A full night of sleep is important for everyone, but it's even more important for a business owner or entrepreneur, where you can live or die based on your first impressions, your productivity, and your energy.

Sleep does a lot for you. It makes you feel better, both mentally and physically. It reduces stress. It boosts your mood and your energy. It improves memory and critical thinking, along with response times. On a good night of sleep, you wake up refreshed, full of energy, ready to tackle the problems of the day. You have boosted creativity, a sharper wit, and a less cynical outlook.

The problem is the global business rhetoric is one of working until you drop. The mental image is always one where you pull long hours, you work day in and day out, and you sacrifice fun, sleep, and a personal life for business success. If you sleep in, if you miss a day due to oversleeping, or you cut out early to rest, you're considered a slacker. You feel guilt over missing tasks you meant to accomplish, calls you meant to make. You struggle to make up an excuse, because "I was asleep" is invalid.

The benefits of sleep are tangible and numerous. The drawbacks of "burning the midnight oil" are equally numerous, though you never feel them at the time. Many entrepreneurs thrive in the late evenings, when the distractions of the day are withdrawn and they are free to work. The productivity, they reason, more than outweighs the stress of little sleep.

This is because many of the dangers of a low-sleep lifestyle come from physical dysfunctions that accumulate over time. You might not feel it now, but those long hours come back to hurt you in 10, 20, 30 years. Shorter life spans, higher risk of various diseases, and accumulated stress all contribute to worse later years.

It doesn't help that many people don't wake up feeling refreshed. The alarm goes off and you groan, because you were wrenched from your rest and feel like you only just fell asleep. That soft glow, the gentle awakening so often seen in idyllic movies is nowhere to be seen. Instead, you have a groggy haze, tired, burning eyes, and an irritability that won't go away until the third cup of coffee.

The reason for this is simple and scientific; you're waking up at the wrong time.

Sleep Cycles, Science, and Solutions

Sleep isn't just an off button for the mind, like it is for a computer. Sleep works in cycles, which science has divided into five stages. The first stage is light sleep, where you may twitch and shift and doze. The second stage is deeper, with slower breathing and heart rate. The third stage is deeper sleep, where your brain shifts to a sort of maintenance mode. Stage four is very deep sleep, and stage five is the deepest of all. The fifth stage is where REM sleep happens, and is where you dream. One full sleep cycle tends to last around 90 minutes.

Ideally, you will wake up in stage one sleep, when sleep is the lightest and you're most rested. That groggy feeling, where you don't want to get out of bed and you feel like you haven't slept at all? That's what happens when you wake up in stage four or stage five sleep.

The trick is to sleep in 90-minute multiples. A good length of time to sleep, then, would be about 9 hours, or 7.5. The "eight hours" of sleep middle ground cuts you off in the middle of a sleep cycle.

The problem is timing it so you wake up right on time. I don't know about you, but I have trouble falling asleep in a reasonable amount of time. That makes it very hard to time waking up properly. Trying to set an alarm 7.5 hours ahead of a nebulous time is an exercise in frustration.

Thankfully, the miracle of modern technology--the smartphone--has capabilities to help. One app I've been experimenting with, and having great success with, is this sleep cycle alarm clock.

Sleep cycles are reasonably well understood, at least in terms of the physiology involved. One of the key indicators is length and depth of breathing. This app and others like it use the mic in your smartphone to monitor the sound of your breathing. It will then wake you up within a specified time window, when your sleep cycle reaches a safe point to awaken. If my goal is to be awake at 7am, I can set it to wake me up any time between 6:30 and 7:00 when it detects the right point of my sleep cycle.

I have to say, I'm in love with this little app. As a business owner taking a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, I have a lot of work to do and a lot of stress in my life. Waking up without that grogginess, allowing me to get to work right away with a happier attitude, it's been making quite a difference in the last few weeks. Sleeping smarter was a great new year's resolution, and so far, it's been a cinch to keep up. Give it a shot; you might be surprised at how much better you feel in the morning.

Published on: Mar 7, 2016
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