Starting a business -- and managing a business through an economic downturn -- can mean working longer hours, experiencing greater stress.

Which means not getting enough sleep. The National Institutes of Health estimates between 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer (whether they realize it or not) from chronic sleep deprivation.

A lack of adequate sleep only increases the challenges of small-business ownership. Research shows sleep plays an important role in daily functioning: A lack of adequate sleep negatively affects mood, motivation, judgment, and your perception of events.

To make matters worse, not getting enough sleep, according to an NIH study, carries a greater mortality risk than smoking, high blood pressure, and heart disease. (Ugh.)

The problem is, most "get more sleep" advice sounds great in theory but is difficult in practice.

Shutting off all screens an hour or more before bed is tough to do when your to-do list is endless. So is spending more time outside during daylight hours. And as for limiting caffeine intake? The less you sleep the more tired you feel and the more you need those late-day jolts of energy that make it harder to fall asleep at night ... and the cycle continues.

So for real-world advice I turned to neurologist Chris Winter, the founder of Charlottesville [Virginia] Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It (Berkley, 2017).

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

The first step is to determine whether you're chronically sleep-deprived. 

One way is to think objectively about how sleepy you tend to be in certain situations. In a meeting. Reading. Doing paperwork. Watching TV.

"If you can sit through a boring presentation without getting sleepy," Dr. Winter says, "if you don't nap even when you could ... if you're not sleepy during the day, chances are you're getting enough sleep at night."

Then consider what happens when you turn out the lights. "Many people fall asleep immediately when they go to bed," Dr. Winter says, "but that doesn't mean they're 'good sleepers.' Often, it just means they're exhausted."

A better measure is how hard you have to "try" to fall asleep. On average, a person getting enough sleep typically falls asleep within 15 minutes of getting into bed -- and doesn't worry if it occasionally takes a little longer.

"When going to sleep at night isn't something you just do, without really thinking about it," Dr. Winter says, "that's a sign you're sleep-deprived. If you're worried about whether you get enough sleep, chances are you don't."

See Naps as a Supplement, Not a Cure

While a short nap can be very helpful -- neurologists tout the learning benefits of midday siestas -- a nap should never be used to make up for a bad night's sleep. 

"That's where you go down a dark path," Dr. Winter says. "Take a long nap this afternoon and it's naturally harder to fall asleep tonight, and the whole process falls apart."

If you tend to sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., stick to that schedule. If you had a bad night, that's OK: Just don't go to bed until 11 p.m. the next night. (Or possibly a little earlier -- but definitely don't nap during the day.)

"That's a mistake parents often make with their kids," Dr. Winter says. "If their child doesn't sleep, they let them stay home from school to get caught up ... and the problem compounds. Instead say, 'I'm sorry you had a bad night, but you still have to go to school.'"

The same holds true, of course, for the rest of us: Having a bad night isn't a license to nap during the day. If you do, the odds are you'll only make the cycle harder to break.

See Sleep as Your Performance Edge

In the course of his work with a number of professional baseball teams, Dr. Winter conducted a study that showed players who did not exhibit signs of sleep deprivation were much more likely to reach the major leagues -- and stay there -- than those who did. 

"Based on my research," Dr. Winter adds, "if a team pays attention to improving its players' sleep quality, that's worth two or three wins over the course of a season. That's huge."

Partly that's due to the benefits of sleep, but it's also a sign that those teams are constantly seeking ways to improve player performance. 

"If they're paying attention to sleep," Dr. Winter says, "that's means they're paying attention to factors beyond the basics like fitness and nutrition. If they're paying attention to sleep ... they're paying attention to many other areas that make an incremental difference."

How to Get Started

Tonight, pick a time you will go to bed. Not go to sleep -- go to bed. See bedtime not as the time you will definitely fall asleep, but the earliest time you might go to sleep. (Unless you're totally exhausted you won't fall asleep right away.)

Then just relax. Let your mind wander. Don't think about going to sleep. Don't try to go to sleep. Just chill.

If it takes you a long time to fall asleep, that's OK. Don't take a nap the next day. Just go to bed at the same time, see it as bedtime, not sleep time, and just chill.

In time, your body -- and more important, your mind -- will start to adapt.

And you'll start to get more, and better, sleep.

Without really trying.