Get Enough Sleep
A CAVING MATTRESS
There I was, lying on my back in bed, trying not to move too much as I got settled in. I slowly tucked the sheet in near my neck and plumped the pillow under my knees. I straightened my back ever so slightly and then lay completely still.
You see, with my particular version of chronic pain, if I moved even an inch, I felt a sharp, nail-like jab in the part of me that moved—either my hands, elbows, feet, or knees. Back then, with the alarm-like quality of the pain, I woke up every two or three hours, every night. I knew this was crushing my well-being by increasing my exhaustion, inflating my frustration, and adding to my sense of falling-knife futility, but what to do?
As I tried to relax, I felt the gentle dip in the middle of our mat- tress. My right hand sunk lower than my left, as the mattress caved in toward the center. Every night, my then-husband and I eventually ended up side by side in that cratered middle. He seemed totally cozy (“I love this bed!”), but I was overheated and uncomfortable. Back then, in our mid-thirties, we agreed that saving as much as we could trumped buying an expensive new bed, and I was too exhausted to even discuss this potential remedy anyway.
I was easily woken by even the slightest sound, and I felt like I was on high alert for our family. My husband slept so deeply, I knew that he wouldn’t hear the girls if they cried, so I developed a belief that I needed to be ready. Our toddler often woke up fussing in the middle of the night, and on those occasions I slowly headed to her room, limping in pain, to get her some warm milk or gently rub her back.
And then there I was again, back in bed, carefully tucking the sheet up to my neck again and plumping the pillows. By that point, however, I also struggled with tearful anger about my incessant pain, frustration that I heard every sound, worry about my toddler, and, because of the irrefutable contrast, a growing resentment for the blissfully sleeping man next to me. There he was, night after night, gently snoring, able to sleep for a solid seven or eight hours without a single interruption, his body beautifully reviving for the busy day tomorrow. In contrast, I spent countless hours wide awake, simultaneously experiencing both marvel and annoyance.
My suffering body craved sleep so much that I frequently nodded off in the passenger seat as my husband drove our family to the petting zoo and the park. On weekends, I stumbled into our bedroom for two-hour afternoon naps after the kids went down for theirs. One day at work, I was so crushingly tired that I honestly thought about crawling under my gigantic desk for a 30 minute snooze. I was becoming more and more zombie-like, and sicker with every passing month.
I learned that deep exhaustion can zap you of creativity and your sense of humor. Has that ever happened to you? When my body craved sleep so much that I stopped being funny, I knew something had to change.
When I started to research the importance of getting enough sleep and its profound effect on well-being, I learned that there are many people like me who, for a myriad of legitimate reasons, struggled to get enough sleep. On the other hand, there were others who knowingly sacrificed it, intentionally staying up to work on that proposal due tomorrow or binge-watching their favorite series. Regardless, I quickly confirmed that a pervasive lack of sleep hurts your ability to think and function, and it can easily crush your well-being and success.
In our modern culture, we don’t honor the immensely positive power of sleep enough. I certainly didn’t. I felt like sleep was one of my weaknesses, something that I wished I didn’t need, something that was evasive and difficult to achieve, something that I wasn’t “good at.” Fortunately, once I began to think about treating my sleep challenges with the care they deserved—and started to treat sleep itself with respect—my well-being took a giant leap for the better.
Because this is such a pervasive and elusive well-being issue, there are entire books and dozens of websites on the subject of getting a better night’s sleep. In the spirit of our executive summary-style approach, let’s touch on some of the most impactful solutions that worked for me.
First, the blissful result of investing in a new mattress shocked me. No longer drifting to the middle, I bow to today’s incredible technology. In my opinion, it’s worth every dime.
Second, I took hold of my racing mind. In the camp of the people who struggle to get enough sleep, many high-functioning executives and entrepreneurs complain that their mind is so active before bedtime or even in the middle of the night, brimming with thoughts of what happened and what’s next, even though they are physically tired, they can’t calm down enough to fall asleep. James Findley, PhD, Clinical Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, acknowledges, “Worries keep people awake, and they don’t have to be negative worries. It could also be something positive you’re planning, like a trip or a big event with a lot of things you have to remember.”2 He and many others recommend that before you go to bed, you should physically write everything down—as detailed as possible—on a list. This can really help clear your mind. I started to do it in the evenings with great success.
