Sleep Your Way to the Top
“There’s practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep.”
The most basic shift we can make in redefining success in our lives has to do with our strained relationship to sleep. As Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic, put it, “Sleep is the most underrated health habit.” Most of us fail to make good use of such an invaluable part of our lives. In fact, we deliberately do just the opposite. We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in. Sleep, or how little of it we need, has become a symbol of our prowess. We make a fetish of not getting enough sleep, and we boast about how little sleep we get. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.
There’s practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep. And there is no element of life that’s not diminished by a lack of sleep. Including our leaders’ decisions. Bill Clinton, who used to famously get only five hours of sleep a night, admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” And in 2013, when the European Union was working on a plan to bail out Cyprus, an agreement was reached during the wee hours of the night that was described by one commentator as “impressively stupid.” The financial journalist Felix Salmon describes the decision as “born of an unholy combination of procrastination, blackmail, and sleep- deprived gamesmanship.” The role of sleep deprivation in international negotiations would make an excellent doctoral dissertation (just don’t pull any all- nighters to finish it).
Our creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, and decision making can all be enhanced simply by getting enough sleep. “Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions: the combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance,” say Drs. Stuart Quan and Russell Sanna, from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. I have been such a sleep evangelist for the past fi ve years that I was asked to join its executive council — a role that has provided me with a great education in the latest sleep research, and that has, in turn, further reinforced my sleep evangelism!
A study at Duke University has found that poor sleep is associated with higher stress levels and a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. They also found that these risks are greater in women than in men. Till Roenneberg, a professor at Ludwig- Maximilians University in Munich, who is an expert on sleep cycles, coined the term “social jetlag” to explain the discrepancy between what our body clocks need and what our social clocks demand. Of course, plain old jet lag can also play havoc with our body clocks — so, as someone who travels a lot across multiple time zones, I am ruthless in enforcing my anti- jet lag rules. While airborne, I drink as much water as possible, strictly avoid sugar and alcohol, move around the plane as much as space and security restrictions will allow, and, above all, sleep as long as I can with the help of my meditation music playlist (and by putting away portable electronic devices — even when they’re allowed).
Like meditation, our sleep patterns can have a physical effect on our brain. A study conducted at Harvard Medical School found that people who got more sleep than the bare minimum they needed increased the volume of gray matter in their brains, which is linked to improved psychological health.
A 2013 study on mice showed that during sleep the brain clears out harmful waste proteins that build up between its cells — a process that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. “It’s like a dishwasher,” said one of the study’s authors, Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester. Professor Nedergaard made an analogy to a house party: “You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time. . . . The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states — awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up.” Far too many of us have been doing too much entertaining and not enough cleaning up.
As the Great British Sleep Survey found, poor sleepers are seven times more likely to feel helpless and five times more likely to feel alone. These are consequences that can impact everything from our relationships and our ability to focus to our health. Our sleep deficit has significant economic costs, as well. A 2011 Harvard Medical School study found that insomnia was significantly associated with lost work performance, and when projected onto the entire U.S. workforce, the study estimates that the lost performance due to insomnia costs businesses more than $63 billion per year.
More and more scientific studies speak to the irrefutable benefits of sleep. A study published in Science even calculated that for the sleep deprived, an extra hour of sleep can do more for their daily happiness than a $60,000 raise. In fact, a number of studies have failed to fi nd a consistent connection between extra money and happiness — as large increases of real income in the developed world over the past half century have not correlated with increases in reported happiness. University of Southern California economics professor Richard Easterlin conducted a study that analyzed the correlation between income and reported well- being, and found that in Japan, well- being levels remained constant between 1958 and 1987, despite a 500 percent increase in real income!
But what do we do if, despite our best intentions, we’re not getting the seven or eight hours a night of sleep we need? Researchers have found that even short naps can help us course correct. Throughout history, famous nappers have included Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy. Charlie Rose, a famous napper of our time, told me that he is now taking up to three naps a day: “I have a nap after we finish our CBS morning show, a nap before I tape my own show, and a nap before I go out in the evening. I don’t like the feeling of going through my day tired!” According to David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, a short nap “primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately.”
Of course, getting more sleep is easier said than done — believe me, I know! This is especially true in a culture that’s wired and connected 24/7. And more and more science is proving that glowing screens and sleep are natural enemies. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently published a study showing that the light from computer screens obstructs the body’s production of melatonin, which helps govern our internal body clock and regulates our sleep cycle. Technology allows us to be so hyperconnected with the outside world that we can lose connection to our inner world.
