Most people would say that sleep is the opposite of work. We tend to think of sleep as lost time and a passive process. I know many people who pride themselves on only getting five hours of sleep a night because that implies they spend more time working. But sleep is actually a useful, productive, active process. You might not think you're working during a good night’s rest, but your brain is working. In fact, research has shown that the mind is more active during sleep than during the day.
What are our brains doing while we sleep? They're consolidating memories, rehearsing what we've learned, and restoring our brain’s chemical balance to the right levels. While sleeping, our brains are mopping up excess neurotransmitters and restocking the mental factories so that we're prepared to learn new things the next day.
In my book, Become an Elite Mental Athlete, I explain why sleep is an undervalued resource and what is actually going on in our brains while we sleep. There’s overwhelming research—from the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Cornell, to name a few—that shows how everyone from athletes to school children to college students and the military experience documented upticks in performance when they have adequate rest.
As Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology and director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre, says in this BBC article, we should look at sleep in the same way as exercise. "We should look at sleep as an active process. Getting enough sleep is a positive thing which will help you perform in all aspects of life." Sleep IS NOT a waste of time!
Top executives like Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault SA, know this. As Ghosn says in this interview with McKinsey, "Leading takes a lot of stamina. I became CEO at 45, and I was working like a beast. You think, ‘So I work 15 or 16 hours a day; who cares?’ But you can’t do that when you are 60 or 65. Now companies are more global, and so you have jet lag, you are tired, the food is different. You have to be disciplined about your schedule and about organizing everything. Physical discipline is crucial when it comes to food, exercise, and sleep."
Ghosn has adopted a strict regimen to carve out time for sleep. "I wake at a certain hour and sleep at a certain hour. There are certain things I won’t do past a certain time," Ghosn says.
Having a pre-bedtime ritual is one way to cue yourself up for a good night’s sleep. For example, you could have a soothing cup of chamomile tea each night while doing some easy reading. You also want to avoid TV and computers or mobile devices an hour before bed. These devices emit blue light, the light present in sunlight, which makes your body think it’s daytime and interferes with its ability to produce melatonin, a natural sleep hormone.
Even with useful tips like these, if you don’t make sleep a commitment, then you risk functioning at second-rate levels. Rather than boasting about who sleeps the least, we should foster cultures that boast about valuing sleep. We should be talking about who is investing the most in ensuring they sleep. How important is sleep to you—and what are you doing about it?