Do you prioritize sleep or your to do list more?
Do you count down the minutes until your children’s bedtime so you can go to bed too or so you can get more stuff done after they are out of your way?
When the car is quiet on your way to or from work, do you ever have to fight to stay awake behind the wheel?
Are you frustrated by the rings under your eyes or how quickly your skin is aging?
Do you seem to catch every cold that goes around?
Do you crave carbohydrate heavy foods and then feel comatose after indulging in them?
Are you constantly swinging from one emotion to the next, seemingly affected by every story or circumstance you encounter?
I could go on, but I’m sure you’re starting to get the point. Sleep deprivation is one of the most common problems that busy Americans face, and it is also one of the most dangerous. It just so happens that fixing sleep deprivation usually isn’t that hard because it’s self imposed. Some people truly do have a medical condition that causes sleep problems, but most of us just push sleep lower and lower on the priority list in our attempt to do it all, have it all, and be it all.
The reality that most of us know deep down is that we can be infinitely more productive when we are well rested than when we are skimping on sleep. We often feel like if we just stay up an extra hour to get more things done, we’ll be more productive. But time does not equal quality and time also does not equal productivity. Performing at our best, the ability to focus, mental alertness, and physical energy and stamina are far more important to productivity and quality than time.
Have you heard of Parkinson’s law? I bet you’ve seen it happen over and over again. Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Don’t believe it? Think about the day before you last took a vacation at work. You likely worked extra hard to get everything completed that day to tie up all your lose ends and finish all of your tasks before you left for vacation. We often achieve more on the day before vacation than we typically do in a week. How do we achieve so much in so little time? Parkinson’s law. We know we don’t have much time so we focus, we work hard and fast, and we’re determined to get it all done. We’re often excited about our upcoming vacation which helps keep our energy levels up to produce the results we need to leave for a stress free vacation.
So what does Parkinson’s law have to do with skipping sleep? I’m glad you asked. The answer is that you will never “get caught up” if all you do is throw more time at the problem. Giving more time to your to do list is not the answer. What you should be focusing on is the quality, the performance, the productivity factors going into your efforts to knock out your to do list. One of the easiest and most beneficial changes you can make to increase your performance and productivity is to get an adequate amount of sleep. Your mental focus will improve. Your energy will improve. Your attitude will improve. And all of those improvements will lead to the greatest change in your performance and productivity. All because you put your to do list aside and went to bed just a little bit earlier.
Doing it all
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering at this point how in the world you are supposed to sleep without tackling everything on your to do list. The secret is that you change your priorities. Right now you are prioritizing your tasks, all of the things you need to get done today. What is the worst thing that could happen if you don’t get everything done? Hmm, well, most of them will still be there for you to work on first thing in the morning!
If you have a big presentation due at 8:00 am, great. Go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep (8 hours!) and wake up early enough to prepare for your presentation before 8:00 am. Getting a good night of sleep will not only help you as you prepare but will help you as you present. Remember Parkinson’s law, you could spend four hours the night before when you’re mentally and physically exhausted, or you could give your best self for one hour in the morning and likely make an even better presentation.
I’m not advocating that you procrastinate and wait to do everything right before it needs to be done. That’s not really helpful at all. But I am advocating that today, you go to bed early. Start today and keep going. At first, it will be rough. You will feel like you are leaving a lot of things undone, but after a few days of well-rested, energized, focused work, you’ll find that you are catching up much quicker than you ever imagined. Give it a couple weeks. Prioritize your sleep every single night so that you can make sure that you are giving your body and your brain the rest that it needs and just see what kind of results you can achieve.
PS – Some of you might be in a slightly different season of life. Say, perhaps it is not your fault that you are sleep deprived and staying up all night. You might have a newborn baby waking you up at ungodly hours and demanding food and play and diaper changes. For you, I give you this post of Ten tips for the sleep-deprived mom. Don’t beat yourself up for lacking sleep in this season. This too shall pass. For the rest of you, just go to bed!