We desperately need to purge our lives of the poison of what Anne-Marie Slaughter called “time macho.” She describes it as our “relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all- nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you.”
In January 2010, I convinced Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour magazine, to join me in a New Year’s resolution that we believed would improve the lives of women everywhere in the world: to get more sleep. To us, sleep was a feminist issue. You see, of all the sleep- deprived Americans, women are the most fatigued. Working moms get the least sleep, with 59 percent of respondents to a national survey reporting sleep deprivation, and 50 percent saying they get six hours of sleep or less. Cindi admitted that between her work, her two young children, and her TV addiction, she was averaging just over five hours a night.
“Women are significantly more sleep-deprived than men,” confirms Dr. Michael Breus, author of Beauty Sleep. “They have so many commitments, and sleep starts to get low on the totem pole. They may know that sleep should be a priority, but then, you know, they’ve just got to get that last thing done. And that’s when it starts to get bad.” Cheating your body out of the R & R it needs can make you more prone to illness, stress, traffic accidents, and weight gain. (Dr. Breus swears that sleeping will actually do more to take off weight than exercise!)
But there’s more to sleep deprivation than physical problems. Rob yourself of sleep and you’ll find you do not function at your personal best. This is true of work decisions, relationship challenges, or any life situation that requires judgment, emotional equilibrium, problem solving, and creativity. “Everything you do, you’ll do better with a good night’s sleep,” says Dr. Breus. Yet we constantly push ourselves to get by on less until we often don’t even know what “peak performance” feels like anymore.
There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is classifi ed as a form of torture and is a common strategy employed by religious cults. They force prospective members to stay awake for extended periods to reduce their subjects’ decision making ability and make them more open to persuasion. So the choice is ours. Do we want to be empowered women and men taking charge of our lives? Or do we want to drag ourselves around like zombies?
Back to our New Year’s resolution. For a month, Cindi and I committed to getting a full night’s sleep — in Cindi’s case seven and a half hours of sleep, in mine eight (arrived at through trial and error as the number of hours it takes for each of us to be at our most creative and effective).
Getting a good night’s sleep, of course, is an easier resolution to make than to keep. We had to tune out a host of temptations — from Jon Stewart to our email in- boxes. And most of all, we had to ignore the workaholic wisdom that says we’re lazy for not living up to the example set by notoriously self- professed undersleepers.
Of course, the truth is just the opposite: Each of us is much more likely to be a professional powerhouse if we’re not asleep at the wheel. The problem is that women too often feel that they don’t “belong” in the boys’ club atmosphere that still dominates many workplaces. So they attempt to overcompensate by working harder and longer than the guy next to them. Hard work helps women fit in and gain a measure of security. And it can work, at least initially. So they begin to do it more and more and more often, making long hours part of their professional lifestyle. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: The workaholism leads to lack of sleep, which, in turn, leads to not being at our best. Too many of us are fueled by the fear that getting the proper amount of sleep means we must not be passionate enough about our work and our life.
By sleeping more we, in fact, become more competent and in control of our lives. It gives new meaning to the old canard of women sleeping our way to the top. Women have already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business, and the media — imagine what we can do when we’re all fully awake.
Having a buddy certainly made our efforts to get more sleep much easier and more fun. I remember Cindi emailing me on day three: “I got seven and a half last night but it was very stressful to get myself to bed on time! I was rushing around like I was trying to make a train!” She helped me identify that same feeling in myself. One night, I was discussing a potential HuffPost headline with our founding editor Roy Sekoff at 10:30 p.m. and I started getting nervous that I was going to miss the train. So Roy and I sped up our brainstorming so we could get the new headline up on the site without me missing my sleep deadline (it felt as if we were defusing a bomb in an action movie). Most important, as we were hanging up, I was able to laugh at myself — always a great stress buster.
And I discovered a number of great sleep aids: for starters, the yummy pink silk pajamas Cindi sent me as a gift. Just putting them on made me feel ready for bed — so much more than the cotton T-shirts I usually wear at night. Those pajamas were unmistakably “going- to- bed clothes,” not to be confused with “going-to-the-gym clothes.” Too many of us have ignored the distinction between what you wear during the day and what you wear to bed. Slipping on the PJs was a signal to my body: Time to shut down!
An even more important signal that it’s time to shut down is turning off our devices: I made sure I had my iPhone and my BlackBerrys (yes, I have more than one!) charging far, far away from my bed, to help me avoid the middle- of- the- night temptation to check the latest news or latest emails.
And Cindi came up with a new trick to use if she was having trouble falling asleep: “Counting backward from 300 by threes — it works like magic and you never get below 250.” On the few occasions when I feel too wired to sleep, my panacea is a hot bath with my favorite bath salts.
