Why you need more sleep and how to get it

“Like a drunk, a person who is sleep-deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is.”

—Charles Czeisler, Harvard Medical School

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 95 percent of us need 7-8 hours per night. Think you need only 5? Maybe you are superhuman. However, research shows that superhuman performers in many fields get more sleep than everyone else. A more likely explanation is that you are deceiving yourself. Has it been so long since you got a good night’s sleep that you forgot how it actually feels to be fully rested?

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I’ve never been an outstanding sleeper. In fact, it takes concerted effort for me just to sleep adequately. As a result, I’ve invested a fair amount of time learning about what keeps me from sleeping well and how to remedy the situation. Here is what I learned:

  • Getting to sleep and staying asleep are both important, because uninterrupted sleep allows the body to rejuvenate and the mind to learn. Let’s say you average eight hours per night but wake up three times with an overactive mind and once to use the restroom. In the morning, your body will not feel rested, and your brain will have missed out on the complex learning that happens during REM sleep.
  • There are specific things you can do to fall asleep more easily. One is to stick to a consistent bedtime and precede it with a common bedtime ritual. An effective ritual will exclude work, email, TV, alcohol, caffeine, controversy, and anything that gets you revved up. Also important is the physical environment. Is the place you sleep quiet and dark? Do your mattress and pillow meet your needs? Small things like these can make a big difference.
  • There are other specific things you can do to return to sleep quickly when you wake up. If your mind is filled with thoughts, write them down. Take thirty seconds to stretch your back, shoulders, and legs. Learn one of the thousands of simple techniques for relaxing your body. One of my personal favorites is tensing and then relaxing every muscle in my body, starting in the head and moving down the body to the feet.
  • Sleep loss is cumulative. If you only sleep five hours per night for a week, one night of sleeping ten hours isn’t going to cut it. Your cumulative sleep deficit is 21 hours (three hours per night for seven nights), so it will take more than ten ten-hour sleep nights to catch up. Ten nights!
  • Power naps make a difference. Fifteen years ago, I read that Bill Clinton started to power nap when he learned that his hero, JFK, took power naps—and JFK learned this from his hero, Winston Churchill. That very afternoon, I took my first 20-minute power nap. Actually, it was a 40-minute activity: 20 minutes to fall asleep and 20 minutes of actual nap time. Several months of practice later, I learned to fall asleep in two to three minutes. Now a 20-minute power nap is like grabbing a quick snack between meetings. Fast and effective.

For a full understanding of how you sleep, I recommend The Promise of Sleep by the pioneering sleep researcher William Dement.  The Quantified Self movement (“self-knowledge through numbers”) is filled with people experimenting with new ways to live a healthy life, including getting quality sleep. As with many of the practices I’ve introduced, try out a bunch of stuff and watch closely to see what works for you.

This is an edited excerpt from my book Paranoia to Possibility.