Working as a consultant and coach means I spend time with different leaders of many organisations. I notice that a common issue for leaders is being able to juggle demanding work schedules with the rest of their lives. One thing getting sacrificed is sleep.

We all know that getting too little sleep adversely affects us; we feel tired, maybe irritable, things are more difficult to do. What I’ve learnt recently is the reason for this; our brains need sleep to function well. A tired brain sends less blood to the pre-frontal cortex; responsible for our reasoning, self-control and forward thinking.

Lack of sleep also affects our memory and ability to learn. Our brains are just like computers in that they need to encode and consolidate information regularly. Overnight we experience sleep cycles including light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep; each cycle plays a part in enabling us to understand our experiences, recall what we’ve learned, and connect to our existing knowledge. Less time sleeping means less of these cycles and less chance we will understand and store what we experienced the day before. In short we forget things more readily and learning is more difficult.

Having too little sleep also impairs our intelligence. We can keep going with too little sleep, relying on autopilot to get us through, if we’re completing familiar tasks and routines. And if we’re working on something fascinating we can get a short boost from our brain to put in some extra mental effort. However when we have something a little more taxing to handle we just won’t perform at our best if we’re tired.
How much sleep do we need? The vast majority of people need seven to nine hours each night.

How can we get more sleep?
• Make it a priority – even when you’re really busy make sure you set aside enough time to sleep. You’ll work more quickly and be smarter the next morning.
• Have a sleep routine – getting to bed at the same time with a regular pattern of activity helps the brain associate this with it being time to sleep.
• Make it dark – street lights, mobile phones and e-books can all fool the brain into thinking it’s still daytime by suppressing melatonin, the hormone that tells our brain it’s time to sleep.

So for 2018 I’m learning from neuroscience (as well as my cat) and prioritising sleep. Go on why don’t you too? It might be the best New Year resolution you could make.

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