The Ultimate Life Hack? Sleep.

Updated: Sep 24

"I was up until 1:00am grading homework!"


"Oh yeah? I was up until 2:00am lesson planning!"


If you've ever worked in a school, you've heard these debates. In teachers' lounges everywhere, employees wrangle over the "lack of sleep" badge of honor.


While these war stories make for great lunchtime discussion, the reality is there are few things worse than neglecting sleep.


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The benefits to sleep are endless.


Sleep enhances memory, boosts creativity, lowers food cravings, reduces the risk for cancer, heart attack, and stroke, wards off colds and the flu, increases happiness, and lowers anxiety. Not to mention ... sleep increases attractiveness (beauty rest is a real thing!).

Despite the endless benefits, 60 percent of Americans report not getting enough sleep. While some sleep difficulties are true physical impairments, for most a lack of sleep is a self-inflicted epidemic.


Think about all of the activities we prioritize over a good night’s rest: Television. Gaming. Social Media. Sports. Shopping. Homework. The list goes on.


Despite being the ultimate life hack, many of us avoid sleep like the plague.


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When determining how much sleep an individual should get, the conversation should focus on sleep cycles.


Sleep cycles lasts approximately 90 minutes and repeat throughout the night. Each cycle consists of 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep.


Keeping tabs on your total sleep cycles per week - as opposed to how many hours of sleep you get each night - gives you more flexibility to adjust your sleep schedule. For example, if you know something is going to keep you late and limit you to four or even three cycles (six hours of sleep or less) on a Tuesday, you can "catch up on sleep" by adding on a cycle or two later on in the week when your schedule is less demanding.


Aim to get 35 cycles (or five cycles per night, on average) in a given week, and never go below 30. If the figure seems strikingly close to the eight hours most doctors recommend, it’s intentional - we need that amount to reap sleep's abundant rewards.


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Struggling to sleep? Here are four common barriers to a good night’s rest.


Do you look at screens before bed? 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. Fifty percent of Americans sleep with their phone next to their bed, and 90 percent of Americans regularly use some form of portable electronic device sixty minutes or less before bedtime.


Do you drink caffeine at night? 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 still circulating throughout your body. No wonder so many nighttime caffeine drinkers find it difficult to sleep!


Do you keep your bedroom warm? 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 room temperature should be one of the first things to try.


Do you toss and turn at night? Research suggests you should never lie awake in bed for a significant time period. If you find yourself awake after staying in bed for more than twenty minutes, consider getting out of bed and doing something quiet and relaxing - such as reading or journaling - until the urge to sleep returns.


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How does poor sleep affect children and adolescents? Here 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. Do you know many adults who would willingly adhere to that schedule?


School districts aren't doing us any favors. With more than 80 percent of US high schools beginning before 8:15am, students are missing critical stages of sleep occurring in the final hours of slumber. While not all schools have an ability to change bell schedules, schools that have shifted to later start times have reported higher academic achievement and a significant reduction in morning traffic accidents.


Speaking of traffic accidents, we know many teenagers who love to pull “all-nighters.” However, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent. In fact, vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.


Finally, 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. Before you assume a child has ADHD, you may want to investigate sleeping habits.


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Finally, consider what a lack of sleep is doing to our school districts. According to one study, teachers’ sleep patterns are incredibly limited. The average amount of sleep for teachers per night is 6.7 hours. Furthermore, a whopping 43% of the teachers report sleeping less than 6 hours a night.


So why does this matter? It turns out that insufficient sleep costs organizations almost $2,000 per year per employee in lost productivity. While this number may sound trivial, multiply $2,000 times the number of employees in your school district and consider the results.


For example, our school district has 250 employees, which totals half a million dollars in lost productivity each year. On a larger scale, the Charleston County (South Carolina) School District has 6,500 employees, making them the 100th largest school district in the United States. Assuming their employees experience “average” sleep deficiencies, a staggering $13 million dollars in productivity is lost each year due to inadequate sleep.


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The next time you hear colleagues "brag" about their ability to function on two hours of sleep, quietly smile and nod your head.


Find satisfaction in knowing the multitude of benefits you receive by wisely protecting your sleep time.


Sleep is the ultimate life hack.

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