We try so hard to be good at what we do. We take courses, read books, ask questions, and stay late at work to put the finishing touches on our reports and budgets and presentations. What if we are trying wrong, though? What if there is a different determinant of our work that has little to do with trying, and everything to do with letting go? I’m talking about sleep.
There is a new book called “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” by Matthew Walker (it isn’t at all woowoo, despite its subtitle). It sounded interesting, especially so for my family, where on any given night someone needs something at some ungodly hour of the night. This includes the dog. Really, dog? Can’t it wait? Apparently not. And so I read it thinking I’d learn something about what exactly sleep does and is for – which I did, and which is fascinating – but not expecting that I’d put the book down wondering how much of our work challenges could be ameliorated by more sleep.
The short answer, if you don’t want to read the book yourself, is a lot. The author describes devilish experiments where people are deprived of sleep and then made to do stuff, and it doesn’t turn out well. He also describes studies of the capacities of people who sleep less than 7 hours per night versus people who sleep at least 7 hours per night, and the short sleepers measure poorly on all sorts of traits we value at work, such as creativity, emotional stability, and honesty. Yes, yes, correlation is not causation and many of the studies are done on small numbers of student volunteers. But we are not talking research on some dangerous, painful-to-administer chemical with a slew of side effects – we are talking about sleep. It’s probably safe to accept the premise that it’s good for us.
One particular study the book described struck me. Researchers tracked the sleep of supervisors, and had their employees judge their performance day by day (the employees didn’t know how much their supervisors had slept the night before). On the days after they had slept less, supervisors were rated as having less self-control and more abusive behavior. On top of that, the engagement and performance of staff was found to be worse after their supervisor had a less sleep-filled night. Which means that maybe if I don’t sleep enough I’ll say some cranky mean thing to my colleague in a meeting, and she’ll think “why should I do anything to help her?” and then she’ll go off and watch cute cat videos for the rest of the day. (And I’ll blame it all on the dog.)
We try so hard. But most of our trying is about self-denial: work harder, stay longer, get smarter. Here is something that could make a real difference to our work and our colleagues, and it means being kinder to ourselves. It means not drinking the Kool-Aid of self-importance, and not joining the cult of overwork. Most of us can leave work at a reasonable hour, even if we fear we can’t. And that means we can turn off the lights and get into bed at a reasonable hour, too. And maybe, just maybe, that means that the next day will see us all bright-eyed and alert, more able to plow through the work we left on our desks the night before. And maybe it means I won’t say something cranky and mean to my colleagues. And that would be worth it.