May 30, 2017

How To Improve Your Performance (Part 2)

In "How To Improve Your Performance", we identified Exercise being a crucial factor in improving performance. We uncovered that our bodies are built to expend a great deal of energy on a daily basis and the many positive effects it has on our health and well-being.

Another factor that is just as important in improving your performance, if not more, to your health and well-being but always trivialized when life gets busy is Sleep.

We have heard the term "You snooze, you lose" and Bon Jovi and Set It Off belting out "I'll sleep when I'm dead". Sleep seems to always take a back seat by default and it is quite apparent that the practice of sleep is greatly undervalued. It takes up almost a third of our lives but as pioneering U.S. sleep researcher, Dr William C. Dement put it "You are not healthy unless your sleep is healthy".



Sleeping is not so straightforward. Sleepers pass through five stages of sleep, the last one being REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is associated with the rapid side-to-side movements of the eyes, dreaming and bodily movements, and a faster pulse and breathing. Stages 1 and 2 are considered light sleep and stages 3 and 4 are considered deep sleep. A sleep cycle is the period of time it takes for an individual to progress from stage 1 to REM sleep. These stages repeat cyclically while you are asleep from stage 1 through to REM, and then begin again with stage 1. A complete sleep cycle takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes, with each stage lasting 5 to 15 minutes. The first sleep cycles we experience have relatively short REM sleeps and long periods of deep sleep but later in the night, REM periods lengthen and deep sleep time decreases.

Sleep is an active physiological process, one in which our bodies are busy carrying out vital activities, while we are unconscious. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) (1999-2004) found at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. In addition, more than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month - with 20 percent reporting problem sleepiness a few days a week or more.

There is a biological requirement for human beings to sleep well. If we don’t get the quality deep sleep that our bodies require, the accumulation over time has the potential to contribute to all sorts of health issues. The NSF's sleep guidelines recommend seven to nine hours for the average adult.

Lack of sleep or changes in sleep quality prevents our bodies from:


  • Tissue and Muscle Repair - While the brain is resting there is very little activity, so the blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients which facilitate their healing and growth. Muscles and tissues are rejuvenated and new cells are regenerated.


  • Consolidation of Memory - Healthy sleep puts you in the right state of mind for learning and performance throughout your day. A good night's sleep is vital to process and retain that information over the long term. Sleep triggers changes in the brain that solidify memories—strengthening connections between brain cells and transferring information from one brain region to another.


  • Boost Creativity - Sleeping helps us build myelin. Myelin is the sheath-like material coating nerve fibres and is vital to the normal functioning of our nervous system. We need myelin sheaths to make connections and the more myelin, the faster the connections are. This is where creativity comes from. Often, creativity is about connecting one idea to another idea and that process is solidified during sleep when more myelin is produced.


  • Improve Concentration - Scientists have found that lack of quality sleep increases hormone levels which leads to lower alertness, poor judgment, reaction time, problem solving and concentration. It is more difficult to focus and pay attention, so you are more easily confused. This hugely affects your ability to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. It can also worsen symptoms related to mental health disorders.


  • Unconscious Thinking - Here it is again! If you keep plugging away at a problem you can easily wind up with tunnel vision that keeps you from finding an appropriate solution. Sleep removes the blinders and helps “reset” your brain to look at things from a different perspective, which is also crucial to creativity. You may have experienced an "Ah ha!" moment when you woke up or a new idea popped into your head that you did not think of earlier.


  • Good Mood - From both correlational and experimental evidence, if you are sleep deprived, the more irritable, angry and hostile you feel. Sleep loss is also associated with feeling more depressed. In addition, sleep deprivation is associated with greater emotional reactivity, making you likely to react negatively when something doesn’t go your way. Sleep deprivation enhances negative mood due to increased amygdala activity (a brain structure integral to experiences of negative emotions such as fear, anger and rage), and a disconnect between the amygdale and the area of the brain that regulates its functions. This leads to an increase in negative mood, and a decrease in the ability to regulate that negativity. Possibly not someone that people may like to hang out with.