I also have a mental version of this suggestion, which I started using nightly. First, I imagine a garbage can beneath my body. Then, energetically, I release all my cares and worries into it. It’s like a giant sigh of relief, and it works quite well too. Its power lies in your intention to move that scattered, nervous energy out of your body, signaling to your internal systems that it’s time to embrace some well-deserved rest.
Third, with my sleep improving, I gave some thought to how much sleep is ideal for me, what amount helps me feel like my personal best. I came up with a whopping nine hours a night. (If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that I was chronically ill at the time.) I couldn’t change my morning wakeup time, so I decided to start going to bed earlier.
On that note, many people haven’t a clue how much sleep is ideal for their specific body. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a Division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, generally recommends that for adults over 18, seven to eight hours a night is ideal.3 The institute also points out the frightening concept of “sleep debt,”4 which is the accumulation of sleep loss that adds up over time. They note that if you lose two hours of sleep a night, your weekly sleep debt is 14 hours. You know as well as I do how impossible it is to make up those 14 hours, so the disaster to our well-being easily compounds. Avoid sleep debt as much as possible.
Fourth, I stopped drinking coffee in the late afternoon. Everyone is different here—I have met executives who drink coffee after dinner with no issues—but generally, caffeine in our system jacks us up, and this is an easy fix.
Fifth, I also experimented by cutting out wine in the evening. The very next night, I started to sleep more soundly, and I stopped waking up so often. I have had many executives and entrepreneurs share similar experiences after they ditched the nightly nightcap. You think it’s helping you relax, but there’s an issue with it.
Charlene Gamaldo, MD, an associate professor of neurology, pul- monary, and critical medicine and the director of the Neuro-Sleep Divi- sion at John Hopkins Hospital, explains, “Alcohol is a depressant, which can help somebody feel like it’s relaxing them and helping them to fall asleep, but alcohol also is rapidly metabolized in your system and, when your body washes the alcohol out, it’s more likely to cause what we call a rebound alertness.”5 No wonder!
Finally, over the years, I have refined my sleep environment fur- ther, truly elevating my master bedroom to a deeply restful sanctuary. I removed all the previous clutter, so today, there isn’t a single piece of clothing on the floor or anything out of place. I added velvet-backed blackout curtains and some low-key decorative lights, which give off a beautiful, restful glow; bought some artistic, uplifting spiritual images to hang above my bed; upgraded the sheets; and added luxurious faux fur blankets. Honestly, now, I can’t wait to crawl in.
What did the complete reinvention of my Get Enough Sleep spoke do for me? It had the effect of self-delivering something akin to much-needed CPR. As far as positive personal outcomes, I finally experienced rejuvenation, something that I had doubted I would ever experience again. It felt as if I was coming out of an intense fog. Improvement in this spoke seems exponentially important for well-being; the more sleep I got, the better I felt, the more my pain subsided, and the happier I became. Did it make all my pain subside? No. But did it improve? Yes.
There is just no comparison between me fully rested and me exhausted. Rested, I am funnier, more patient, more thoughtful to family and friends, and more present.
As far as positive professional outcomes on the Wealth-Being Wheel, my Get Enough Sleep spoke immediately improved my brain function, and while at work, I noticed I could think more quickly, make decisions more decisively, and react with more groundedness.
Gone were the days where I fantasized about sleeping under my desk. Instead, I would finish a project with (dare I say) a flourish, and move over the paperwork for the new one. I stopped sighing with exhaustion. I stopped groaning when issues would arise (and you know they do). For me, this directly pointed to maximum profitability and, eventually, led to increased financial freedom.
Arianna Huffington, a formerly sleep-deprived business powerhouse, did extensive research with doctors and scientists for her 2010 TEDWomen talk. She told the audience, “I am here to tell you, the way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is to get enough sleep.”6 I could not agree more.
CUSTOMIZING THE GET ENOUGH SLEEP SPOKE FOR YOU
- Let’s start with your current reality. How well do you sleep at night? How alert are you during the day? Rank yourself between totally exhausted and superbly rested. Could you benefit from some improvement?
