The Truth About Sleep

Welcome to 2014. Over the holidays I heard a brilliant talk by leading sleep expert and psychologist, Jessica Payne, from the University of Notre Dame. She explained the science of sleep and how it impacts on how we feel and function. Her findings, which I'll share with you, are important to anyone who works under mental or emotional pressure. Given that 49% of franchisees and 61% of franchisor executives report experiencing their work as emotionally exhausting or stressful, I'd say this is an important topic.

I am fascinated by this topic because I've often had to perform on short bursts of sleep. For instance when working nightshifts as a baker and studying during the day, I trained myself to function on four hours of sleep. As an international presenter I have also regularly had to work around interrupted sleep patterns. One strategy I learned many years ago, and which has now been scientifically validated by researchers like Jessica Payne, is taking a 20 minute "power nap" in the middle of the day. At Latrobe University I discovered a hidden nook under the stairwell in the library and would often slide under there on my back to do a 20 minute Yoga relaxation practice. The energising benefits were equivalent to a couple of hours sleep. I still use similar techniques today to keep me "bright eyed and bushy tailed" when on international trips conducting two and three day workshops.

Sleep secrets

It takes around 20 minutes to enter into the first stage of sleep, characterised by slow Delta brain waves. This lasts around four hours. The Delta stage is hardest to wake up from, which is why we feel particularly disoriented when disturbed in the early hours of the morning. It's also why a 20 minute power nap during the day is perfect to physically and mentally recharge, as we haven't yet enetered into the Delta stage.

It is a myth that the brain shuts down during sleep. While we are sleeping our brain is going through a nightly work out, sorting and consolidating emotions, thoughts and information into our memory and rejuvinating itself. You could liken this process to the teams that organise and restock the supermarket shelves in the middle of the night. While Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep is dispersed throughout the night, it mainly occurs later in the morning just before we wake up. This is when we have those weird dreams, which is our brain breaking out into an uninhibited free flowing, creative state. It is also why, after a good night's sleep, we often wake up with fresh ideas and new perspectives on existing problems.

Quality sleep is important for staying on top of our game, physically, mentally and emotionally. This can only improve our ability to work well with others and make good decisions. For instance Jessica Payne's research has found that quality sleep improves memory and decision making threefold. In fact sleep deprived people function at the same performance level as if they were drunk! (Consider this when you are next driving while tired).

Quality sleep also enhances our creativity and our ability to handle emotional pressure and stress. The crankiness we experience when we are tired is the emotional part of our brain (the Amygdala) becoming overactive because it hasn't had enough processing time during the night. In laboratory studies, sleep deprived people find it difficult to think positively and mainly focus on negative events and information. In short, good quality sleep enables us to make better decisions, come up with more creative ideas, think more positively and maintain better relationships.

The amount of sleep we need is highly individual, typically ranging from 6 to 10 hours, with an average of 8 hours. I've found that when I am enjoying my work I need less sleep, while periods of emotional stress drain the batteries more. If you're not sure what's right for you observe yourself on holidays, after you have had a few days to settle down. Researchers have found that relaxation and meditation practices provide similar benefits to sleep, should you need to function on less than your ideal amount.

In future tips I'll share some specific ideas for improving the quality of your sleep. And remember, if you enjoy these pieces, you can now buy 78 of the best Tips in a quality spiral bound book for easy reference and as discussion starters for management meetings.

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