"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead!"

The average person spends 26 years of their life sleeping.

Given how much time of our life is spent doing one activity, it’s amazing how little time we give to truly understanding sleep.

There are many benefits to sleeping. Sleep enhances your memory, makes you more creative, lowers food cravings, protects you from cancer, wards of colds and the flu, lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke, makes you feel happier, less depressed, less anxious and makes you more attractive (beauty rest is a real thing!).

Alternately, when sleep is chronically disrupted individuals will exhibit physical ailments, mental health instability, reduced alertness, and impaired memory.

If you’re looking for “life hacks” to easily implement into your daily routine, sleep is the ultimate low-hanging fruit.

Over 60 percent of Americans report sleep difficulties, more than ever before. Unfortunately, this is a self-inflicted epidemic. When faced with a busy schedule, what's the first thing we willingly sacrifice? Sleep.

What about educators? Are we getting enough sleep at night?

In 2008, two professors from Ball State University conducted a study to determine the sleep patterns of teachers. Their study supports what we all could imagine – teachers’ sleep habits are incredibly limited.

The average amount of sleep for teachers per night was 6.7 hours. Furthermore, a whopping 43% of the teachers surveyed stated they slept less than 6 hours a night.

While the idea that adults need “8 hours of sleep” has been ingrained in my mind for the last several decades (turns out is it closer to 7.5 hours), I realize I know very few facts about sleep.

To help build my understanding I dissected two of the most critically acclaimed books on sleep: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson.

Below are several key ideas to consider about sleep, with many ideas coming from those two books:

  • Two main factors tell your body when to sleep and when to be awake. The first factor is a "circadian rhythm" - an internal twenty-four-hour clock located deep within your brain. The clock creates a cycling day/night rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at regular times during the night and day. The second factor is a chemical substance that builds up in your brain and creates "sleep pressure." The longer you've been awake, the more chemical sleep pressure accumulates and the sleepier you feel.

  • Sleep cycles typically last for 90 minutes and repeat throughout the night. So, five normal 90-minute sleep cycles would be equal to 7.5 hours of sleep – which is the perfect amount. Even if you get a full night's sleep, you can still wake up feeling groggy if your alarm goes off during the middle of one of your sleep cycles. To avoid feeling woozy when you wake, consider setting your alarm so that it goes off after 7.5 hours as opposed to 8 hours.

  • You shouldn't count how many hours of sleep you get in a night, but rather how many 90-minute sleep cycles you get in a week. Assuming adults need 7.5 hours of sleep each night, this would be a total of 35 cycles over the course of the week. What is helpful about this mindset is if you only get 6 hours of sleep (4 sleep cycles) one night, you can make up for it the next night be getting in 9 hours of sleep (6 sleep cycles). If 9 hours of sleep is unrealistic, a 30-minute power nap counts as one cycle. You probably won’t enter deep sleep during your power nap, but but your body will prioritize REM sleep and leave you feeling mentally refreshed.

  • Artificial evening light - laptop screens, smartphones, and tablets - make it considerably less likely that you'll be able to fall asleep at a reasonable time. Approximately 90 percent of American adults regularly use some form of portable electronic device sixty minutes or less before bedtime.

  • Fifty percent of Americans sleep with their phone next to their bed. While some may maintain they need a phone by their side “in case of emergency,” it appears that phone notifications - once touted as revolutionary cell phone features - are actually starting to train our brains to be in a constant state of stress and fear.

  • Caffeine has an average half-life of seven hours. Let's say you have a cup of coffee at 7:30pm. This means by 1:30am, 50 percent of that caffeine is circulating throughout your body. No wonder so many nighttime caffeine drinkers find it difficult to fall back asleep!

  • Trying to determine the optimal bedtime temperature? Cooler is better. While most people choose a controlled bedroom temperature between 70 and 72 degrees, the ideal bedroom temperature is actually 65 degrees. If you are having trouble falling asleep, lowering the temperature should be one of the first things to try. You will find it much easier to fall asleep in a room that is too cold than too hot.

  • Vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. Furthermore, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent.

  • Do you toss and turn at night? Research suggests you should never lie awake in bed for a significant time period. Instead, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until the urge to sleep returns. If you find yourself awake after staying in bed for more than twenty minutes, get up and do some relaxing activities until you feel sleepy.

I’ve also stumbled upon a few interesting facts in terms of how poor sleep can affect children and adolescents. Below are a few key ideas:

  • We often believe teenagers are lazy because they like to go to bed late and sleep in late. However, due to naturally occurring biological processes, asking a teenager to go to bed at 10pm is equivalent of asking adults to go to sleep at 7:30pm. Furthermore, asking a teenager to wake up at 7am is the equivalent of asking adults to wake up at 4:30am.

  • More than 80 percent of public high schools in the US begin before 8:15am, with 50 percent starting before 7:20am. This lack of sleep means that students are missing all-important REM sleep - the critical stage of sleep occurring in the final hours of slumber. School districts shifting the start of school to later in the day have reported higher academic achievement and a significant reduction in morning traffic accidents.

  • There appears to be a link between sleep deficiency and ADHD. Children with ADHD are irritable, distractible, and unfocused during the day - symptoms that are nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep. Based on recent surveys, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder.

This last note is for educational leaders. A study found that insufficient sleep cost businesses and organizations almost $2,000 per year per employee in lost productivity. While this may sound trivial, I encourage you to multiply $2,000 times the number of employees you have and consider the results.

For example, our district has 250 employees. This totals up to half a million dollars each year in lost productivity due to insufficient sleep.


Another large-scale example would be the Charleston County (South Carolina) School District. With 6,500 employees, they are the 100th largest school district in the United States. Assuming their employees experience "average" sleep deficiencies, a staggering $13 million dollars in productivity could be lost.

Educators and educational leaders would be wise to understand this information, and make sleeping a priority in your personal life and for others in your district.

Looking for a great book discussing the importance of sleep? Consider reading Own the Day, Own Your Life by Aubrey Marcus.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.