- Make a list of what is preventing you from having a great night’s sleep. Write down everything you can think of, and one by one, consider how you might solve each. Some (like a bad mattress) are easier to solve than others (like a baby who wakes). Work on what you can change
- Does noise wake you up? That’s a pervasive Would wearing earplugs be an option? How about a white noise sound machine?
- Does your mind race before bed? If the previous suggestions for a written list or mental garbage can aren’t enough, try the Calm App or something similar, which allows you to select bedtime stories specifically designed to drone you to sleep. Alternately, you can use apps like this one to choose customized back- ground noises, such as softly lapping water.
- What’s the state of your sleep area? Is it set up for a beautiful, calm rest? Think of ways to sweep away any energy of chaos from the
- Do you have an undiagnosed sleep disorder? Many people don’t even know they suffer from sleep I learned this first-hand when I had to share a hotel room with a relative who wakes up every few minutes but didn’t even realize it. Sleep disorders take a huge toll on your body after awhile. Get this checked out by a medical professional if you think this may be an issue for you.
- For those wanting even more extensive solutions, I recommend Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution, as well as her Sleep Resources website,7 which offers extensive, well-thought- out suggestions for busy people like us.
INCREDIBLE WELL-BEING CUSTOMIZATIONS FROM AN EXCEPTIONAL EXECUTIVE
Denise Brosseau, Founder and CEO, Thought Leadership Lab
When Denise Brosseau was 18 months away from a milestone birthday, she decided to spend the next year in deep overhaul mode, intent on getting herself in the best shape of her life by jumping in with two feet. After receiving inspiration from a successful friend and undertaking some careful research, Denise was further motivated by her elderly mother’s increasing struggle to get around. Denise says, “When I am that age [eighties], I want to be spry. I want to be driving. I still want to be traveling.”
She had also been experiencing a brewing perfect storm of creep- ing weight gain, menopause brain fog, a diagnosed thyroid issue, and—perhaps most significantly—maddening nighttime insomnia. She explains, “I had a real lack of energy, not wanting to get up off the couch. That’s not a good thing. It was time to switch things up.”
Denise is a “get it done” person of deep thoughtfulness and significant accomplishment. As the CEO and founder of Thought Leader- ship Lab, she is an expert on the process of helping leaders build trust, credibility, followers, influence, and strategic connections so that their ideas have maximum reach and impact. As the preeminent Thought Leader on Thought Leadership (a phrase that makes people laugh when she’s introduced), she authored Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact, and Success,8 and it remains the cornerstone book on the topic. Her LinkedIn Learning course on the subject9 garnered 125,000 downloads within just a few months of being launched.
Before that, Denise, who is a Wellesley graduate with a Stanford MBA, cofounded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), now known as Watermark, which she nurtured and then grew for 10 years into the country’s leading organization for women-led startups. Also, she cofounded Springboard, a women’s startup launch pad, which offered the first venture capital conference for women entrepreneurs and which has resulted in more than $7 billion in funding to women-founded and women-led businesses. In 2014, the Silicon Valley Business Journal hon- ored her as one of the Top 100 Women of Influence, and she was recognized by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change.
On any given day, Denise may be working one on one with a high-level leader or with one of her many business clients, such as the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the California Community Col- lege Chancellor’s Office, Planned Parenthood, or eBay. Consequently, her shocking well-being slump, which had her gravitating toward the couch rather than out changing the world, needed a fast turnaround. She embraced a scientifically grounded eating program called Bright Line Eating, based on the New York Times bestselling book by the same title,10 and she noticed an immediate benefit from eliminating flour, sugar, and caffeine from her diet. She went on to lose more than 60 pounds over the next 12 months.
Simultaneously, sensing that her sleep issues held the key to immi- nently better wellness, she tackled them with care and thoughtfulness. Although she had slept well all her life, over the previous seven years she had gradually experienced what she described as “a complete wipeout” of her ability to sleep through the night.
