How much sleep do great leaders actually need?

How much sleep is enough?

Do I really need 8 hours of sleep every night to be a great leader?

You've asked it, I've asked it, and it seems that there are just as many so-called experts who have opposed this thought as there are experts who've supported it. So what's the answer? 

Unfortunately, I don't have a silver bullet or a magic pill for you ... while we all have different sleep requirements and it is true that these change over the years of our lives ... adults DO need 7 - 9 hours of quality sleep per night to function at their best. And if you're going to be a great leader - you need to be at your best!

How do I know if the sleep I am getting is good quality sleep?

When you awake after a good night's sleep you feel energized, rested, and you're in a great mood. When was the last time you woke up feeling that way?

Hopefully, it was this morning ... if not, you definitely need to read on!

Physically, our bodies and in particular our brains, need sleep to restore, regenerate and refresh. Without enough sleep our cognitive processing is impaired, our mood and behavior is altered, and over the long run, our broader health, including our immune system and heart health, are adversely impacted.

There are four stages in a normal sleep cycle - and we each have several sleep cycles per night.

With the first three stages, we fall into deeper and deeper states of relaxation, our heart rate slowing, and our brain activity quietening. We then fall into the fourth state, known as REM (rapid eye movement) and this is where we dream and process memories and for us to have achieved a good quality of sleep, it is necessary to reach this stage. This is why wakefulness in the middle of the night can be problematic for good quality sleep since the REM stage is either interrupted or never reached. More information on this can be found at The Sleep Foundation website.

Why do I have so much trouble sleeping?

There have been times of my life where I was literally getting by on 4 - 5 hours of sleep a night during the week and catching up on the weekend. But it is a vicious cycle and you never really do catch-up. I had to learn the hard way to get focused on quality sleep, here are some of the most common causes for poor quality sleep. I have experienced most of these at one point in time or another.

How many of these resonate with your experiences?

  • Overindulging in rich foods and/or alcohol - while this might relax us and make us sleepy for a few hours, the additional workload on our bodies to process these rich foods/alcohol can interrupt our sleep.
  • Not getting enough physical exercise in the day - our minds might be tired, but our body simply hasn't moved enough for our natural sleep cycle to kick in and support physical rest.
  • Interruptions to the sleep-wake cycle are also caused by lack of sunlight during the day (if we work at a desk!), as well as blue light from our phones and tablets late at night. Our body's natural, circadian rhythm can get confused and the signal to our body that the sun has set and it is time to produce melatonin to promote sleep may not take place as it should.
  • Our blue light devices also provide us with increasing levels of distraction and anxiety, worries about social justice and human rights issues, the emotional fatigue we are all feeling from the never-ending pandemic, and on top of all of that, the feeling of unease and concern about the economy and job security.
  • Many professional women I've spoken with are also feeling a tension between wanting accelerated career advancement and more freedom for time outside of work.

These last two, in particular, are a recipe for overthinking, and as you may know, overthinking, or ruminating, has its own way of keeping us wakeful, which leads to ruminating on additional topics and replaying the day's events in our minds ... perpetuating sleeplessness even further!

How does this show up in my leadership practice?

There are three really important ways that lack of sleep can impact how you show up as a leader.

  • Your ability to be your best self - mood and behavior are greatly impacted by lack of sleep. As a leader, you will likely face not only a relatively busy schedule each day, but also, a number of high-stakes, high pressure, or ambiguous situations during your day. Managing your emotions and your responses in these moments will define for your team, your peers, and your boss, the kind of leader that you are. If you are looking to succeed in your current role and indeed advance to the next level, you need to be displaying emotional maturity and social intelligence, particularly in these critical moments. Your ability to show up the way you want to, and to be consistent in your behaviors, will depend on your quality of sleep.
  • Your cognitive ability for sound decision-making - lack of sleep not only impacts your behaviors but also your focus and decision-making ability. As a leader, your judgment needs to be spot on for your decision-making and for supporting (or not) the decisions others are making too.
  • Your level of motivation and energy - as an impactful leader, you need to maintain a level of enthusiasm and optimism for both yourself and your team. Additionally, you need to maintain that level of energy during every interaction you have. Quite literally, if you're not sleeping well, your energy is zapped and you won't be able to keep up with the demands of your busy day! 