  • Build Your Immune System - Sleeping less than seven hours a night results in having higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get more sleep. Inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and premature aging. With adequate amounts of sleep this inflammatory state supports the immune system by enhancing the body’s ability to form an immune response to these invaders.


  • Healthy Weight - Sleep deprivation elevates cortisol levels and hugely slows down your metabolism. High cortisol levels affects your brain in a way that makes you want to eat more. It sparks a vicious cycle where you are left feeling tired, slowing your metabolism and playing tricks with your hormones. By sleeping less, you are programming your body to eat more, especially more junk and sugar-y food. The reason for those sugar cravings is due to the reduced availability of glucose reaching your brain. This can lead to obesity and diabetes.


  • Energy Crisis & Fatigue - Lack of sleep is a major energy drain. When awake you are in a continuous catabolic state (breaking your body down). When asleep you are in an anabolic state (your body is being repaired and built up). If you do not adequately rest your body, your energy, performance and productivity crash. This can lead to an increase in errors at the workplace, poor performance, decreased productivity, accidents and injuries.


  • Stress Relief - Scientists are discovering that our bodies have a built-in way of dealing with stressful emotions and bad memories that is closely tied to sleeping. During sleep, levels of stress hormones decrease. Memories are being reactivated, put in perspective and connected and integrated, but in a state where stress neurochemicals are beneficially suppressed.


  • Longevity - Regularly sleeping less than you should is associated with a shorter lifespan. Plenty of important healing processes occur while you sleep including organ, muscle and tissue repair, improved brain function, hormone balance, strengthening of the immune system, boosting metabolism and increased energy production, and so much more. Not fully allowing your body to complete its nightly duties is associated with your body's health being at risk and may not fully recuperate.


In modern life today there is an abundance of artificial light from blue-light emitting electronic devices, screens and LED light bulbs, whether they are from televisions, computers, mobile phones or other devices. These devices can fool our bodies into thinking that it is daytime due to their light, and therefore leave our body's internal clock confused. When our bodies are exposed to these artificial sources of light at night, they can trigger an ongoing stress response in the brain. This results in the body releasing hormones such as cortisol, which is the body's main stress hormone. When cortisol is high, melatonin is low, and therefore, a decrease in production of sleep-promoting melatonin at night time results.

Melatonin is not only a sleep hormone but also has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune properties. It is also highly protective against the formation of cancer cells. With this in mind, making sleep a priority and taking steps to minimise our artificial light exposure after dark can help to give our bodies a greater chance of efficient melatonin production.



After a nice and satisfying lunch, you return to your office to get back into what you were planning to do for the rest of the day. But instead of doing work, you are yawning, struggling to concentrate and your eyelids are starting to feel very heavy.

You are probably thinking that a coffee or an energy drink would be great. But what if you could do something else that improves your concentration and makes you feel more energized, and it will not give you heartburn or play havoc with your blood pressure or health?

It is a technique you used to use all the time. So did our ancient ancestors. It is called napping.

Before you think this is ludicrous, sleep researcher Sara Mednick emphasizes in her book, Take a Nap! Change Your Life, how twenty to thirty minute naps have shown to:

  • boost productivity
  • increase alertness
  • quicken motor reflexes
  • raise accuracy
  • heighten perceptions
  • strengthen stamina
  • improve decision-making
  • elevate mood
  • enhance creativity
  • bolster memory
  • lower stress
  • reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol
  • lessen the frequency of migraine and ulcers
  • promote weight loss
  • minimize the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and cancer risk

I am a huge fan of napping. After school, I used to race home just to have a nice nap. I didn't nap every afternoon, but mainly when I had a hefty amount of homework or a complicated assignment to do that night. When I awoke, I felt recharged, alert and reenergized to tackle my work. And because of my heightened alertness and focus, it always felt like I was very productive and I probably completed my homework faster than if I hadn't taken a nap to recharge my batteries. Many studies have shown that learning after a nap is as effective as learning after an entire night's sleep.