On day four of our “sleep rehab” I actually woke up without an alarm. I looked around anxiously to see what was wrong, wondering what emergency my body had summoned my attention for. It took me a minute or two to realize that the reason I was wide awake was because . . . I didn’t need to sleep anymore. Imagine that.
Professor Roenneberg explains that although 80 percent of the world uses an alarm clock to wake up on workdays, discovering how much sleep we truly need is fairly simple: “We sometimes overeat, but we generally cannot oversleep. When we wake up unprompted, feeling refreshed, we have slept enough.”
He goes on: “With the widespread use of electric light, our body clocks have shifted later while the workday has essentially remained the same. We fall asleep according to our (late) body clock, and are awakened early for work by the alarm clock. We therefore suffer from chronic sleep deprivation.” It’s like we’re going deeper and deeper into debt, and we’re never going to get out.
One of the benefits of getting enough sleep was starting my day feeling like one of those horrible “rise and shine” people you normally want to throttle when you are among the sleep- deprived majority. I hit the ground running, minus the morning mental fog.
Many of us know that regular exercise helps us sleep better, but what I discovered is that it’s a two- way street: Regular sleep also helps us exercise better. It’s a truth that I felt, quite literally, in my bones, and that has been borne out by science. According to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine by researchers from Northwestern, after a bad night’s sleep, participants reported having shorter exercise sessions.
When I hit the workout machines as part of my morning exercise routine, I was lifting heavier weights, punching the treadmill button to go faster, and giving it a higher incline than usual. If someone who knows my usual exercise routine saw me during these workouts, I’d probably be asked to submit to mandatory drug testing. But the only performance-enhancing stimulant I was on was a couple of eight- hour nights of sleep. This is one reason why, as Dr. Breus points out, getting more sleep can lead to weight loss.
And my energy lasted throughout the day. I have a group of friends with whom I hike. It’s our tradition that whoever is feeling the most energized that day has to talk on the way up the hill we climb. The rest talk on the way down. Let’s just say I’m pretty well- known as a consistent downhill talker. But on my last hike I was talking nonstop on the way up — mostly haranguing my hiking partners to get more sleep.
I also took another cue from Cindi, who devised a plan to treat her bedtime like an appointment — with the same urgency and importance that we give all our work- related appointments. It is, in effect, a meeting you’ve scheduled with yourself. She calculates what time she needs to be up, counts back seven and a half hours (that’s her goal) and whatever time that is becomes her appointment. If you have Type A tendencies (guilty!), and feel satisfaction by meeting deadlines and appointments, it’s a brilliant way to use your compulsion more productively.
Too many of us think of our sleep as the flexible item in our schedule that can be endlessly moved around to accommodate our fixed and top priority of work. But like a flight or train, our sleep should be thought of as the fixed point in our day, and everything else should be adjusted as needed so we don’t miss it.
And to help keep her appointment, Cindi utilized Dr. Breus’s suggestion to set an alarm to go off — in your bedroom — when it’s time to go to bed. “You’ll be forced to enter your bedroom to turn the damn thing off — which at least gets you into the right room at the right time,” she told me.
Going public about your decision to get more sleep can be one way to make that commitment stick. You’ll be surrounded, as I found out, by sympathetic friends who have been wanting to do the same thing and who will help you stick to your sleep goals. In my case, because I blogged about my sleep commitment on The Huffington Post, I started having complete strangers come up to me at events, glancing at their watches and wondering how much longer I planned to stay and whether I was going to be able to get my eight hours. I felt like a kid out on a school night — with dozens of babysitters all anxious to help me keep my commitment.
One result of getting more — and better — sleep has been an increase in the intensity of my dreams. I’m not sure if my dreams are actually more intense, vivid, and interesting, or if they only seem that way because I’m not waking up longing to sleep more. Whatever the reason, I suddenly find myself in possession of a rich and compelling dream life.
Reconnecting with my dreams has been like reuniting with an old flame. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. On a trip to Luxor in Egypt, I visited the “sleep chambers” at the Luxor Temple where the high priests and priestesses retired after they had prepared, through prayer and meditation, to receive in their sleep divine guidance and inspiration. In stark contrast to our modern habit of drugging ourselves senseless, hoping to “crash” for a few hours before having to face another frantic day, the ancient Egyptians went to sleep expectantly. This spiritual preparation for sleep allowed them to bring back remnants of their dreams and notes from their night’s travels.
