We have so much to do today. Working, up-skilling, Netflix-ing, browsing social media, taking care of the family. Sleep appears like a luxury we cannot afford.
It makes sense to catch up with everything while you can. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?
Not really. Avoiding sleep ensures that you end up dead. Literally and figuratively. Here’s what I mean.
Thanks to our always-connected lifestyles, we take longer to fall asleep and to go back to sleep after waking up at night. (Touching our phones each time we don’t get sleep only compounds this problem).
Such irregular sleep patterns make people twice as prone to cardiovascular diseases than people with regular sleep patterns.
Plus, erratic sleep habits screw up the body’s circadian clock, which influences hormone production and is associated with obesity and depression. This partly explains the disturbing rise of mental health issues today.
Sleep is not an activity to avoid in the pursuit of productivity, nor is it a necessary evil. Good sleep is integral for you to achieve your long-term goals. Most successful people advocate sleeping at eight hours each day. And when people who’ve already done what you’re dreaming of doing say something, you can’t argue.
Here are three research-backed ways in which a daily seven-hour sleep will benefit you.
1. It aids learning.
In current times when skills go from in-demand to obsolete within five years, learning itself has become a skill. We can no longer cram and forget what we learn. We have to apply it in real-life scenarios.
And research shows that sleeping (or even napping) aids the learning process, helping us to absorb, retain, and retrieve information better.
In a study, participants memorized a set of cards and then took a 40-minute break. During this break, one group napped while the other stayed awake. After the break, both groups got tested on their memory on the set of cards. The group that napped visibly outperformed its counterparts.
Research also proves that sleep helps our mind solidify its memories. The brain stores the first record of any memory in the hippocampus. This memory is still delicate and can be forgotten easily, especially if the brain gets distracted by other thoughts. Sleeping pushes the memory into the neocortex, the brain’s “more permanent storage,” and solidifies it.
Sleep prepares the brain like a dry sponge, ready to soak up new information. — Matthew Walker
Thus rushing to check your notifications at the end of a session of learning is actually harmful. Instead, revise, take a short nap, and try to recollect what you learned when you wake up. This spaced repetition drills concepts deeper into your mind and facilitates their quicker retrieval.
2. It helps you think clearly.
Have you ever struggled to make sense of basic events or themes, or responded uncharacteristically to a work email, when your brain felt full?
When information enters your brain, it floats in a scattered space. Your brain builds connections, but they’re vague and unstructured. More information means more vague and unstructured connections.
The brain needs to prune these useless connections if it wants to build and retain efficient pathways. And this pruning happens when you sleep.
Here’s the scientific explanation for how it happens.
Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons. These are the connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and others travel across.
“Glial cells” are the gardeners of your brain–they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves. Your brain’s pruning gardeners are called “microglial cells.” They prune your synaptic connections. How do they know which ones to prune?
The synaptic connections that get used less get marked by a protein, C1q (as well as others). When the microglial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy–or prune–the synapse. This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.
When you sleep, your brain cells shrink by up to 60 percent to create space for the glial gardeners to take away the waste and prune the synapses.
This is why you can think clearly and quickly after a refreshing sleep. All the pruning and strengthening of your existing neural pathways leaves your brain with plenty of room to synthesize new information.
A good sleep lets you respond rationally to that nasty email. (In fact, reading it afresh might make you realize that it’s not as nasty it appeared yesterday.) You find solutions to the problem that seemed like the end of the world. If nothing else, your reserves of courage and energy are replenished, and you can attack your problems from different angles.
3. It improves your focus.
Your life is the sum total of what you focus on. — Winifred Gallagher
To a large extent, our achievements depend on our actions, which, in turn, get driven by what we focus on. And sleep plays a critical role in our ability to focus, not just on our actions but also our thoughts.
People who suffer from chronic insomnia fixate on negative emotions and vacillate between hope and fear, often tilting toward the latter, instead of living in the present.
Lack of sleep also induces exhaustion, the effects of which could range from harmless to catastrophic. Your mind could turn blank during an important exam. You could say something stupid during a crucial job interview. You could make an investment decision that could wipe out your family’s saving. Or worse, your exhaustion-induced blunder could cost other people their lives.
A well-rested brain increases your focus on the right aspects. The better your attention span, the stronger the synaptic connections become. This improves your learning, thinking, and present-moment awareness and in turn, your career, relationships, and quality of life.
The “Hustle” culture has led us to believe that sleep is futile. We’d rather pull all-nighters to work, binge-watch Netflix or browse social media, and brag about how little we sleep.
But the above points prove how critical sleep is. In fact, it contributes to an essential aspect of productivity: taking care of yourself.
So what’s better? Bragging about burning out? Or achieving your long-term goals with good rest? I’ll let you decide. Maybe you could sleep over it and then share your answer.