Determined to get to the bottom of these issues, she began by identifying her sleep challenges and studying them with care. She notes, “I soon discovered that there were three different patterns. Pat- tern 1 was to go to sleep, wake up three or four hours later, be up for two or three hours, and then finally fall asleep again. Pattern 2 was to go to sleep, wake up five hours later, and be up for the rest of the night. Pattern 3 was being wide awake because of sugar or caffeine until about 1:00 A.M. and then falling asleep but not having enough time to get a good rest before morning.” To make matters worse, each night was a mystery waiting to happen; she never knew which of the three patterns she’d experience.
As she began to eliminate sugar, flour and caffeine, she realized just how sensitive her body is, and this greatly informed her sleep-remodeling project. Even the smallest amounts of sugar, like in her favorite barbecue sauce, could push her right back into a sleepless or restless night.
In addition, she explains, “I have a really low pain threshold. When I go to the dentist, they need to give me two or three shots of Novocain before filling a cavity while others might be fine with just one. At the hair stylist, brushing my hair too hard causes an immediate pain sensation. To me, everything hurts more.”
Fortunately, she noticed that her successful weight loss provided welcome pain relief and better sleeping. She says, “When you are a speaker like I am and doing full-day workshops and standing for hours, when aches and pains can happen to anyone, it gets exacerbated with extra pounds. At the end of that kind of busy day, getting comfortable enough to sleep is much less challenging when you are at a healthy weight.”
On the subject of comfort, Denise says that one of her most valued purchases is her Sleep Number brand bed, which allows her to make instant adjustments to her mattress firmness. She also remembers, “I tried about five different pillows before I found one that I love, and I take it with me everywhere. Yes, I check a bag, and pack my pillow, even for an overnight trip.”
In addition to being sensitive to food and pain, she also noted that she has become increasingly sensitive to noise. When she was younger, she lived on a loud, busy street with no issues, but, she says, “Now, as I get older, every noise triggers me awake.”
Because of her commitment to improving her sleep, she explains, “Now I live in a place that is really quiet. My house is completely silent, and I am very intentional about that. I have no ticking clocks, for example. That would drive me crazy.” She adds, “Before bed, all my technology goes into a little bedside drawer to charge overnight; the drawer literally closes while the lights go out.”
Because a good night’s sleep is paramount when Denise is traveling for a workshop or speech, she takes no chances: “I bring earplugs on every trip. I have a kind that I really like—bright pink ones—and I have a whole bag of them.”
Lastly, she carefully studied the concept of sleep habits and ideal body rhythms. She was particularly inspired by the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power for Sleep and Dreams,11 by Matthew Walker, PhD. She realized that she’s most awake and highly functioning in the morn- ing from 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M., and also in the evening from 9:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. (she’s both an early bird and a night owl). Because of the flexibility of running her own company and her senior level of success, she began experimenting by taking naps during her least energetic time between 5:00 P.M. and 8:00 P.M. She describes her newfound schedule as “my perfect world.”
Denise reports that “living my real cycle” has been an astonishing game-changer, and this new pattern is ideal for her particular needs.
With this schedule in place, she can power through her day, nap for an hour or so in the early evening, stay up to enjoy her prime wakeful hours until midnight or 1:00 A.M., and then consistently sleep straight through until morning. Her insomnia dissipated. She has her energy back, she’s able to take on more projects than ever before, and she describes her- self as “perfectly happy.”
Denise readily admits that this sleep cycle setup would be more difficult if she weren’t the CEO of her own company; our organizations usually don’t operate around when a worker is optimally functioning. She understands that many don’t have that control, but for those who can schedule meetings in different timeframes, it makes sense to target when you are at your best. She too, has adapted to seize an opportunity. Case in point, she lectured from 3:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M.—not her favorite time of day—at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for her recent graduate course, Communicating for Credibility. What did she do? She pushed herself, delivered, and received incredible feedback.
Her advice for those who are desperate to sleep better? “I invite people to experiment. Try out four or five different pillows. Experiment with a different mattress. Put up some new dark curtains. Experiment with your food and drink. There are so many different tweaks that you can make. Undertake this project as if you believe things will really improve. As if you matter.”
This is an excerpt from REINVENT THE WHEEL: How Top Leaders Leverage Well-Being For Success by Megan McNealy. Megan is the Founder of Well-Being Drives Success and a longtime financial professional. This excerpt is used with permission.