5. Start an enjoyable nighttime routine
Researchers recently identified a behavior called "bedtime procrastination." Basically, people put off hitting the hay even though there's nothing explicitly keeping them from going to sleep.
One potential way to conquer that habit is to create a nighttime ritual you enjoy and that lets you ease into bedtime more than, say, closing your computer, brushing your teeth, and shutting the lights.
Simon Haestoe shares his experience with this strategy: "My sleep was stably horrible for 15 or so years. I stayed up late, because I always managed to find fun things to do, and going to bed felt so, so boring."
Eventually, he realized that he could start a nighttime ritual hours before he planned to go to sleep:
I didn't have to do things that bored me. Instead, I could watch non-intense movies, listen to relaxing music and I could turn the whole thing to an experience I enjoyed and that I looked forward to having, all day long.
According to recent news reports, it’s a myth that we all need eight hours sleep a night – because a study involving hunter-gatherer societies in Africa and South America, whose habits are thought to mirror how humans used to live, showed they made do with six.
In fact, the research from UCLA and other universities, which spurred the news stories, said no such thing. The research was measuring sleep duration in a very specific way, a highly technical approach not reflected in the reporting of the study’s conclusions.
Modern life is rubbish? Sleep is just the same as ever, say scientists
But if you are looking for sleep myths to debunk, here are six that have come out of our research review at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences this year.
1. “The early bird catches the worm”
One start time doesn’t suit everyone. Too many people believe starting early is the sign of a good employee: up at 5am, gym at 5.30, work at 7.
But these early-rising “larks” are extremely rare (and smug). And they’re welcome to catch – and eat – worms. Highly productive, creative workers sleep well and arrive later. Early starts leave almost everyone reaching for coffee to wake up and alcohol to go to sleep.
2. “I only need four hours’ sleep a night”
Politicians and leaders of industry brag about their need for only a few hours of sleep. Yet too little sleep can destroy successful leaders. Margaret Thatcher developed Alzheimer’s – probably after leaving office. The former UK prime minister Harold Wilson and US president Ronald Reagan probably had the condition in office. What’s the connection?
Natural sleep has restorative functions – in sleep it detoxes the neurotoxic waste that accumulates when you’re awake. Too little sleep, and this waste remains. Lack of sleep can be dangerous in other ways: it is a central contributor to CEO burnout. Jetlag is known to lead to bad decisions. And poor sleep causes millions of road accidents.
3. “Teenagers are lazy”
It’s a common belief that adolescents are tired, irritable and uncooperative because they choose to stay up too late and are difficult to wake in the morning because they are lazy. The real problem is their biological timing system – their body clock – which shifts their wake/sleep times to two to three hours later in the day than might be expected. Adolescents should be sleeping in two to three hours later than their school or work schedules allow – instead, they regularly lose a few hours of sleep. This is unnecessarily risky when we know that more than 50% of all mental illness starts in adolescence, and those illnesses include schizophrenia, psychosis, eating disorders, panic attacks, substance abuse and bipolar disorders. When school starts are moved later it’s not just performance that improves: health does as well.
It’s official: if you’re middle-aged and not sleeping enough, you’re rotting away
4. “Shift work is a fact of life”
We know instinctively that working long, tiring shifts impacts on performance. Imagine: 10am and your partner is rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack. Two doctors are available, one near the end of her 24-hour shift, another just arriving. Which do you choose?
Harvard Medical School checked the performance of their doctors on 24-hour shifts. They were shocked. Interns towards the ends of their shifts made 36% more serious errors. Of consultants who regularly worked 24-hour shifts, 74% showed signs of burnout or depression. The research found that shorter shifts and more informed placement of recovery days got much better results.
5. “Early to bed, early to rise makes you healthy, wealthy and wise”
If only it was that easy. Continue to start work early and most people will still lose far too much sleep. They will have a price to pay: increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, greater stimulant/sedative/alcohol use, exhaustion, irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, frustration and anger. In contrast, later starts improve output, efficiency and quality of life.
6. “My bedroom is where I go to escape”
Many of us feel our bedroom can be a sanctuary from our 24/7 world. We make it warm, stimulating and welcoming; put a television in the room to watch to relax, an iPad to keep in touch with friends via Facebook. It’s your reward after a busy day at work, and time at home cooking and cleaning. We’re aware of advice to stop using technology an hour before we sleep, but we also deserve time to unwind, and the TV and web often feels like a part of that. Sleep is better when the temperature is low, the screens are off, and it’s quiet. If we all only had more time.
Sleep matters. Organisation leaders can boost productivity, mood and health by changing the times people work. The NHS can improve care by improving shift patterns. Schools and universities can improve learning and health. Now we understand so much more about sleep, we can use that knowledge to improve the quality of life of everyone. Sweet dreams.