Are You Letting Sleep-Deprivation Sabotage Your Awesomeness?

by Jesse Lahey on July 10, 2013

You’ve probably heard that drowsy driving is just a dangerous (and perhaps more common) as drunk driving. You would never show up drunk to a business meeting; but are you showing up with insufficient sleep? If so, you probably appear to other people that you have a lower level of intelligence and executive presence.

 Are You Letting Sleep-Deprivation Sabotage Your Awesomeness? EngagingLeader.com. Photo courtesy of Depositphotos.com (7814223).

Recently one morning, in a client meeting, I noticed I was missing much of my normal energy and mental sharpness. I felt sluggish, and a bit fuzzy headed. I grabbed a cup of coffee and did my best to contribute the thinking and ideas our client needed from me.

That afternoon, I met with members of my team to work on a project for a different client. Again, I noticed my mind was running a bit slow, and I was easily distracted. I felt like a computer that’s bogged down with spyware. I sipped more coffee, but it wasn’t enough; I reached for a bowl of pretzels and snacked on them for the duration of the meeting.

The problem, of course, was I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. And the whole experience was a bad flashback to my early 20s, when I routinely slept only 5 or 6 hours a night and occasionally pulled all-nighters because our work was so important. I relied on coffee, soda, and snacks to stay awake when I was in meetings, working at my desk, and driving my car.

I thought I performed “fine” this way, and perhaps I did. After all, I earned promotions. I received bonuses and raises. Clients loved me.

But in hindsight, I was not performing with the level of creativity, insight, and social intelligence that I could have been. My team, clients, and family weren’t seeing the real me. My impact could have been much more significant.

These days, I regularly get about 8 hours of sleep. In the summer, when I typically get more exercise and sunlight, I often feel fully charged after only 7 hours. In the winter and during times of stress, I seem to do better with close to 9 hours of sleep. If I can plan for it, I sometimes add a power nap after lunch.

As a result, now I almost never get sleepy behind the wheel. I almost never feel the need to have food at my desk. And I almost always feel fantastic about what I’ve contributed during a meeting, with clear feedback that I’ve helped the group get energized, get focused, and move forward.

Sleep Is the New Caffeine

Routinely getting enough sleep is a very wise investment. It pays off with benefits like these:

  • Greater mental focus (a key factor to executive presence)
  • Improved memory and judgement
  • Improved metabolism
  • Reduced calorie intake from attempts to overcome sleepiness using energy drinks, frappes, snacks, etc.
  • Fewer illnesses due to a stronger immune system
  • Reduced likelihood of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke
  • Reduce risk of anger, anxiety, and depression
  • Increased patience and graciousness with co-workers, customers, and family.

Tips for Getting Enough Zs

For information about how to get the right amount of sleep, a great resource is the National Sleep Foundation. Here are the tips that have made a big difference for me:

  • Wake up at roughly the same time every morning. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this strengthens the circadian function and helps get your body ready to sleep at night.
  • Follow a bedtime routine of at least 30 minutes to let your body and mind wind down. For me, this includes a relaxing book. In the 4 Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris recommends reading fiction before bed. I prefer biographies, because although I look forward to reading what happens next (which an incentive for me to get into bed), biographies are usually less stimulating to me than fiction. I’ve been known to stay up far into the night reading the latest Grisham novel, whereas I fall asleep within 5-10 minutes when reading about Rosa Parks or Winston Churchill.
  • Avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed. Anything with a glowing screen can disrupt sleep rhythms and the release of the hormone melatonin. Worse, interactive screen time (work, email, Facebook, web research) stimulates your brain, making it much more likely that you’ll stay up later. One notable exception on the Amazon Paperwhite; I can read a book on it and still fall asleep within 5-10 minutes.
  • Avoid other stimulating activities, such as discussing work or family problems with your spouse.
  • Avoid snacks, drinks, and especially alcohol for the last 1-3 hours before bed, as they can prevent the deep sleep you need. You may need to start skipping caffeine even earlier, because it can take 6-8 hours for caffeine’s effects to wear off completely. Personally, I avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon.

When I was young, I thought I was gaining a competitive advantage by sleeping less so I could work more. As I became older and wiser, I realized that hours worked often don’t translate into results. Especially in the knowledge economy, a sharp, clear, creative mind is worth far more than a few extra hours of daily work.

Don’t sabotage your personal impact and your leadership presence – get sufficient sleep. And as you gain influence, teach this information to your team … and allow them the flexibility and boundaries to put it into action.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast, host of the Game Changer podcast series, and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

  • Great article Jesse – this is such an overlooked issue for so many of us. The older I get, the more I realize how much more effective I am when I’ve slept well.

    I finally got to the point where I had a really consistent and solid sleep schedule…and then we had a baby! Even though he’s now a year and a half, I find myself working late into the evening in order to stay more present with family when our son is awake. It really is a constant balancing act to get enough sleep, since it’s so easy to stay up late and not pay an immediate price for it.

    I read an article recently that suggested having an official bedtime for yourself. And, it made that point that even if you miss it, at least you know you’re missing it and you’re making a conscious decision to make an exception. I’ve found that really helpful!

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