Even before my trip to Egypt, I had long been captivated by Carl Jung’s emphasis on dreams and archetypes. His autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections is one of my favorite books. It helped me explore the possibility that the world of dreams, far from shutting us off from what we consider “the real world,” actually opens us up to another reality — a timeless place that allows us to listen to our souls.
Following that trip to Egypt, and for many years after, I used to write down my dreams in a journal. I filled notebook after notebook. But then life — especially motherhood — intervened. And between nursing a newborn, comforting a crying baby, or holding a feverish toddler — to say nothing of trying to continue to write books and newspaper columns — time evaporated into the night, and sleep became aspirational, more of a survival tactic and less of a way to connect to the sacred and the divine.
Night and sleep soon became all about transitions: Head hitting the pillow only when the schedule allowed. Waking up already late, already on the run. Life became a cycle of crash and rush, crash and rush. It was a cycle I eventually became used to. It seemed normal.
Then came my “reawakening” — my reacquaintance with sleep, when I made sleep a priority. When I did so, I also gave myself permission to remember my dreams. A side benefit of remembering your dreams is that it is a great opportunity to connect even more deeply with the people closest to you. My younger daughter and I now regularly exchange our dreams.
One of her recurring dreams is a good metaphor for what a good night’s sleep allows us to do. She imagines herself as a living “Stop” sign, forcing people to come to a complete stop before moving on with their lives.
Dr. Breus explains why dreaming is so important. “Dreaming (most often in REM sleep) helps consolidate your memories. So what might that mean for you? You will begin to see an improvement in your overall memory and your ability to organize your thoughts, and maybe getting things done.”
Beyond the practical benefits of remembering your dreams, there are the deeper, spiritual reasons, summed up by Rumi: “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, and yet you go door to door asking for crusts. Knock on your inner door. No other.” Remembering our dreams is a way to knock on our inner door and find deeper insights and self- awareness.
The sleep experts I have consulted with have provided me a number of additional sleep tips. Here are some of the ones I found the most useful: • Get a new pillow. And a new pillowcase. • Make your bedroom darker and keep it cool. • Practice deep breathing before bed. • Take a warm bath before bed. • Exercise or at least walk every day. • Banish all LCD screens (laptops, tablets, smartphones, TV) at night. • Cut down on coffee after 2 p.m. and avoid alcohol right before bedtime to give the body time to metabolize it.
And during the day, to prevent stress from building up — which makes it harder to fall asleep at night — every few hours take sixty seconds of recovery time the way top tennis players introduce tiny slots of recovery rituals into their game. All you have to do is stop what you are doing, and simply bring your awareness to the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet, or both. Let it stay there for a minute, and feel all tension leaving your body, drifting away from you through your hands and feet.
Four years after our Sleep Challenge, Cindi and I launched an Unplugging Challenge — and this time we were joined by Mika Brzezinski, who, in addition to cohosting Morning Joe, is also my cohost for our series of Third Metric conferences. For the last week of December, we all pledged to swear off TV, social media, and email so we could truly connect with our loved ones and with ourselves.
“Try unplugging,” wrote Mika of her initial response to shutting off her devices, “when, for the last decade, you have eaten, slept, showered, and exercised with your iPhone in hand. ‘Obsessed’ is not the word. ‘Addicted’ doesn’t sum it up either. ‘Tethered’? ‘On permanent phone-IV’? ‘Permanently attached’? Closer.” Her unplugged week was spent on vacation with her family — including her phone-addicted teenage daughters. She vividly described what those first moments of phantom phone pain were like: “When I put the phone down, I felt weird, incomplete, like I wasn’t wearing a bra or something. At times during the beginning of the vacation, I actually held the phone even though it was off. It was like weaning: The turned-off phone was my binky.” But she was amply rewarded for following through. “I got so much out of unplugging,” she wrote. “Complete conversations with my dad and mom. A fun swim with my niece. Running with Carlie. Running with Jim and Carlie. Walking with Emilie. Connecting. I even watched the sun go down without stopping to check my binky.” Her conclusion: “I highly recommend unplugging! For your health. For your relationships. For your life!”
As for Cindi, she also went through a shaky withdrawal, but the week taught her several lessons. For instance, as she wrote, “When you’re not on your phone, you instantly notice: everyone else is. Like, literally everyone. We returned from vacation slightly less informed but slightly more blissed out, and more likely to stay Zen in annoying situations because of the little digital detox.” She also decided to carry some of those lessons forward: “I’m vowing to stay off email for most of my evenings, to keep my phone in my bag, not my hand, more often this year. Anyone with me?” I urge you to join her!
Excerpt from Thrive pp. 74–88