There’s a sneaky little way to gain an advantage when life is hard. It’s available to everyone but most of us aren’t harnessing this deceptively simple tool for improving your odds in a negotiation (with a spouse, your middle-schooler, or your boss), acing Wordle or a video game, or fighting for your life. Sleep. You’ve heard it before, know it and still don’t do it. Here’s why it matters and how to finally just do it.
When only part of you shows up.
When I got to the office, I was more than dragging. I stopped at my assistant’s desk before heading to my office and, while we went over a few things, I couldn’t quite pull it together. I responded to questions but it seemed like my mind was about 100 paces behind me. Yawning repeatedly, I realized I was simply exhausted.
I had no real explanation. Hadn’t gotten to bed particularly late the night before or over imbibed. I’d had my usual 2 cups of “haf-caf” coffee but felt like I should try a Red Bull for the first time in my life! So I looked at my assistant and said, “I don’t think I’m quite here yet.” I didn’t even go back to my own office but stopped at another attorney’s office with–thankfully–a sofa. He wasn’t going to be in that day so I shut the door, pumped up the pillow, and took a power nap.
Get in the cockpit. Or not.
I’ve been tired before. I’ve needed an extra cup of coffee some mornings. But usually I report for the day ready to buckle in, put goggles on, pull the joystick up and fly. There are things I need to do after all. Always. If you’re like me, it often feels that our to-do lists could surely eat up all available storage space in the Cloud. But that day, it was a demand I couldn’t ignore. And so I didn’t. My to-do list would simply have to stay in the cloud for the moment.
After 20 minutes, I popped up and was good to go.
There are times when I have not gotten adequate sleep at night. Days when I didn’t stop for a power nap or just a short break. OK, honestly, most of the time, I have simply plowed through when my wiser self was suggesting I shouldn’t. Invariably it takes me twice as long to accomplish a task under those conditions. And I make mistakes.
The toll it takes
Looking back, I think that the stress of a divorce that’s happening in my immediate family had started taking its toll. If you are dealing with divorce or other major life transition, you know what sheer exhaustion feels like. You know what it means when the brain won’t engage. And yet it’s during these seasons of life you need to think most clearly. Decisions can have huge ramifications.
It’s too simple to be true but one of the best things we can do when life is tough is sleep. Yet, when your whole world has been turned upside down, or that’s happening for someone you love, sleep is elusive. And who has time anyway with all there is to do? But the better question might be, can you afford to not get enough sleep?
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation affects mood, ability to focus and the ability to access higher levels of cognitive functioning. Grey matter even increases with adequate sleep. In a difficult conversation with your spouse or neighbor or co-worker, or simply facing an iCloud-sized to-do list, we need the highest level of reasoning, thinking and remembering capabilities we can muster.
Beyond the brain effect, adequate sleep is associated with greater happiness. We take vacations, go to concerts and plays, hike at national parks and buy the new thing, presumably because they will make us happy. All those take planning and cost money. Sleep is a literal “no-brainer” (accidental pun). And did you know that lack of sleep makes weight loss that much harder? Yep, run less, sleep more! So here’s a few tips to avoid glazing over these well-known facts one more time but to make this resource work for you.
Tips to maximize good decision-making through sleep:
1. Make an appointment.
When I have to be on Zoom, I’m almost always on time. Why? It’s an appointment and I know others are there waiting for me and they’ve made a point of clearing their schedules too. I don’t think, “I’ve got to get this thing I’m in the middle of done before I can sign on to Zoom.” We all stop and log on.
But it’s just too easy to push off sleep. “It can wait,” we think. But if we treat sleep as a critical appointment, one we keep, we give it the priority it deserves. Calendar it even with a pop-up reminder on your phone. And honor this appointment like you do any other that matters. This one tip has been the most powerful for me. I’ve defined the time I need to shut it down and call it a day. Before, I only hoped I got enough stuff done that I could stop. Now I schedule around that defined time because it’s on the calendar.
2. Set the stage.
Develop a routine that signals your brain that you’re switching to a different state. It’s best to follow the same sleep schedule every day, i.e., go to bed and get up at the same time most days but aim for that even though it’s not always possible. Find your best signal to alert your whole self that it’s time. Some people meditate in the evening, some put on a particular playlist. Others light a candle and have a cup of tea. Some people find luxurious pajamas and bed linens make a difference.
When my pop-up “Bedtime Reminder” appears on my phone, I now evaluate whether anything I’m in the middle of could ever be more important than the one thing that positions me to perform at my best and be happy. I close my laptop or shut off Netflix and head up stairs. A client gave me a lovely, softly back-lit aromatherapy diffuser and some lavender oil. Turning that on, closing the blinds, and turning down my bed now elicit a soft sigh and I can feel my body shift into, “Ahhhh. I can relax now.”
3. Do the math.
7-8 hours is typically recommended but we are all different. You can experiment by aiming for a reasonable number of hours and getting up at the same time every morning. Test the optimal time to go to bed for a few days by whether you wake up on your own or depend on an alarm. If the alarm jolts you from dreamland, go to sleep 30 minutes earlier for several days, evaluate and keep adjusting. You’ll hit the sweet spot for you that allows you to wake up on your own feeling refreshed and ready to seize the day. Work with your business, personal or divorce coach, or connect with someone else who shares this ambition, and set goals and report on progress. This little technique is really powerful.
4. Don’t give up.
We all feel the pull of the project. It can make sleep seem like just a luxury we simply can’t afford tonight. But know this: productivity increases with adequate sleep. So when you tackle the project tomorrow your heightened creativity, ingenuity, decision-making prowess and energy means you’ll get the job done in less time and do it better.
5. Say “not yet” and power nap instead.
We’ve all heard that even short naps can course-correct and we have a whole bevy of highly accomplished models to inspire us. Famous power-nappers include Winston Churchill (I’m thinking he had few things to do!), Leonardo da Vinci (who knows what we could create with adequate sleep?), and John F. Kennedy (who was involved in negotiations at least as important as ours) all hit the snooze button for regular naps.
If you have an office door, a “Do Not Disturb” sign, a comfy chair or even the floor can suffice with a coat for a pillow. If your job has you in constant mode all day, could your co-worker or boss work with you to trade off and carve-out time and place? (maybe you’ll inspire them to nap too!). If you are working from home, alert whoever needs to know and head to the couch if that’s what your job and well-being demands of you to perform at your peak. Do it for your job or your negotiation or organization or project as much as you do it for you.
If it’s not a normal period of time for you because of family problems, a divorce, an illness or death of someone close to you, I want to encourage you to do what you need to do right now to give yourself a break. Let your friends and family know that you won’t be at your best for a season. Inform your employer that you need the grace of understanding and patience. Do your best. And rest. Every night and take a nap when you can. If a divorce is your world right now, rest so you can come back to figuring out the financial picture, optimally parenting your children, and engaging in divorce settlement talks with your highest-performing, rested self.
Saying, not yet, going to bed or taking a power nap, may be your next best power move.
Wishing you wisdom,