Updated: Nov 20, 2020
How it started
A few years ago, I was starting a new management job and was keen to make a good impression. I wanted to get up to speed as quickly as possible. There was a lot to take in and what seemed like a never-ending list of things to take in. Over the first few months, my working hours were slowly crept up.
At the 6-month mark, I was doing 9-hr days in the office, plus 2-3 from home in the evening. Even though I was spending most of my waking hours on work, my to-do list and the amount of things I had to do or learn were getting longer each day. I remember working at 11 pm one evening, yawning and struggling to make sense of it all, thinking to myself “if only I could cut my need for sleep to 4 hrs per night, I could finally catch-up on all the work I need to do”.
I started coming to the office at 8 am in the morning. It soon became 7:30, then 7, and it wasn’t long before I was in by 6 am, having gone to bed after midnight the previous night. This was clearly not sustainable, but I don’t think I wanted to hear it.
Things continued to deteriorate, and I started to notice:
I was becoming increasingly anxious about my performance.
I felt deflated about what I was (not) achieving.
I’d lost confidence in my ability.
I felt out of control.
I was struggling to concentrate and remember the details of what I was learning.
I thought that if only I caught up on my to-do list, I would finally be able to slow down, get back in control, start performing and enjoying my new role.
It was a pretty tough time, and I was starting to get back into some negative thought patterns and self-talk I had experienced before. I was constantly exhausted, unable to do my job and getting increasingly depressed and anxious week after week, after week. Something had to change.
Why we sleep
My partner Libby could clearly see that my mental health was deteriorating and had tried several times to suggest that I try to sleep a bit more during the week. I always had some excuse ready for her – usually that it wasn’t the right time to do that and things would soon improve. Libby had heard about the book Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker and downloaded it so I could listen to it while we took a much-needed holiday from work. I wasn’t too keen on it at first, but once we arrived at our destination, I thought I might as well give it a shot...
Here is a paragraph from the book that rang particularly true for me at that time.
Under-slept employees are not, therefore, going to drive your business forward with productive innovation. Like a group of people riding stationary exercise bikes, everyone looks like they are pedaling, but the scenery never changes. The irony that employees miss is that when you are not getting enough sleep, you work less productively and thus need to work longer to accomplish a goal. This means you often must work longer and later into the evening, arrive home later, go to bed later, and need to wake up earlier, creating a negative feedback loop. Why try to boil a pot of water on medium heat when you could do so in half the time on high? People often tell me that they do not have enough time to sleep because they have so much work to do. Without wanting to be combative in any way whatsoever, I respond by informing them that perhaps the reason they still have so much to do at the end of the day is precisely because they do not get enough sleep at night.
After ploughing through the sleep science Walker covers, my key takeaways from the firsts chapters were:
The importance of sleep on our mental capacities.
The similarities between being sleep-deprived and being drunk
By sleeping more, we can achieve more, even if that means that we ‘sacrifice’ our work time for sleep
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t really buying it. I thought that by drinking lots of coffee, you can essentially ‘power through the tiredness’ and get things done. Nevertheless, I continued reading.
As the author introduced an ever-growing list of reasons for sleep in each chapter, I decided to experiment for myself. I went all in and decided that I would try to sleep for no less than 8 hours each night until the end of our stay. Going to bed early felt like a bit of pain, the first night but it didn’t take me long to adjust. Having a recurring bedtime was also a nice way of introducing some consistency and routine to a part of my life which had been all over the place. After a week, I started noticing that my anxiety-reducing, my negative self-talk was less ‘loud’, and I began to feel more hopeful. When I thought about work, I started to feel like I could manage things better in the future. The real test would be being back at work. I made a promise to myself that I would keep it up for at least 2 weeks after I got back.
When I returned to work, the first thing I noticed is that some of the problems I’d left behind seemed less overwhelming. Anxiety and stress were still there, but the intensity seemed had reduced. It felt more resilient to what was going on around me – as if I had more energy and headspace to tackle the day, focus on the important things and not to dwell on the things I didn’t have control over. Since I was feeling less stressed, I was more playful with people, having more fun as well as being more direct and challenging things that needed to be challenged. I ended up wasting less time doing things that weren’t important, people were clearer on what I was expecting from them and I was clearer on what was expected from me. I was still doing 9-10hr days, but I wasn’t sacrificing sleep in the evening. This meant I wouldn’t go out for drinks with friends as often and I’d wait until the weekend to watch the TV programmes I liked.
I hadn’t realised that sleep alone could have such a huge impact on my mental well-being.
It’s now been several years since that holiday. I notice that even today when I can’t get the 8 hrs I need, I will feel deflated or overwhelmed the next day and struggle to work efficiently.
Mental health is complicated. There will never be a single tool that will resolve all our issues, but I found that the simplicity of implementing changes in sleep, and the magnitude of the positive effects make it one of the most transformative and powerful things I have done for my mental health (and my career) in a really long time.
I am massively thankful to Libby for encouraging me to read Why we sleep, to Mathew Walker for sharing his research with the world and for the opportunity to share my thoughts with people reading this. I hope that if you can recognise yourself in this story even a little bit, it will give you some encouragement that things can get better with better sleep.
For me, it was the single most important well-being change I have made in years.