"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 fodder, the reality is few things are worse than neglecting sleep.
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!).
When looking at the list of benefits, one may wonder why sleep would ever be neglected. Unfortunately, 60 percent of Americans report not getting enough sleep. And while some sleep difficulties are true physical impairments, for most a lack of sleep is a self-inflicted epidemic.
Let's face it - most adults are busy! Not only do work responsibilities consume much of their time, many people also have families to care for. When deciding between work, family, and sleep ... sleep usually gets the shaft.
But when adults take a closer look at their time, they discover many other superfluous activities are prioritized over a full night of sleep. Television, social media, sports, online shopping, hobbies, spending time with friends, drinking, and gaming ... the list goes on.
"Life is short!" they rationalize as they opt for another Netflix episode versus an hour of rest. "Besides, I'll sleep when I'm dead."
Unfortunately, by not understanding the benefits of sleep, late-night enthusiasts fail to grasp the irony of this statement.
So you're probably wondering - how much sleep does one need?
Conventional wisdom suggests adults should get seven hours of sleep per night. However, several other factors - such as age, gender, activity level, etc. - also play a role in generating a magic number. Rather than focus on hours per night, growing research suggests people should focus on sleep cycles per week.
Sleep cycles last 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.
To reap the sleep's abundant rewards, experts maintain people should aim for 35 sleep cycles a week. Divided by seven days, that is five 90-minute sleep cycles per night.
"Well that's just 7.5 hours of sleep per night. How is that any different than what I'm doing currently?"
There are two main reasons why focusing on sleep cycles is ideal. First, counting sleep cycles provides more flexibility with sleep schedules. For example, if you have a nighttime commitment that will limit your sleep to four cycles on Tuesday, you can "catch up on sleep" by adding on a cycle later on in the week when your schedule is less demanding.
Second, many light sleepers have a bad habit of looking at the clock and calculating the hours until morning. When they realize "only three hours until the alarm goes off" their restlessness is heightened. Focusing on a weekly average - as opposed to a nightly number - gives these individuals comfort in knowing they can have a bad night and still be ok. As a bonus, research indicates a quick power nap can make up a lost sleep cycle.
Are you getting to bed at a normal time but still struggling to sleep? Here are five common barriers to a good night's rest:
Do you look at screens before bed? Artificial evening light - laptop screens, smartphones, and tablets - make falling asleep difficult. Fifty percent of Americans sleep with their phone next to their bed, and ninety percent of Americans use an 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 closer to 65 degrees. If you are having sleep troubles, lowering the room temperature should be the first thing to try.
Do you toss and turn? When waking in the middle of the night, avoid laying in bed for a significant period of time. If you find yourself awake 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.
Do you need a new mattress? Despite spending a third of their life in bed, most people don't think about their mattress. Did you know thinner people should use a softer mattress and heavier people should use a firmer mattress? Spend a few extra dollars on the mattress that is best for you and your sleeping style.
We've spent a lot of time talking about how sleep affects adults. But what about students? Here are a several key ideas:
First and foremost, kids need more sleep that adults. Currently, most high school and middle school students average around seven hours of sleep. While this doesn't sound so bad, consider that the that high school students need around nine hours of rest to access the full benefits of sleep. And for middle school students, that number is closer to ten.
We often call teenagers "lazy" because of their pension for staying up late and sleeping in. 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. Would you willingly adhere to that schedule?
School districts aren't doing us any favors. With more than 80% 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" either to study or - more likely - to be "cool." However, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone who is legally drunk. In fact, accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those accidents 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 nearly identical to those caused by a lack of sleep. Based on recent surveys, it is estimated that more than 50% of children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder. Before assuming a child has ADHD, schools may want to investigate sleeping habits.
Finally, consider what a lack of sleep is doing to school district efficiency. 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.
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.
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.