The sleep advantage


The Sleep Advantage: Why sleep is important for leaders or business owners. Please raise your hand if you sacrificed your sleep in order to tackle an important item on your “to do” list (just as I am writing this, my hand is shooting up).

That’s right, we all do it from time-to-time and some of us even pride themselves in running on five to six hours of sleep each night. After all, we can’t afford to waste one third of our life being asleep and unproductive, right? We have goals to achieve, people to lead and money to make. And so we are willingly reducing our hours of sleep – “the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep”, according to sleep scientist Matthew Walker

study published in 2018 shows that the average person living in the UK sleeps for between 5.78 and 6.83 hours per night. This means that you and I are likely to be missing out on the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours for adults) by at least 100 minutes. 

From other studies, we know that adults, worldwide, sleep on average 6.8 hours during the week nights and 7.8 hours at weekends. It’s all right then, you may say, as we are catching up with our sleep on weekends. Sorry to disappoint you, but this assumption is wrong.

In fact, sleep debt (aka sleep deficit) which is the difference between how much we need to sleep and how much we actually sleep, adds up over time and cannot be “repaid” by sleeping longer on weekends. Interestingly, we may not even feel tired or sleepy when we have a sleep debt (remember all those perky individuals running on five to six hours per night?). And yet, there is no evidence that our bodies can functionally adapt to sleep deprivation. Even if we don’t feel it, our bodies are affected by our sleep debt which leads to significant declines in our mental and physical performance. According to research, it can take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt. 

There is plenty of evidence that sleep deficit (sleeping less than 7 hours per night over a long period) impacts all areas of our lives including our relationships with others, productivity, cognitive functions, mental and emotional wellness, physical health, risk of illness, safety and mortality (see, for example, herehere and here).

Are you really willing to take this risk if you are a leader or an entrepreneur? I bet the answer will be “no” in most cases. And rightly so, because sufficient and good quality sleep is critical for our personal success as well as for the success of our businesses. It can give us a real strategic advantage – Devin Burke calls it The Sleep Advantage.

It comes as no surprise that the more senior a person’s role is, the more sleep they get, according to a study of over 35,000 leaders, undertaken by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. The authors of this research concluded that senior executives “had the wisdom and discipline throughout their career to get enough sleep and thereby maintain a high performance level without burning out.”

They argued that for leaders, sleep is not a luxury and pointed at a direct link between getting enough sleep and leading effectively, and the fact that sleep-deprived leaders are less inspiring.

But it is not just the quantity of sleep that is important, it is also the quality of sleep which include the following key indicators

  • Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less;
  • Being asleep longer while in bed (a minimum of 85% of the total time);
  • Being awake for 20 or fewer minutes after falling asleep initially;
  • Not waking up more than once each night.

So, here are a few tips for you to improve both.

Make sleep a priority in your schedule – go to bed at a set time (ideally, between 10pm and 11pm) every day, even on weekends. 

Remember that it can take days to recover from a sleep debt. Increase your sleep time slowly, by 15 – to 30-minutes at a time, until you reach the optimal amount of sleep for your body. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene and consistently getting enough rest.

Limit your intake of caffeine during the day and, if possible, avoid it altogether in the afternoon. While many of us will be able to fall asleep even after a cup of coffee in the evening, our will not be as deep and we will not have the rest we need. Avoid drinks with caffeine around six hours before you go to bed. 

Put a stop to the habit of drinking a glass (or more) of alcohol to relax after your long and stressful day. Alcohol will fragment your sleep and disrupt your REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep, aka your dream sleep, which is critical for many aspects of mental health and emotional regulation. Avoid alcohol drinking within three hours of your bedtime and limit your consumption of alcohol to one to two drinks per day if at all.  

Avoid eating for at least two hours before bed because eating anything can negatively impact your ability to get good sleep. Eating activates the flow of blood and sugar in the body, keeping your body and mind alert and awake.

Create a relaxing bedtime routine – start winding down at least 30 minutes before going to bed and avoid screen time to make it easier for you to fall asleep when you get to bed. Consider listening to relaxing music, doing a short mindfulness exercise, reading a book which is not too exciting, or having warm shower or bath. 

Make your bedroom sleep friendly – invest in the good quality mattress, pillows and bedding. Remove or disconnect screens and other potential distractions from your bedroom. Make sure it is dark, cool and well ventilated. 

Write down what’s on your mind, particularly unfinished tasks on your previous “to-do” lists, tasks for tomorrow and worries, just before you go to bed. This will help you to fall asleep faster because it will offload your mind and get rid of stress and anxiety. You will feel more in control and it will also strengthen your night time routine. 

Of course, you can find many more useful tips on the internet. Enjoy testing them out, select those that work best for you and make them part of your own success strategy.

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Zoryna O’Donnell MBA, MSC, FInstLM is a change consultant, coach, mentor, trainer, public speaker and author on a mission to help organisations and individuals to exceed their expectations of what is possible for them to achieve. She does it by using insights from applied neuroscience, psychology, behavioural science and other relevant disciplines. She works with ambitious leaders who are smart and driven to become even better at what they do in business and life by unlocking the power of their brains and minds, enriching their soft skills and increasing resilience. Her clients are from a variety of organisations of all sizes (from multi-nationals to SMEs) in all sectors both in the UK and world-wide. If you would like to find out more about Zoryna’s work and how you and your organisation could benefit from her expertise, please go to