14 Min Read

Sleep your way to success

Atif Javid

Sleep is one of the most important things we do. It allows our bodies and minds to relax and repair themselves from the day just gone and prepare properly for the one ahead. It boosts our immune system, enhances our creative thinking and problem-solving abilities and clears the toxins from our brains. In short, if you want to be your most effective and productive self during the day, you’ve got to make sure you get the right quality and amount of sleep at night.

Back when I was a stressed-out corporate lawyer, I used to burn the candle at both ends. I was surrounded by people who sat in all-night meetings and talked about how there’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.

Stress can play a significant role in not getting enough sleep. When you’re up against deadlines and it feels as though there’s more work to get done than time available, forgoing sleep often seems like the only solution. And widespread reports that a whole host of very successful people – including Tim Cook, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk – get by on around four hours’ sleep a night has resulted in something of a competitive attitude among some entrepreneurs over how little sleep they need.

But this myth that sleeping is for the lazy and that it’s somehow a waste of time and potentially productive hours is just that: a myth.

More and more successful (and busy) people are making sleep a top priority and accepting that pretty much any goal is easier to achieve after a good night’s rest. Super successful public figures like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg proclaim that sleep and rest is a prerequisite to their almost super human all day long productivity.

In reality, the majority of people simply can’t function at their best if they have limited sleep for an extended period of time. The consequences of not getting enough rest at night are physical, mental and social, and can include:

  • tiredness and daytime lethargy
  • poor memory
  • difficulty focusing
  • a higher risk of making mistakes
  • irritability and anger issues, which can cause relationship issues, both professional and personal
  • headaches
  • anxiety and depression
  • a lack of physical strength
  • irregular and poor eating habits, which can lead to obesity and heart disease
  • an increased risk of alcohol and drug dependence.

In short, although people think they’re gaining time in their working day and getting more done by spending less time in bed, they’re actually sabotaging their own success.

It took me getting close to burnout to realise how integral sleep is to maintaining a happy, healthy personal life and keeping your performance in business at its peak. I recalibrated my approach to life and made some simple adjustments to ensure I prioritised sleep, along with eating well and taking regular exercise, and it’s had a massive positive impact on the level of success I’ve been able to achieve.

So, instead of feeling guilty about making time for sleep, think about all the ways it will help you perform at your best and achieve your goals.

What happens when we sleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average working adult should be getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. There are four stages, which run in a repeating cycle:

Stage one: This is your body’s introduction to sleep. Your eye movements slow down, muscle tone relaxes and brain activity begins to slow. This stage usually lasts up to seven minutes and it’s very light, so you can be easily woken. It’s while drifting in and out of this stage that some people experience a sensation of falling and abrupt muscle jerks.

Stage two: This is the second phase of preparing you for deep sleep. The brain produces sudden increases in wave frequency, known as ‘sleep spindles’, then the waves slow down. Your body temperature begins to drop and your heart rate starts to slow. In total, you spend between 40% and 60% of your total sleep time in stage two. If you were to schedule a ‘power nap’, you’d want to wake up after this stage.

Stage three: The brain starts to produce delta waves and you move into an increasingly deep sleep, where there’s no eye movement or muscle activity. This is the most restorative stage of sleep, when the body repairs tissues and muscles, stimulates development and growth, boosts the immune function, and builds up energy for the following day. It’s harder to be wakened in this stage because your body is less responsive to outside stimuli. You spend between 5% and 15% of your sleep time in stage three.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM): This is the final stage of sleep, when most dreaming occurs, as your brain becomes more active, consolidating and processing information from the day before so it can be stored in your long-term memory. Your eyes move rapidly in different directions (hence the name!), blood pressure and heart rate increase and your breathing becomes shallow, fast and irregular. You generally enter REM for the first time about 90 minutes after falling asleep and, while the first REM period of the night tends to be short, each REM stage thereafter can last up to an hour.

A normal sleep cycle progresses from light to deep sleep then back through the stages to light, finishing with REM before starting again. Typically, we begin a sleep cycle every 90 to 120 minutes, meaning we go through around four to five cycles per night.

