As a leadership consultant and success coach, I believe that habits are an important element of leadership success. Our daily practices are what support our focus, results, and growth to be at our best every day so we can effectively serve those who we lead. I believe that sleep is one of the most underrated success habits, and when crunched for time, I often choose sleep over other practices I have instilled like meditation and yoga. I see a significant difference in my performance when I get a great night’s sleep.
But what happens when you slip from your routine and choose comfort over discipline?
My typical nightly routine starts after I put my three young children to bed. I read for almost an hour before I turn off my light at 9:30 p.m. to get a full night’s sleep. An ideal night of sleep for me is about eight and a half hours (sometimes nine). When I follow through on this routine, the next morning (after my cappuccino!) I feel refreshed, energized, and ready to take on my day.
Last week, my three kids were on spring break, which changed up our routine. Instead of my kids leaving the house at 8:20 a.m. for school, we were shuffling them to a spring break camp for half the day, then over to my mother-in-law’s for the rest of the day. My husband and I didn’t take time off from work that week, and since our normal work routine was interrupted, we were exhausted at the end of the day. The first night of spring break, I told my husband I was too tired to read, and suggested we watch “Billions” on Netflix (he got me hooked on this show a couple of months ago). We proceeded to stay up every night for seven nights in a row binge-watching “Billions” and went to bed between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m. A little mindless TV won’t hurt, right?!
All of last week, I could feel the negative impact of less sleep on my energy and focus. Tasks that are normally easy for me to knock out felt harder to tackle, and I wasn’t nearly as productive as I normally am. My lack of sleep compounded each day, and near the end of the week, I was less patient and more irritable with my kids. My little sleep “experiment” proved that breaking from my routine wasn’t worth it.
Sleep plays a crucial role in our everyday performance, and is necessary for us to perform at our best. In one study, researchers found that managers who lacked sleep were more irritable, impatient, and more hostile toward their employees. Not only does lack of sleep impact decisions and a leader’s personal productivity, but it also has a negative impact on employee engagement, productivity, and decision making. In fact, sleep deprived leaders can actually cause their employees to behave less ethically.
Leaders need sufficient sleep to perform at their best and lead others well. I often hear leaders boast about how little sleep they get, and I’ve even read some books that encourage people to sleep an hour less a day so they can fit other things in. I do believe for many people, getting up a little earlier to exercise or meditate is beneficial, but not at the expense of a good night’s sleep.
In our modern society, we have so many competing demands that can feel overwhelming. Many women bear the brunt of juggling full-time work while also managing children and household duties. As women have grown professionally, they have taken on more and more responsibilities that often feel impossible to manage. Top that off with a global pandemic that, for the better part of a year, has parents managing their children’s virtual school in addition to their work responsibilities. It makes sense that many professionals find it challenging to get adequate sleep. Yet lack of sleep is a perpetual cycle that will only leave managers and professionals more depleted as they try to juggle it all.
A Gallup poll indicated that 40% of Americans report they sleep less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night. This poll only measured who gets less than seven hours; the National Sleep Foundation’s actual recommendation is that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. We can assume that even more Americans are sleep deprived if there is a segment of the population who needs more than seven and up to nine hours. For me, seven hours is not sufficient. I need at least eight and a half to feel my best.
In our organizations, we need to recognize that behaviors and habits outside of work —both positive and negative—impact the work itself. Individuals and organizations need to think of sleep as essential, not negotiable. We should also stop convincing ourselves that successful people don’t have time to sleep. Highly successful leaders like Jeff Bezos, Arianna Huffington, Barak Obama, and Bill Gates all report that they prioritize sleep. Arianna Huffington even created The Sleep Revolution, and her website has some great sleep resources.
Many organizations are still working mostly virtually because of the pandemic, which adds another layer to the temptation of overwork and lack of sleep. Research shows that most employees work more hours when they work from home. The flexibility offered by working virtually can also create more challenges since employees struggle to disconnect. Working from home can have its benefits (no commute), yet can also bring additional challenges and stress like having to manage children’s schedules or a lack of boundaries.
Setting boundaries is an important part of working successfully in a virtual environment. It’s important to manage your energy so you don’t become overworked and burnt-out. Having a specific end time to your day, taking frequent breaks, and getting physical exercise are important for managing your energy and productivity.
Having a productive day and being at your best actually begins the night before. Creating a nightly ritual to adequately unwind from the stresses of the day and getting enough sleep will make a huge difference in the day ahead.
This past Sunday, my husband and I got back into our nightly routine of reading before bed and going to sleep earlier. It took a couple of nights to make up for the week before, but within two days I saw a huge difference in my performance and focus.
Sleep should be a success habit that leaders prioritize personally and encourage at work. If we have more executives and leaders encouraging healthy boundaries and adequate sleep, everyone benefits.