Sleep: the quiet game changer
Back in the 'good old days', I used to drop by the house of one of my best buddies after school to chat, play video games, and whatnot. My friend’s dad would often be around joking with us trying to be a 'cool dad,' as some dads do; and from the tons of jokes he often told us, I will always remember the day he said this: “My entire career, we always worked really hard. Very hard. We only took 30-minute lunch breaks, and ate and napped from noon till 2.00pm.”
As you can imagine, those sentences put a funny smirk on my face at the time, making me laugh at the contradiction between his bragging about 'working very hard' and then taking a 2-hour lunch break for what should have been a 30-minute one. Born and raised with German standards for both time and productivity, a 2-hour lunch break hardly made it into my definition of what ‘working hard’ was supposed to look like. The same happened when I heard people speak of taking a nap after lunch or, as the inventors of the thing truly call it, a little nice 'siesta.'
Where I come from, you tell someone that you nap every afternoon after lunch for 15 to 30 minutes during the work week and you will be either quite probably laughed at, or else labelled (most likely without your knowing) as a 'lazy person.' Indeed, time is money, often quite literally; and so, any activity deterring us from 'making more money' better be justified! I am of course generalizing, but many of us in the west are raised to think more or less like this in a way. And I only learnt to dispel these negative stereotypes about rest and sleep during the work week early in life because of my time as a Pro-sports athlete. Because being a Pro-athlete forced me to realize early on the benefits of daily napping.
Generally speaking, it really comes as no news that we have a cultural tendency to overdo things a little and cram more and more tasks and plans into already pretty busy days. Dealing with work, personal and family life, and numberless activities we don't want to sacrifice, whenever we lack the time to do all we want to in a day –everything 'we have to do'– we often find a way to make it happen by sacrificing whatever seems most unimportant. And our hours of sleeping time seem to often fall into this category.
We have all done it. Whether during the preparation for important exams, or when deadlines at work are coming up, or relevant presentations or lectures are due... We all have sacrificed now and then hours of sleep for seemingly justifiable reasons. I'm the first one to admit that I have done so in the past and that I'm currently still struggling with letting go of the habit sometimes. Stressful habits are the toughest to give up.
Cutting down on the amount of sleep you get on occasion is definitely not a big issue, but the tendency is more and more to often do this on the regular; and this is where things can get a bit tricky. Because the consequences of lack of proper sleep for our health and wellbeing go beyond what one imagines.
Some people assume that not sleeping much is an inevitable part of their 'work week' routine, somehow accepting it as the unhappy partner of having a demanding full-time job. Others prefer to call themselves 'night owls,' arguing that they are somehow better suited for night work, that they really come alive at night, becoming more active and productive. But none of these two arguments holds true upon careful inspection, and the truth is that the effects of improper (or lack of) sleep on our bodies, mood, health, and cognitive, professional, and athletic performance are striking.
Clinical evidence and research have shown that such a thing as a night owl, for example, does not really exist and that the long-term consequences of pushing oneself into this lifestyle are clearly detrimental; so much so, that what a self-proclaimed night owl type of person is truly saying is that their body is simply out of tune with its own biorhythm. Because this is exactly the downside of leading a life of more and more 'doing' at the expense of quality sleeping hours: it rapidly drives you out of balance.
Research into human nature and its natural cycles shows clearly that our energy and life force largely depend on the sun and the movement of our planet around it. We humans are not unlike other animals. We have fixed rhythms for life and its different stages, follow the cycles of nature, the cosmos, and the world around us and get most of our cues from the environment that surrounds us. It is only our (un)conscious suppression of the signals normally associated with the need to rest and sleep that justifies any other tendencies. The chances to overlook these signals vastly increases with modern-day exposition to bright light sources, caffeine-rich drinks, too much TV, or excessive time exposed to blue light devices (such as your computer, smartphone, tablet). These things actively work against our in-build sensory system, confusing the receptors in our brain in charge of detecting those cues meant to shout out loud SLEEP TIME NOW from the outer environment, until our energy levels raise at strange hours sort of 'naturally.'
The point, then, is that rest and sleep are two of the most fundamental parts of a healthy lifestyle and that we should be making sure to provide our flesh and bone machine with sufficient hours of 'down time' instead of less. Remember my buddies' father's joke? He was right all along. Sleep is not a nice-to-have or add-on to our lifestyle. It is also not a luxury one has to earn or qualify for, nor a privilege we must postpone until all else is done and it's already the weekend. Sleep is a quiet game changer.
It is in this regard that I think we all can learn a thing or two from the world of professional sports. Because most athletes and coaches out there are already aware of the importance of sleep for top performance and of the dangers inherent in not sleeping well or enough. In fact, research shows that getting only 6 hours of sleep multiplies by four the risk of injury in professional athletes, as compared to those who can get a good 9 hours! And what holds true for athletes and their physical performance is equally important for the rest of humans and their varying lifestyles.
So be aware of your healthy routines and most damaging habits and consider if you are really allowing for sufficient time for your brain and body to rest, recharge, and regenerate. If you know you already aren't, don't fret. The solution is cheap and easy to access: go to bed!