally don’t seek out challenges and are hard-pressed to come up with solutions that are more creative in nature. 

As work is where we spend most of our day, you might feel the need to respond to work-related emails and messages at all hours. However, doing so detracts from creativity and our breakthrough moments at work; we need time to disconnect, reflect, and recharge. 

At the end of the day, sleep deprivation usually leads to an increase in laziness, social inadequacy, and emotional instability — all of which are contrary to running a successful business. One final quote on how this impacts organizations, courtesy of Walker: 

“Under-slept employees are not, therefore, going to drive your business forward with productive innovation. Like a group of people riding stationary exercise bikes, everyone looks like they are pedaling, but the scenery never changes. The irony that employees miss is that when you are not getting enough sleep, you work less productively and thus need to work longer to accomplish a goal.”

Here’s what you can do: Walker points out that companies like Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble Co. offer courses in “sleep hygiene,” with the goal of helping their employees get more rest. And while your company might not have the budget for Google’s famous “nap pods,” you can at least start a conversation with your manager about how sleep boosts problem-solving, creativity, and can add more value to your organization. Don’t forget to mention that it will save your company money in the short and long run! 

The power of consistent, quality sleep

High-quality sleep restores your body, prevents diseases, improves your memory, and boosts your creativity and your ability to solve your everyday work challenges. 

Combined with a healthy diet and exercise, getting more sleep is also tied to your overall happiness. To learn more about other factors that contribute to your happiness at work (and in life), check out the new Smartsheet report Want to Supercharge Your Career? Prioritize Happiness.”