Lo♥︎ing legal life: sleep, and how to get enough of it

This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss why adequate sleep is essential for peak performance, and how to get enough of it. 

Heart

The working world has few greater ironies than its attitude to sleep. The ability to perform on a few hours sleep a night is regarded as a valuable asset, while needing a good night’s sleep is seen as a sign of weakness. Generally there is little sympathy in the modern workplace for those who feel tired and need rest.

In addition, attitudes towards rest are often linked to gender stereotypes which perpetuate age old myths about the role of men and women in the work place.

It is time to wake up! The reality is that those who enjoy sufficient sleep each night are likely to perform far better than their nocturnal colleagues in the short and long term. Securing enough sleep should be an integral part of any plan for success. Enlightened leaders now recognise the power of renewal, and ensure that work patterns for themselves and their team are supportive of rest.

Why is sleep important?

It is surprising that so many people feel unable to put aside time for a good night’s sleep, because the importance of good-quality sleep for our mental, physical and emotional well-being is beyond doubt.

Lack of sleep is well-known for harming mental performance, adversely affecting objectivity and judgment, and impairing memory. We are all familiar with those effects in ourselves and others.

Zita Tulyahikayo
Zita Tulyahikayo

Current scientific research has also revealed more disturbing effects of long term sleep deprivation on brain function. The performance of the brain’s glymphatic system – the system responsible for cleansing the brain of toxins – is thought to be linked to the sleep-wake cycle. This system helps to clean the brain of toxins such as the protein beta-amyloid, which is known to accumulate in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. So lack of sleep is likely to have long-term adverse, impacts on health that are not apparent at the time to the habitually sleep deprived.

Without doubt, sleep is needed for your body’s process of physical renewal. When you sleep, your body produces human growth hormone which is responsible for promoting cell maintenance and repair. Your body’s cells renew faster during the hours of sleep than at any other time. As well as adversely affecting your bodies’ ability to repair itself, lack of sleep is also associated with increased weight gain. Your body produces more of the hunger hormone Ghrelin and the stress hormone cortisol when suffering from sleep deprivation, and less of the hormone Leptin. Ghrelin and Cortisol increase appetite, while Leptin is associated with the feeling of being sated.

Given the importance of sleep to our physical and mental health, it is not surprising that our emotional well-being suffers when we lack a good night’s sleep. Most people will have been aware of becoming more irritable, short-tempered and prone to anger and depression after a sleepless night. These symptoms are exacerbated by prolonged sleep debt

Chronic tiredness undermines the ability to make judgments that are free from unconscious bias, as the body struggles to draw upon depleted reserves of functionality. This in turn can lead to a lack of trust in the decisions we make. Insecurity, paranoia and mental health issues fuelled by dependency on external stimulants such as caffeine and sugar – all seemingly part of the daily norm – are in reality symptoms of a mind and body struggling to maintain some semblance of equilibrium.

How can you get enough quality sleep?

Given the importance of sleep, getting enough of it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, along with balanced nutrition and adequate hydration So, what can you do to ensure a good night’s sleep? Here are some tips.

James Pereira QC
James Pereira QC

First, change your mind-set. Instead of viewing sleep as being in conflict with work and productivity, look upon it as essential to maintaining your brain and body in peak performance, By acknowledging and accepting sleep as complimentary and supportive of your professional life, you will prioritise it and value it just as you do your own worth. This is an essential step in ensuring that sufficient sleep becomes part of your daily routine, and is not sacrificed to other ends.

If your mind-set remains fixed on the outdated idea of a good night’s sleep as a luxury that can be curtailed by other pressures, you will tend to self-sabotage and remain in an unhealthy cycle of chronic fatigue. Value yourself. Value your work. Value your sleep.

Secondly, manage your time. It is difficult to protect the time needed for sleep if you feel that other tasks need to be done. So set yourself realistic goals each day and leave yourself space to re-schedule in a way that does not compromise on sleep.

Managing your time becomes far easier once you have changed your mind-set (step 1, above). Significantly, once your mind-set has changed, you are far more likely to feel confident in meeting deadlines on time because you will feel supported by restful sleep.

Similarly, as you reduce your sleep debt, your productivity will increase. Rather than cutting short your sleep to finish some urgent drafting, you will before long find yourself investing in sleep so as to tackle your urgent tasks more quickly and efficiently than before.

Thirdly, create a routine and setting that supports a good night’s sleep. Make your bedroom warm, cosy, dark and peaceful, If there are things on your mind, dump them on a written list so that they are released from your thoughts. Avoid drugs such as alcohol and coffee. Try to stay off electronics an hour or so before bedtime. The light from screens interferes with the production of the hormone melatonin that is associated with inducing sleep. And dedicate some time in the run up to sleep to a relaxing activity, such as reading a book or taking a bath.

All these steps will support you in achieving long, restful sleep.

Harness the power of renewal

Many people will face the end of the year exhausted. So as the holiday season approaches, give yourself the gift of sleep this Christmas, and harness the power of renewal that healthy sleeping patterns will bring. Remember, it is not how long you work, but how well you work, that really matters. A regular good night’s sleep will support your excellence. You really can sleep your way to the top.

Loving Legal Life will return in the New Year.