I recognize that there will be days when you may not show up at your very best. This may be due to lack of sleep, or some other stressor. That said, if you are looking to position for advancing your leadership to the next level, you'll want to have your best self show up most days with emotional intelligence, cognitive intelligence, motivation, and energy.

What are some strategies for managing bouts of sleeplessness?

Most of what I've written here won't be news to you, yet, many of us continue on in some sort of helpless fashion, and simply 'put up' with a lack of sleep, not realizing the damage that we may be doing.

It is a classic case of 'not now' bias. The impacts of continued sleeplessness and insomnia will indeed shorten our lives, yet the impact isn't felt right now, so it is somehow 'easy' for us to ignore.

Changing long held habits can be challenging, but can help you with your long-term health, as well as your leadership effectiveness today, and into the future. 

Most of the strategies I offer for consideration here are aimed at one thing - getting ourselves from being 'on' and ready for a fight or flight response, to being 'off' and ready for nurturing, calming, restorative sleep.

  • Calm your mind before you go to sleep

    Develop a bedtime routine and ritual. It is recommended that we put our phones down two hours before bed (which feels pretty impossible!). Instead of ignoring this, since it seems almost impossible, try for at least 30 minutes. In that time, find a routine that helps soothe and calm you. Have a chamomile (or other non-caffeinated tea), use lavender hand cream or moisturiser, brush your teeth mindfully. Read a book until you feel sleepy.

  • Create your go-to methods for re-calming yourself if you wake up during the night.

    For those of you that are sleep challenged, this is one of the most difficult challenges to solve. There is so much written about this, and as I mentioned, I have struggled with this at various points in life myself.

    My first tip is to try and go back to sleep. Focus on your breathing and slowing it down. Mindfulness habits like focusing on the air as it enters your nostrils, noticing that the air is cool as you breathe in, and then as you exhale, noticing that the air leaving your body is now warmer can be helpful. Stick with this for several minutes, it will really help calm your body. Once you are calmer imagine you are doing an activity that you enjoy that is repetitive. For example, knitting, or dicing onions, watering your garden.

    If this doesn't work, the next step is to turn your light on and read a book again. Do not look at your phone!

    And if this doesn't get you sleepy after about 30 minutes, it is probably best to get up and out of bed. Don't turn on the television! If there is something you are ruminating on, write down some notes you can go back to tomorrow and then re-trace your bedtime routine, tea, lavender hand cream, and reading. You can even brush your teeth again if you like. Read in bed until you are sleepy and then turn off your light. Don't give up on these steps. Your mind will slowly get with the program, and it is important that you break this cycle!

  • Spend your days wisely for setting up quality sleep.

    You know the drill here. Don't drink too much caffeine, and certainly none after midday! Exercise, eat well and make sure you are getting in some balance in your schedule including time with loved ones, time for yourself, and some time outside.

Final Thoughts

  • Finding your way to consistent, good quality sleep will have a positive impact on both your short-term and long-term health.
  • Consistent, good quality sleep will impact how you show up as a leader, enabling you to be your best self, be cognitively on point, maintain the highest standards of behavior, assure that your decision-making ability is at its peak, and you will maintain the energy you need for the whole day.
  • Key strategies for getting good quality sleep include eating well, avoiding caffeine after midday, getting enough exercise (and outside in the sun if you can), and developing practices to calm your mind before bed, and if you wake during the night.

For a deep dive on this topic, visit Dr. Michael Breus's, aka The Sleep Doctor's, website.  www.the sleepdoctor.com.

Supporting you on your leadership journey,

Magenta Roads, Principal, Carla Santamaria

PS. Please share if you found this helpful.


Leadership, Managing Self, Managing Self For Impactful Leadership

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