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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Secret to Getting More (and Better) Sleep

What if you could make better decisions, remember more, and get more done? It's possible, but you need more sleep. Here's how to get it.
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You constantly work to be more productive and more efficient.

You buy apps to save a couple minutes. You buy software to save a few more. You streamline your processes and rethink your workflow and do everything possible to maximize the hours you spend working.

But you pay no attention to improving the effectiveness of a major chunk of every day: the five to eight hours you spend sleeping.

And that's a shame, because when you improve the quality of your sleep you can increase your productivity and improve your ability to learn and make good decisions. When you think about it that way, putting zero effort into getting a better night sleep sounds, well, pretty dumb.

"I've been tracking my sleep for the last few months and have used the results to dramatically improve my sleep quality and energy levels," says Chris Hollindale, co-founder and CTO of Hasty, a seed-funded startup whose stated mission is to improve the health of humanity. "It's a genuinely effective way of feeling better and being more productive."

Here's Chris in his own words, with five reasons why you should track your sleep:

1. Sleep is important for learning--and we regularly abuse it.

Sleep is not just needed for rest and recuperation. In fact, your brain is just as active when you're asleep as it is during your waking hours. The overnight work the brain does is vital for learning and retention of knowledge; how many times have you gone to sleep struggling with an issue and woken up the next day with an idea that puts it into perfect clarity?

Sleep is important: By undermining sleep quality, you learn less, remember less, make worse decisions, and reduce your productivity.

Yet you abuse our sleep all the time: You use alarm clocks to wake up, you stay up late to get work finished, you travel around the world and try to ignore the effects of jet lag, and you drink caffeine and alcohol before trying to sleep.

Each has an impact on your sleep quality and if you knew exactly what effect it had you could make better decisions. Would you stay up past midnight to finish a task if you could just as easily finish it the next morning--and then have a more productive and energetic day overall?

2. Everyone is different.

The fundamental reason why tracking makes sense is that different factors affect people in different ways. Everyone has different sleep environments, from the light and noise levels to the type of mattress and the room temperature. Some share a bed with a partner and some do so much traveling they rarely sleep in the same environment for more than a few days.

Take me: I'm able to go to sleep in relatively noisy environments, but I really struggle if the room isn't almost pitch black.

By measuring how you sleep it's much easier to see how different factors affect you, and then you can use that knowledge to help optimize your sleep quality.

3. Tracking is easy

Here's the good news about sleep tracking: It's easy and it's free. Free apps like Sleep101 or SleepBot track your movements during the night to objectively evaluate how well you slept.

All you do is to place your smartphone on your mattress and tap a button. The app figures out when you fell asleep and woke up, tracks your movements, grades how well you slept, and graphs and charts the data to make it really easy to evaluate.

The one caveat is that if you share your bed with a partner, this method of tracking may not be the most accurate gauge, so using an individual device like the Jawbone UP may be a better if more expensive solution.

4. You can test your assumptions

By tracking your sleep you can easily test changes to your routine or environment.

My bedroom has terrible blinds that barely keep out any light at all, so I tried purchasing a basic sleep mask to see whether it would make a difference. The results were excellent--within a week I'd reduced the average time I spent trying to get to sleep by 10 minutes and my overall sleep quality (as calculated by the apps I'm using) went up by over 5 percent.

Everyone has simple things they can do to sleep better. The best way to find yours is to try some ideas and measure the results.

(Note from Jeff: For me the simplest thing is to follow a routine. I always read before I turn out the light but I stay away from page-turners because that defeats the purpose. The greats of Russian literature--Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in particular--are not just fine novelists but outstanding sleep producers.)

5. You'll find out what you didn't know

Having tracked my sleep for some time I've built up a huge amount of data about how I sleep. The great thing about the data is that it helps me see patterns I wouldn't have noticed.

By looking at the individual graphs of particular nights I saw there were spikes in activity starting around 7 a.m. on weekdays. That's probably due to the fact my bedroom lies adjacent to the communal corridor of our apartment block, right next to the lifts; as people left for work each morning they made enough noise to disturb me.

So I bought earplugs to see if they would help. After a few nights of getting used to wearing them I started to see an improvement, and now those early morning spikes are a thing of the past.

But while I know they help me sleep better, I know they don't make any difference at all to how quickly I fall asleep.

Try finding that out without tracking your sleep.

Last updated: Mar 19, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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