Over the last 30 days, I have been running an informal sleep experiment on myself. I committed to getting no less than 7.5 hours of sleep per night and allotted 8.5 hours in bed to ensure it happened. I made this self-agreement as I was moving into a new work-college-all other demands of life-schedule that accounted for more hours than I think I have ever planned for in a week. With sleep included, 156 of the 168 hours in each week were mapped out on paper.
I know the perils of too little sleep: exhaustion, mental fogginess, forgetfulness, impatience, mood instability, physical pain, and more. I know the dangers because I lived them at various times in life. The most recent trip down this despairing path occurred between 2013 to 2017. I went from five to four, and in the final few years, to just over two hours of sleep per night.
Everything eventually fell apart.
Everything fell apart despite steady improvements in nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, and self-care practices.
Back to my sleep experiment. So far, so good. It took getting used to, and it still does. It means prioritizing and re-prioritizing sleep above all else. It means adhering to the schedule as if life depends on it. Life does depend on it.
Sleep is now the number one item on my schedule. On the two days I did not achieve my sleep goal, I adjusted my daily schedule and added 20-minute naps. Today, I consciously choose sleep above all else. Everything else comes in second.
So why is sleep the most fundamental self-care practice? What I have known to be fundamentally true has now been charted concretely over the past month. Sufficient sleep results in all the following benefits:
- A rested brain. A rested brain is a balanced brain for all the competing responsibilities, life uncertainties, and human imperfections (our and others) we encounter each moment of each day. I do not know the scientific explanations of how the brain works, but I understand that when we sleep, washing and release of built-up toxins occur. So, we get up with a clean and more functional brain.
- Higher emotional quotient. Sleep increases our ability to face emotional and psychological pain. On a more mundane level, sleep allows us to better and more consciously release the actions, behaviors, attitudes, and idiosyncrasies of others that get under our skin. Sleep simply makes us more cognitively aware of our unconscious reactions to people, situations, and events and more comfortable with discomfort. The result is lower emotionality and reactionary behaviors and a greater ability to reorient, forgive, accept, and let go. Sufficient sleep moves us to a higher plane and is a mindfulness practice. It may well be the Number 1 mindfulness practice.
- Increases grit and helps us laugh in adversity and distress. Resilience and an overcoming mindset are highly correlated to our emotional states. So, the higher emotional quotient resulting from sleep is a double win. Many of us live with long-term adversity and stress. Intimate and family relationships, work situations, health, finances, and the pressures we experience with life’s rapidity of change are traumatic. These traumas leave us constantly unsettled and disrupted, cause stress responses in our bodies, and over the long term can lead to mental health disorders. But sufficient sleep helps us balance, process, take action, and choose positive emotional responses and mindsets.
- Helps balance acceptance, risk and change. As in #3 above, change is constant. We have no control of the changes happening inconspicuously around us and those that run into us like trucks. However, we control ourselves, what and how we think, and what we do to plan for and respond to change. Ample sleep allows us to accept the uncontrollable and strategically plan for and engage in long-term committed change-action. Such action is necessary for improving competencies essential for the anticipated changes and those we do not know are coming. As we change ourselves, we further change our thinking processes. In essence, we re-write some of the uncontrollable externals. For example, performance, training, and certifications increase our propensities to advance in our industries or move into new, more desirable ones. Attitude dictates mindset, which can place us anywhere on the continuum from misery and powerlessness, to contentment, courage, and capacity.
- Faster and deeper mental and critical processing and productivity. Brain fog? What is that? Adequate sleep helps us better attend to everyone and everything in our demanding schedules and rapidly changing environments.
- Improved posture and presence. When we are tired, we slouch. Slouching wearies our physical body and stresses certain joints and muscles. Also, those we interact with notice our slouching and interpret it as many things we are not trying to convey. Sufficient sleep shows in a more erect posture, which exudes greater confidence.
- Pain reduction. Chronic pain is debilitating and has many causes. Sleep deprivation causes our pain tolerance to decrease while sufficient sleep acts as a pain killer. From 2014 to today, I have lived with chronic pain. Thankfully, in recent years, it rarely goes to levels 7–8 and above. However, when I am tired, my degree of pain increases. During my sleep experiment, my pain level did not climb above 4.
The sleep benefits listed above are all interrelated. I am sure I can sit here and extend this list to 10 or more items. However, another benefit of sufficient sleep is increased awareness of word count as I write. Your time is super precious, so less is more for your reading pleasure.
Let’s not underestimate the value of sleep as the number one self-care practice. Let’s be courageous and sleep more. We won’t lose out on anything. We will increase productivity in less time. We will also become more courageous in things such as self- and other-forgiveness, restarting after personal goof-ups, and initiating and maintaining change practices.
Sleep helps us mitigate the weakness sides of our strengths, initiate and maintain change practices, stick to and complete our goals, and increase our flexibility and adaptability to all that we encounter.
Sleep is simply an urgent task that requires our daily attention — a critical necessity to optimal functioning. We need to strategically plan for sleep. When we make sleep a non-negotiable priority, we can maximize our efforts in all areas of life. Let’s give sleep the value it deserves.
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