If you can complete several sleep cycles, you should wake up feeling mentally and physically rested and refreshed, ready for the new day. But let’s take a closer look at the real benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

It cleans your brain of toxins.
Every night, your body performs a whole series of functions to flush out waste and toxins – including those from your brain – and it can only do that effectively while you’re asleep. According to research by the University of Rochester Medical Centre, our brain cells shrink during sleep to open up the gaps between neurons and allow fluid to wash the brain clean. If you don’t get enough sleep, some toxic proteins may remain in your brain cells, impairing your ability to think. So get a good night’s rest to ensure your mind is in proper working order each morning.

You’ll be able to focus and concentrate properly.
Your brain needs time to disengage from the constant activity of the day – you’ve got to rest your mind just as you do your body. Proper sleep will help keep your attention from wandering and ensure your strategic thinking abilities and reaction times are sharp.

It helps you think more creatively.
A study has shown that the REM stage of sleep helps the brain connect unrelated ideas and that, in turn, stimulates innovative thinking and creative problem-solving.

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” – John Steinbeck

You’ll be a more effective learner.
In the REM stage of sleep, your brain organises and processes all the information you’ve taken in during the day, making sense of it, which is why we often feel that we see things more clearly in the morning. Your short-term memories are also converted into long-term memories and that’s key to the learning process.

It can help keep stress at bay.
When you’re stressed, your body releases certain hormones that can keep you awake, such as cortisol. But a good night’s sleep can have the opposite effect and relax the systems in your body that are responsible for this stress response, so if you can clear your mind before you go to bed, you should wake up feeling calmer and less anxious.

Your immune system will function better.
Good sleep is one of the pillars of good health. It gives your body the time it needs to rest and repair and supports the cells of your immune system, allowing them to detect and destroy any foreign germs. Sleep also helps your system remember these invaders so, if you come across the same bugs again, you’re prepared to fight them off.

In one study, 153 healthy adults were given nasal drops with the cold virus and studied for two weeks to monitor the development of the common cold. It found that those who slept for less than seven hours a night were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept for eight hours or more.

It helps keep your heart healthy.
While your body is at rest, it gives your heart muscle and blood cells time to heal and repair. During stages 2 and 3 of the sleep cycle, your heart rate and blood pressure drop – essentially giving your heart a rest. If you have sleep problems, your blood pressure will stay higher for a longer period of time and that can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Recent research from the National Center for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid found that adults who slept for less than 6 hours a night were 27% more at risk of having a heart attack or stroke than those who slept for 7 to 8 hours. And those who had poor quality sleep – waking frequently or having trouble getting to sleep – were 34% more likely to have heart problems.

It will help you maintain a healthy weight.
It’s much easier to regulate your eating habits and keep your energy levels stable if you have a sleep routine and are properly rested. Tiredness and a lack of energy can make you crave high-sugar foods and overeat, particularly if you stay up late. Some research has even suggested that if you’re sleep deprived, it changes the level of hormones in your body that signal hunger and tell you when you’re full.

In short, getting quality rest at night means quality performance during the day.

“Your future depends on your dreams, so go to sleep.” – Mesut Barazany

Do ‘power naps’ help or hinder your performance?

There are many successful people who credit ‘power naps’ – taking a short sleep during the day – with improving their productivity, creativity and effectiveness, but can snoozing at work really have a positive impact on your success?

While some people scoff at the idea, the evidence seems to show that a power nap certainly works for many. Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali and Aristotle were all early fans of the ‘micronap’, believing that it loosened the ego and put them in touch with the more creative side of the brain.

In the 1990s, NASA experimented with giving astronauts the opportunity to take short naps during their workdays and found that their performance skyrocketed. And studies published by the Journal of Sleep Research and Nature Neuroscience show that power naps have a measurable positive impact on job performance. Today, many major corporations actively encourage employees to take time out during the day to rest their bodies and minds. Google, PwC, Ben & Jerry’s and Nike are just four companies that have invested in sleep pods or nap-friendly spaces and offer flexible working hours.

The ideal power nap should last between 10 and 30 minutes, allowing your body and mind to slow down and relax before you wake up feeling rested and restored. However, if you go for 30 to 60 minutes, you may then be asking your body to wake directly from deep sleep, which will make you feel groggy and probably worse than when you started the nap. Aim to take your nap after lunch, when your blood sugar and energy naturally starts to dip, and find a dark room to help you fall asleep more quickly.

