Sleeping is the best productivity lifehack

Productivity is something everyone goes after. Completing more tasks in an easier way — who wouldn’t like that? In the journey for optimization, we almost always go after “increases”: if I start doing this, I’ll produce more; if I buy that, I’ll work better. What if the opposite turns to be a valid alternative path? What if, to be more productive, you need to produce less?

There’s one thing I’ve never understood: the romantic idea to burn the candle at both ends finishing a project. Or studying. I get the glamour that resides on it, as when Tim Cook wrote on Twitter that he slept a little less than what he’s used to for a big day — in this case, until 4h30 AM. In fact, sleep deprivation makes us being perceived as busier, more important, and reinforces an idea about working hard, which is nothing but untrue. Frequently, we replace quality for quantity, a change that in many areas, like creative ones, isn’t that interesting…

When my eyelids start acting on their own, focusing gets harder to be achieved, and to keep going, a couple of coffee-based drinks is needed, something is clearly wrong. Actually, I’m in the wrong place. I should’ve be lying in bed, not working.

Recently I watched a TED-Ed animation that explains all the sleep cognitive benefits, or why it’s better to sleep in the eve of an exam or a concert instead of staying up studying or practicing:

Last Sunday I started an 8h long of bedtime routine. It wasn’t that hard — I’m used to sleep around this timeframe every night — , but I was determined to it, so much that I set not one, but two alarms in my phone. Besides the regular one, to make me wake up in the morning, I set another for the night before, to let me know when I should go to bed.

It worked, as Shine’s stats show:

Seeking for 8h hours of sleep

This year, National Sleep Foundation released a new study about how many hours of sleep we need according to our age. Adults and young adults (from 18 to 64) need between 7 and 9 hours. It seems, to me, a good number, and one that fits what common sense tells us since always — 8 hours per night.

Source: National Sleep Foundation.

It takes discipline to keep the pattern. Sometimes I’m not tired enough to go to bed at the right time so I don’t want to miss my next day’s appointments — or attend them as a zombie. The point is: go to bed anyway. Unless there are external powerful forces in action (insomnia, urgent concerns etc), you’ll sleep eventually. And, of course, you can make life easier planning in advance.

One of the best tips, which’s always helpful to me, is activating “do not disturb” mode in your phone. Because, as you probably know from experience, a notification can ruin your sleep. iPhone and Android have it natively. When I sleep during times outside the automatic window I’ve set up, I activate this mode manually — it’s easy. If your Android phone is running a version prior to Lollipop, you can install an app, Nights Keeper, for this.

Another great ally of your sleep is blocking acoustic distraction. Living in a city, especially in buildings, can be quite noisy — neighbors cooking late at night, people talking on the street, dogs and cats fighting, loving, doing their thing. Sounds labeled as “white noise” help to isolate external, distracting noises. Rain drops, for example, make an excellent white noise.

If you use iPhone, I recommend Noisli (US$ 1,99), and the free Misfit’s app; although this last one’s main function is to track your steps and sleep monitoring from their wearable gadgets, it also features a great white noise solution. On Android, Misfit’s available as well, and there are a ton of other solutions. From those I tested recently, Rain Sounds (free) was one of the best.

When 8h aren’t enough

Foto: Calvin Smith/Flickr.

As I said, I’m used to sleep 8h per night or so, and it’s been a while. My biological clock, in this sense, is well adjusted; even in days off and weekends, without an alarm to wake me up, I maintain this pattern. And despite it, I often feel tired in the afternoon, really tired.

Thinking about this, I remembered another popular tip related to sleepness and productivity: la siesta, or taking a nap after lunch.

You’ve probably heard about Great Names in History who used to take a nap in the middle of the day. In 1999, Brazilian magazine Veja said Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Winston Churcill, Thomas Edison, Salvador Dalí, John Kennedy and Leonardo da Vinci, among others, used to take a nap after lunch. A great team, I’d say.

Why is it so useful? According to Renata Federighi, sleep consultant of a pillow maker in Brazil, because “[after lunching] it’s the period our body is more relaxed and the brain is working as slow as possible, since during digestion, part of our blood stream is diverted to stomach, reducing the amount of blood in other parts like brain and muscles.”

This made sense to me, so I included this extra sleeping time in my schedule. I also read that this after lunch nap can’t last longer than 30 minutes, otherwise either something is wrong with me, or I’d enter in a profound sleeping mode that instead of helping me stay alert and more productive, would make me feel more miserable than if I haven’t slept at all. Plus, it messes up with your nightly sleep.

It’s been a couple weeks since I started taking naps after lunch. Put in another way, I decided do just give up when faced by tiredness. If I feel this way, I just sleep a little before continue whatever I’m doing. Even considering the placebo effect in action, I can say that I feel better in afternoons, I produce more and better, and no longer feel incredibly tired between 3 and 6 PM, as it was pretty common in the past.

Our circadian rhythm is ruthless; it does not bend or adapt to modern demands. Instead of fighting nature in the name of a productivity that doesn’t even make sense when looked from an open-minded (and rested) point-of-view, I decided to embrace my sleep, facing it as a need and not an obstacle, and allowing myself to sleep when I need to. So far, at least, it has worked.

I’m Rodrigo Ghedin, a Brazilian blogger who writes (in Portuguese) about technology in Manual do Usuário, an independent Slow Web blog. I hope to translate more content originally published in Portuguese in the near future, and to improve my English writing — this is the first, by the way. Feel free to follow me at Twitter (@ghedin) or drop an e-mail (