Of the many steps you can take to focus better, a few loom very large. One of them is getting proper sleep. With just a few simple changes to your sleep routine, you can exponentially improve your mental focus, productivity and overall health.
Some blame Thomas Edison for our sleep-deprived existence. Before he invented the light bulb in 1879, people started winding down once the sun set. Although gas lamps and candles marginally extended activity after dark, the light bulb all but erased the separation between day and night, fundamentally altering our relationship with time.
With the ability to perform virtually any kind of activity at any hour, our relationship with sleep changed as well – and not for the better. We no longer begin to wind down as the sun winds down, instead continuing late into the night, and more often than not hitting the ground running the next morning in a sleep-deprived fog.
The average American now sleeps less than seven hours a night, with 40% coming in at under six hours. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, aging skin and highway deaths. With over 70 million Americans getting far too little shut-eye, the CDC considers sleep deprivation to be a public health epidemic.
Beyond the physical toll a sleep-deprived existence takes on you (as if that weren’t bad enough), it also wreaks havoc with your mental focus, overall cognitive abilities, decision-making and problem-solving, productivity and performance.
Not Enough Sleep is Worse Than You Think
Insufficient sleep means that your brain doesn’t consolidate the memories and learning it acquired during waking hours, and so you will remember less and forget more. Meanwhile, your short-term performance also suffers. Numerous studies have demonstrated that sleep deprivation slows reaction time and mental processing speed, and decreases your ability to focus and sustain attention across the board.
If you’re having trouble paying attention or feel mentally sluggish, then catching some Z’s may be the best thing you can do for yourself. Easier said than done of course. Most of us know we should be getting more sleep, but have trouble actually doing it when faced with the very real intensity of modern life.
Still, getting too little sleep because your to-do list is too big is putting the cart before the horse. Imagine if, by spending an extra hour each day on one activity, you could accomplish everything else in the remaining time much faster and much better, and be healthier. That extra hour of sleep a night that you're not getting may be what is standing between you and having a focused mind, healthy body and productive life.
What You Can Do About It
Take these four steps and you’ll be well on your way to getting the sleep you need to function mentally at your highest level:
1. Determine Your Ideal Amount of Sleep. For most people, it’s between seven and nine hours. Unless you’re one of those few exceptions who does just fine on less, you likely fit somewhere within this range. Notice what amount of sleep you are getting when you wake up feeling refreshed. For me, the sweet spot is 7 – 7 ½ hours. Your mileage will vary. Everyone is different, and knowing how much sleep you really need is the first step toward ensuring proper sleep and optimal functioning.
2. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. This may be the most important step you can take. If you know that you do well with eight hours of sleep, and you need to wake up at 6:30 a.m., then you need to go to sleep at 10:30 p.m.
That doesn’t mean you start getting ready for bed at 10:30, and then read for a while before turning out the lights at 11:30. Going to bed at 11:30 means you’re walking around the next day sleep-deprived, with all the accompanying mental and physical liabilities. If you think you don’t have time to go bed until later, remember that you will lose a lot more than an hour a day if you drag through the day with insufficient sleep.
In addition to ensuring proper sleep, a regular go-to-bed and wake-up time will maximize the impact of your sleep. The research shows that changing your sleep and wake times by more than 30 minutes negatively impacts the quality of your sleep and your lifestyle behaviors. So once you find an optimal sleep schedule, it’s best to stick close to it even on the weekends.
Of course, events in your life will occasionally cause you to go to sleep later than scheduled and get less sleep than you need. The key word is “occasionally.” Once in a while is ok. But if you find yourself deviating from your sleep schedule a few times a week, that means you don’t really have a sleep schedule.
3. Remove barriers to sleep. Screen time before bed makes it harder to get to sleep, and putting the phone or laptop away at least 30 minutes before bedtime will make a big difference. Of course, if you have chronic insomnia, sleep apnea or some other condition that is interfering with your sleep, seek medical guidance. But if you simply find it difficult to relax at bedtime, or to slow your mind down enough from the day’s events to fall asleep, these techniques may help.
4. There’s nothing wrong with a nap. Most of us are familiar with the afternoon slump. We return from lunch ready to work but instead find ourselves in a battle to keep our eyelids open. It turns out that a short nap (about 20 minutes) in the middle of the afternoon has many benefits, including enhancing your ability to focus.
Even companies like Google are now recognizing that a 20-minute nap can greatly boost at-work productivity, and have provided special napping pods to encourage their employees to catch a few Zs. Google isn’t alone in this – NASA, Cisco, Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos and a growing list of other companies have joined this trend.
Your work solution may not allow for this. But it’s worth figuring out if it’s possible even on occasion – new research suggests that an afternoon nap even once or twice a week can have significant positive benefits.