Over the past few weeks, North Americans have become more exhausted. The stress of the recent United States’ election, including Trump Trauma, is disturbing our sleep. What can you do about it? If you understand how sleep denial might be contributing to your exhaustion, it will be easier for you to get the rest you need. The blog post below is based on an excerpt from Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion (Greenblatt, 2009)
“Are you going to sleep some more on this flight?” I asked David. I sure was. We were in those fully-reclining transatlantic first class seats, the greatest gift ever for road warriors.
“I’ve been having back trouble and frankly, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months,” he replied. “I’m thinking that the back problem and my post-election concerns are interfering with my sleep.”
“Do you think the sleep deprivation has been having a negative effect on you?”
“Of course, I’m a wreck,” he replied.
“What time is your bedtime?” I queried.
He laughed. “Bedtime? What am I, six years old? I go to sleep when I can and wake up when I have to.”
A major contributor to political exhaustion is sleep deprivation. And, in most cases, it is a passive choice that each of us makes.
“How often do you change the oil in your car?” I asked.
“Every three months or six thousand kilometers,” he said.
“How often do you brush your teeth?”
He squinted at me – unable to detach and strangely curious. “Twice a day; when I arise and when I go to bed.”
“Why do you change the oil and brush your teeth?” I persisted.
“Okay, okay. I got your point,” David conceded.
“Let’s continue” I suggested. “You do so because they are basic maintenance activities – minimal requirements to keep your car and your teeth working properly. They are ‘no brainers’ because the investment required is relatively low compared to the exponentially higher costs of running your car and teeth to failure.”
He nodded unconvincingly.
I rephrased. “You can choose to risk substantial damage by not performing the minimum maintenance, or you can easily prevent possible devastating problems with a small investment of time and discipline, right?” He nodded more convincingly and then spoke.
“So you’re suggesting that by not getting enough sleep, I am pushing my engine too hard and am setting myself up for unnecessary damage and major repair.”
“Exactly,” I said.
David sighed. “Sometimes I feel like a complete failure when it comes to the basics of being human.”
Clearly, David is not a failure as a human being. He is functioning drowsily like most members of today’s professional world. That’s because David’s choices about sleep which, at one time were strategically advantageous, no longer serve. This is the case for most of us.
Beginning in high school, we start treating sleep as though it is ‘free’ time. We treat time for sleep like a big, nightly bank account that we can borrow from whenever we need some extra time to work, party, or unwind. Coffee, tea, so called energy drinks and exciting social settings help us make withdrawals. This ability to borrow a few hours from sleep when we miscalculate the actual time we’ll need to finish a project or wish to overindulge helps support procrastination and encourages us to remain poor at prioritizing.
In high school and college, the pattern looks like this. We pull a few ‘all-nighters’ each semester and, with some regularity, keep our fair share of late nights. During the semester, we repay the sleep debt by sleeping until noon on weekends. We really top off our sleep tanks the week after finals by sleeping part way through semester break and/or when we come down with the flu (the two of which usually coincide).
Although this strategy was probably successful and even satisfying in high school and college, as a working adult, you chronically carry that debt only managing to make minimum payments since you almost never ‘have’ the time to fully catch up. (Well, that is until you burn out.)
Most of us in Western society not only endure life chronically exhausted, we also wear our sleep deprivation as a parental medal of honor or symbol of professional commitment. This passive choice has compromised our productivity and satisfaction with our collective work lives. Moreover, our personal relationships and physical resilience suffer.
For those like David, mental and physical health begin to noticeably deteriorate first. (Well-functioning immune systems require sufficient sleep. If you are experiencing a series of unrelated little health issues or problems, perhaps your sleep-deprived immune system is crying out for attention.)
A SLEEP SOLUTION YOU CAN USE
By now, you’re probably thinking, I KNOW I need more sleep, but I just don’t have the time to sleep more! I have a super busy schedule. I have responsibilities. I have commitments. And, sometimes, I even want to have a life. So, yes Dr. Edy, I know you’re right but I just cannot do this. If that’s your reaction, read on. Here is a solution that just might work for you.
I have discussed the sleep challenge in many Restore Yourself workshops worldwide. Here’s what I’ve found:
- More than 85% of the professionals I met felt that they did not get enough sleep.
- European and Latin American women were a bit less exhausted than North American women but, really, not by much.
- More than half of those who completed the following 10-minute exercise got more rest in the subsequent 3 months.
Before trying the following exercise, most of my students were convinced that they could not keep their current jobs, maintain family responsibilities AND get more sleep. After this 10-minute exercise, most recognized that they could easily find two to three more hours of sleep per week without making any major lifestyle changes, and, many did so.
Try this exercise with a few friends, colleagues, or family members. Only spend ten minutes on it. Discuss and then write down the answer to this question,
“How can I find myself and my team two to three more hours of sleep each week?”
I suggest looking for time in places where you waste time or make decisions that are habitual instead of mindful. Do not be afraid to question all assumptions about things that may not be true anymore. (For example, since I can record any TV program I want with TiVo, do I really need to stay awake until my favorite show comes on?) Can you think about managing your technology to help you instead of allowing it to lead you astray? Now, spend the ten minutes and jot down some of your ideas here. Go ahead, just do it, okay?
Well done. Here are just a few ideas from the scores that my participants generated:[i]
- Skip the news at night and skim the headlines in the morning when you check your email
- Set a bedtime with your housemates or work colleagues and ask them to help you enforce it a few nights a week
- Turn off your phone when you are sleeping. Buy and use a travel alarm clock to wake you up from a nap or night’s sleep (not your phone)
- Do not take the first flight out in the morning and arrange to take your first calls on the road
- Take naps
- Turn off the TV
- Cluster the emails you send so that you get one email back instead of four
- Take a holiday from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
- Discuss team norms and expectations with the express intent of getting everyone more sleep
- Start and end meetings on time so people don’t wait around
- Avoid working 1 hour before bedtime so you fall asleep more easily
- Set time limits on social events – e.g., go to a club on the condition that you leave at midnight
- Get a babysitter for the children one night a week and then go to bed early instead of going out
No doubt you’ll find others. I hope you are noticing that much of our sleep deprivation is self-imposed and that we can and should make better choices. Please share you comments below. Or, then again, you could take a little nap first.