Short power naps during the day shouldn’t affect your ability to fall asleep at night, as your body still needs the restorative, deep stage three and memory-building REM. But if you let yourself fall into deep sleep or doze off for even longer and enter REM during the day, you’ll find it harder to nod off at night, quite simply because you’ve reduced your need for sleep.

Pay off your sleep debt!

If you get less sleep than you need for an extended period of time, you rack up ‘sleep debt’ – i.e. the lost hours add up and you’ll find your level of tiredness and performance during the day will get progressively worse.

The good news is that you don’t need to make up all the hours you’ve lost, you just need at least two consecutive nights of good-quality sleep. So, even if you’ve been massively sleep deprived for several weeks, you can catch up and get your body and mind back to good working order in just a few nights.

7 simple steps you can take to make sure you get enough sleep

I sleep for 9 hours a night and make sure I don’t schedule anything in the mornings that means I might have to compromise on that. As a result – and in conjunction with eating well and taking regular exercise – I know that I’m starting each day with a healthy body and mind.

Sleep really is key to your performance and health, and hence your success. Of course, I’m not a sleep expert, but I can pass on a few tips that help keep me at my physical and mental peak, so that I can give my all to my businesses and life.

1. Establish a regular sleep/wake rhythm. Consistency is the key to a good night’s sleep, so you should aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day – even on weekends and holidays.

When you have a consistent wake-up time, your brain acclimatises to it and adjusts your sleep cycle accordingly, so that you feel rested and alert at the right time.

If you set an alarm for the same time each morning and find you usually wake up just before it goes off, that’s a great sign. It means your brain has established a sleep rhythm and you’re properly rested.

If you oversleep, as many people do when they have a holiday or at weekends, it messes up your sleep cycle. So, if you have a lie-in on a Sunday, you’ll probably feel less fresh when you eventually get up because your brain hasn’t prepared your body to be awake. While that might not matter on your day off, you’ll then find it harder to wake up on Monday because your sleep cycle has been reset, meaning you won’t be performing at your best on that day.

2. Exercise during the day. Physical activity greatly improves the quality of your sleep, as it increases the amount of time spent in deep sleep, the most physically restorative stage. Exercise is also a proven stress and anxiety reliever – even just five minutes of exercise has been shown to trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body, which will help you relax and get to sleep more quickly.

3. Drink plenty of water. Hydrating yourself regularly boosts the production of melatonin, the chemical that helps you sleep, so make sure you’re getting at least 8 glasses a day. You can read more about the benefits of staying properly hydrated in my blog post, Eat well to maximise your potential.

4. Don’t consume caffeine late in the day. Caffeine makes us feel temporarily more alert as it blocks sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain and increases adrenaline production. Levels of this stimulant can stay elevated in your blood for up to nine hours, so try not to drink coffee or any other caffeinated drink after lunchtime.

5. Stop working! If you work late into the evening, you’re putting your mind in an alert, stimulated state, when you should be allowing it to wind down. So, try to stop working at least two hours before your bedtime.

6. Establish a relaxing pre-bedtime routine. You should start preparing your mind and body for sleep around 30 minutes before you go to bed. Dim the lights and read, listen to relaxing music or even do some meditation. Importantly, remove any ‘smart-screens’, such as iPads and phones. Even if you turn down the brightness, the content is likely to be stimulating. Also, while it’s widely billed as relaxing to have a hot bath, don’t do it near bedtime because it raises your core body temperature and you actually need a half-degree drop in order to trigger your body’s nightly shutdown.

7. Make sure your bedroom environment is conducive to sleep.

  • Research shows that darkness boosts the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, so draw the curtains or even fit blackout blinds.
  • Make sure you have a good-quality mattress, good bedding and the best pillow you can afford to properly support your neck, head and upper back.
  • Don’t make it too warm or too cold, or your body will have trouble achieving its ideal ‘internal thermostat’ point for sleep. 16 to 18 degrees Celsius is the recommended temperature for the bedroom.

“Sleep is an investment in the energy you need to be effective tomorrow.” – Tom Roth

Incorporating these simple steps into your daily routine will exponentially improve your overall health and well being. Sleep fuels the mind and your mind fuels you, so prioritise getting a good night’s sleep and you’ll begin each day physically and mentally ready to be the most productive version of yourself.