No one ever earned a promotion, or even a pat on the back, for being well-rested. Bosses tend to favor 60-hour workweeks over 15-minute naps, all-nighters over half-days. And whether they like it or not, sleep-deprived workers usually oblige. A poll conducted earlier this year by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that 40% of Americans make do with less than seven hours of sleep a night, compared with 31% four years ago. But studies show that ignoring sleep can be disastrous for a career or a company. In 1997, the NSF reported that sleepy workers cost American businesses $18 billion dollars a year in lost productivity -- without accounting for the estimated tens of billions spent on health care and damages related to accidents (think: the night-shift forklift operator).
So what's the secret to balancing the demands of work and rest? In short, there is none. "For you to perform well, you have to pay your brain what you owe," says Frisca Yan-Go, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. That's seven to nine hours a night for most people. "If you are in sleep debt, you are in debt -- and you have to pay it back," she adds. If unpaid, sleep deprivation "increases your chances of making a mistake and makes it difficult for you to concentrate," says James Gangwisch, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center. He adds that it can inhibit creativity and lead to obesity.
But while there is no way to cheat sleep, practicing "sleep hygine" can help make you a better sleeper -- and a more productive worker. Here are five ways to get started:
1. Cut out the booze
And the coffee. And the cigarettes. While these substances can make work a little bit easier to take, they can wreak havoc on your sleep, especially if consumed less than six hours before bed, according to the NSF.
Caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants -- a cup of coffee can affect you for up to 12 hours and nicotine withdrawl during sleep has been linked to morning grogginess as well as nightmares. Finally, a nightcap will make you feel drowsy and help you fall asleep, but the NSF says it will also increase the number of times you wake up during the night, meaning your sleep will be less restful.
2. Get moving
In place of the chemicals, regular exercise is a great way to ensure that you sleep like a baby. The concept was discovered by Stanford University researchers in 1997, when they found that people who excercised for 30 to 40 minutes four times a week were able to cut the length of time it took them to fall asleep by an average of 15 minutes.
Because athletic activity raises your body temperature, the corresponding drop, which happens five to six hours after you finish a workout, is great for easing your body into a deep sleep. This should make waking up in the morning much easier, according to the NSF. It is important, however, to work out at least three hours before you plan on going to sleep, as strenuous activity just before bed can keep you awake longer. If you can't duck out of work early enough, try a brisk walk in the late afternoon -- it will perk you up for the rest of the day and make you sleep easier come evening.
3. Live like a caveman
So when is the best time to wake up? "If you look at humans, our ancestors lived in nature in accordance with their circadian rhythms," says Dr. Gangwisch. "Ideally we would go to bed when it gets dark outside and wake up at dawn." Since most people have a hard time swinging this, he recommends consistency: try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends.
And while you may not be able to go to sleep at sunset, making sure you go to sleep in a dark room is a start (even the glow from an alarm clock can be disruptive). If you are feeling drowsy at work, try using a bright, full-spectrum lamp to simulate sunlight and help you stay alert.
4. Leave the work at work
As heavy as your eyes may feel when you are scrolling through Excel speadsheets at the office, bringing these activities home -- or God-forbid, into the bedroom -- will not help you rest any easier. The NSF recommends only using the bed for sleep and sex, and only lying in bed when you are tired.
Rather than mull over the day's work, think relaxing thoughts. And if you don't fall asleep in 15 minutes, get out of bed and do something low impact -- like a crossword puzzle -- until you are ready to try again.
5. When all else fails...nap
If you find yourself in a sleep-deprived jam, a short nap can do wonders. "You don't have to pay back hours of sleep to feel refreshed," says Dr. Yan-Go. She recommends a short "power nap" every few hours as a way to mentally prepare for a key meeting or a difficult task.
In 2002, Australian sleep researchers found that naps as brief as 10 minutes resulted in significantly improved alertness and control over thought processes. Add to that the fact that aviator Steve Fossett survived his 67-hour non-stop, around-the-word flight on 20 minutes of sleep (spread out over six power naps), and there's no reason to be embarrassed about putting your head down for a few.
The Final Word
These tips aside, it's important to make sleep a work priority. Getting enough rest isn't only about the luxury of an afternoon nap or the joy of sleeping until noon on a Saturday, it's about maximizing your mental capacity. During sleep, "your mind processes and categorizes things," explains Dr. Gangwisch, leading to the eureka moments that can happen after a period of restful shuteye.
So go ahead. Skip the coffee, knock off early, and fluff your pillow. There's never been a better reason to procrastinate.