“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds”

“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds”

by | Jun 20, 2018 | Sleep

(Thanks to Jo Jo Jensen for the quote)

Is a full night of sleep proving elusive? Or are you one of the lucky 50% of leaders who report getting the recommended 7-9 hours regularly?


Exploring sleep – the foundation for all things wellbeing

In the analysis of our database of over 1,000 leaders who have completed the GLWS, we have found that almost 50% report that they get 7-9 hours sleep ‘never’, ‘rarely’ or only ‘sometimes’. These sleep habits would be considered below par by most sleep experts, which suggests that optimal sleep is an on-going challenge for many leaders.

This is echoed in the personal debrief sessions that Audrey and I regularly conduct for clients – poor sleep often comes up as a wellbeing challenge. In particular, it seems that many of us find ourselves waking early and being unable to simply roll over and ‘go back under’. (And, just between you and I, we have both been experiencing similar challenges lately which is another reason for the focus this week ☺️)

For anyone in this situation, lack of sleep is not due to a lack of opportunity to sleep, but rather, frustrating sleep interruptions that occur with maddening regularity. We aren’t short changing our time to sleep – we’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s just not working out… grrr!


How to accept and address your sleep challenges

Now, we know that the underlying causes of acute or chronic insomnia can be extremely complex and are well beyond the scope of this email. What we feel we can offer, however, are some useful strategies (drawn from the sleep literature and Karen’s studies in Sleep Psychology) that might prompt some positive change for those of you facing this challenge.

At the broadest level, we recommend you:

  • Manage your expectations about sleep. It is completely normal to have brief awakenings through the night, and these tend to occur more in the second half of the sleep period. Having 8 hours of totally ‘unconscious’ sleep should not be used as the measure of a ‘good night’. Managing your awakenings, or rather getting back to sleep quickly is a more productive target for attention than hoping not to waken at all. See below for tips on how to do this.
  • Minimise the intensity of your feelings around sleep and sleep loss. Try to develop some tolerance for sleep loss by not putting too much emphasis on sleep or catastrophising after a poor night of sleep. You will still be able to function, you will be able to get through your day and a positive and accepting approach to the experience will be more beneficial than spiralling into a state of worry or anxiety.

Acceptance is good, however, a sense of personal agency in addressing sleep challenges is also positive. To help with this, we recommend experimenting with these specific strategies:

Apply ‘stimulus control’ to condition you that bed is for sleeping and nothing else (except sex, should you be so lucky). The goal is to promote a positive association between bed and feeling sleepy and avoid negative associations of being in bed and unable to sleep. So, try this:

  1. Go to bed only when feeling sleepy and relaxed, and you intend to fall asleep soon.
  2. If you are unable to drop off within what feels like 15-20 minutes (without watching the clock), get up, go to another room and do something non-stimulating (read a light novel, listen to music). Return to bed only when you feel relaxed and ready to sleep.
  3. Follow this same approach should you wake in the night and be unable to get back to sleep within 15-20 minutes.
  4. Do not: read, watch television, eat, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, use electronic social media, worry, problem solve or plan activities in bed. That is, omit all ‘sleep-incompatible’ activities.

Work at getting back to sleep quickly when you waken at night. Try one, or a combination of our favourite methods:

  1. Do some deep belly breathing, with a longer exhalation than inhalation. Use a count for your breathing to help you concentrate; or visualise something expanding and contracting while you breathe (a mental picture of your lungs, a balloon inflating and deflating, a ball that glows red with oxygen when you inhale and then turns blue when you exhale). Breathing slowly in this way will slow your heart rate and create the ideal physiological conditions for a return to sleep.
  2. Mentally repeat one line over and over – this could be an obvious sentence such as “don’t think about work” or a song lyric you like. Anything that can keep your brain from clicking ‘ON” and starting to mull over whatever is on your mind, causing you worry or on the agenda for tomorrow.
  3. If you do start thinking about your ‘To Do’ list – try getting up and writing this down – just in bullet points, not solutions – as a reminder for tomorrow. Now it’s on paper there is no risk you will forget it so you can relax, switch off and get back to sleep.
  4. Visualise somewhere you are fond of – a special place in your present or past, or a journey you enjoy (e.g. your childhood home, a beach you love). Put yourself in this place and visualise everything, imagine what you can hear, what you can smell. Walk around and explore or see yourself drive the route to get somewhere. Keep focussed on this to allow your mind to return to sleep.
  5. Count back from 1000 in 7’s, count sheep or any other animate object that appeals.
  6. Do a muscle ‘tense and release’ – this means tense up every muscle in the body really tightly, from your toes to your scalp – hold the tension for as long as you can and then release all at once. Repeat this 2-3 times.
  7. Focus on being present in this moment, lying in a comfortable bed, in the dark, warm and at rest. (If you do a lot of long haul flights, consider how much more comfortable you feel compared to being on an overnight flight somewhere!). Feel the contact points between your body and the mattress and your coverings. Concentrate on this feeling down either side of your body. Feel grateful for this moment of peace and tranquillity.
  8. If you have a recurring worry or anxiety about a work problem, visualise putting this ‘worrying thing’ into a large, heavy trunk and locking it in; wrap chains around the trunk; load the trunk on to a flat-bed train truck, sit an elephant on the trunk and send the train truck off down a track that runs off to the horizon.

Lastly, other key sleep hygiene factors to check off are:

  • Aim for a regular bedtime and wake time.
  • Get your devices out of the bedroom. If you need an alarm – buy a clock!
  • Get up at the same time every morning, regardless of the amount of sleep you have had through the night.
  • Ensure your bedroom is dark and cool, and limit noise as much as possible.
  • Invest in a good mattress and comfortable bed linen, pillows and coverings.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, and don’t exercise or eat too late in the evening.
  • Avoid napping during the day, unless these are short (no more than 20-30 minutes) and are at least eight hours before you plan to go to bed at night.
  • Try and build a habit of meditation and the skill of ‘stilling your mind’ to help with those racing thoughts after dark.
  • Consider if you might be deficient in magnesium. There are a few studies supporting the use of magnesium supplements as an aid for sleep. Consult your search engine and your doctor before giving this a go.

We hope that these suggestions might be a helpful start towards a better night’s sleep for some of you. Of course, if your insomnia is prolonged and persistent we recommend that you seek specialist help – your GP, a sleep clinic or a clinical psychologist will be able to help or refer you to someone who can.

Happy snoozing!

Get our guide to better wellbeing

Download our Collection of Wellbeing Insights – an eBook full of our favourite and most practical tips and strategies you can start using today.