A misconception that arises from napping is that people occasionally wake up feeling groggy, or find that it disrupts their evening sleep cycle. This problem arises if you allow yourself to descend into deep sleep, which we know are stages 3 and 4.

When you are tired, the areas of your brain that are critical to thinking receive less blood flow. Sleepiness slows down your thought processes. You can power through your tiredness when you need to, but it will only be at a reduced level of functioning.

The main reason naps are frowned upon, as Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, has demonstrated, is that we usually equate hours on the job with productivity. If you believe that performance is entirely a function of effort, you see anyone who takes a break as a slacker.

In the past, people's values were tied to the amount of hours they put in on the factory floor. Today, the majority of people do not work in a factory. In today's knowledge and fast-growing economy, it is the quality of your thinking that matters most, and quality thinking is directly tied to your energy levels.

A short afternoon nap allows you to recharge your mind and your memories to consolidate. It relaxes your mental filters that allow unconventional ideas to eventuate.

When at the gym, we cannot lift weights continuously without a break. We know there are limitations of our muscles. But we do not acknowledge this for our minds. Declining performance is not as visible to us in the office as it is at the gym, but we still continue trudging along, oblivious we may be contributing at a fraction of the rate we could be.

Ignoring your body's need for rest or drugging it into submission may keep you awake. What it will not do is position you to deliver your best performance. Best performance also includes maintaining a positive mood. Most jobs comprise of building interpersonal connections and strengthening collaborations. Feeling irritable can have serious implications for performance. When we are tired, we get into more disagreements, and not just because we are less patient. It is because our ability to read other people diminishes.

The tide is turning on workplace napping. Organizations including Google, Procter & Gamble and Huffington Post, believe rest improves performance and are investing every year to create napping environments for their people.

We can clearly see that sleep is a performance enhancer. When you allow time for adequate rest to recharge, repair and re-energise your body, not only does your whole body function better, so does your brain; enabling you to make better decisions, come up with creative ideas, have sharper and clearer memory, be nicer to people and look and feel like your best self.

People continually acquiring new skills are likely to be happier, more invested, and smarter about their work. Neurologically, learning is inherently rewarding and one of the key components of employee engagement. In Dr W. Edwards Deming's words "Joy in learning comes not so much from what is learned, but from learning." Sleep deprivation impacts our focus and memory making it difficult to pick up information, acquire knowledge, and learn efficiently.

Just like businesses seek to tick the "healthy" box and support people to exercise, they need to be mindful of people in regards to sleep. Organizations need to reassess late working hours and working on weekends. The health and rest of people are largely seen as a private matter. They are not considered commercially relevant. But when people are forced to rest due to injury and illness, that becomes commercially relevant. Recovery is not negotiable. People can either have time to rest and rejuvenate now or given extended time to be sick and injured later. It seems like it is time to put health and well-being on the business agenda.

Sleep deprivation is costing us both physically and mentally. The U.S. economy is suffering a huge impact, losing an estimated $411 billion annually through tired or absent employees. Some 1.2 million working days are lost in the U.S. every year with costs equating to 2.28 percent of the country's GDP. In the UK, sleep-deprived employees hurt the economy of some 600,000 working days and $50 billion. And in Germany, the loss is $60 billion.

The greatest impact is suffered in Australia. It is draining the Australian economy of $36 billion a year. One in three Australians do not get adequate sleep contributing to a loss of productivity, medical conditions, road deaths and workplace accidents. Screen addicted adolescence are most sleep deprived followed by almost half of all adults.

It is your call, but it may be more beneficial for you to "sleep on it" rather than stay up late and work on it.

Make sure you keep an eye out for my next article to discover another factor that hugely affects your performance. Stay tuned.