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Dr. Michael Gervais on Unlocking Human Potential with Sleep

By Michael Gervais

Dr. Michael Gervais on Unlocking Human Potential with Sleep

While preparing athletes for the Olympic Games, I asked a handful of coaches, “What are the three most important conditions that will impact performance for your athletes at the Games?” The top responses were: Managing family and friends, thinking like they normally think, and sleep.

When people don’t sleep well, they don’t think and perform well. Whether you’re an athlete, business woman, or student, sleep may be the most important function in the effort to grow and perform toward the upper limits of human potential.

There is no way around sleep.

Sleep is complicated and multi-dimensional. As it relates to performance and wellness, it’s a massive contributor to both. Long gone are the days where people on the world’s stage say “I’m proud I’m only getting 6 hours of sleep a night.” Admitting that you’re getting below average sleep is like raising your hand to announce “Hey everyone, I just want to let you know that I’m completely functioning at a substandard level.”

Eventually, your brain either lowers the standards of what’s possible for you, or it just shuts you down.

Think about that! Your brain has the ability, under sleep restriction, to conserve its spending of resources by downgrading the intensity of output. In other words, when you’re not getting enough sleep, your brain takes over to slow you down. That slowing down not only impacts cognitive functioning (slower reaction time and slower processing of complicated ideas), but also impacts our hormonal functioning and our physical body composition. Sleep restriction is fine for a few days, but when it becomes a pattern, it becomes a problem.

Each day, we only get 1440 minutes to live. If you get 8 hours of sleep, that’s a 480-minute investment. The remaining waking minutes left total 960. Most world-class performers who I’ve spent time with would rather be completely switched-on and highly engaged for 960 minutes, versus skimp on sleep minutes to have more waking moments that are substandard.

There’s also a host of health concerns associated with sleep restrictions.

As a population, we are sleeping less than we ever have. According to research, the majority of humans need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.

Increasingly, researchers are finding that quality and quantity of sleep throughout adulthood impacts overall health, including cognitive decline, irritability, inconsistent moods, lower resistance to illness (including common cold), compromised immunity, weight gain, increases in high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, stroke, depression, Alzheimer’s, and even shortened life expectancy.

In a recent interview on the Finding Mastery podcast with Amy Hood, the CFO of Microsoft, she talks about how important sleep is for her overall health and performance, and that constant quality sleep has made a huge difference in her life. She’s driving the financial systems for one of the most powerful technology companies in the world–and she’s clearly saying that sleep is a massive competitive advantage for her.

We need extraordinary doers (like Amy) to lead the way in our modern day workplace.

We all know that sleep is important. Here are a few very simple sleep strategies that elite athletes, coaches and business-people use to improve performance (in sport and in life):

Allow for pre-sleep readiness: Most great athletes talk about the advantages that come with pre-performance routines–the activities that help prepare your mind and body to perform optimally. Create a pre-sleep routine where you allow yourself to be prepared for sleep. It’s so much tougher to fall asleep when your head hits the pillow and you’re still mentally wide-awake. Ease into the sleep process.

Get your room dark: According to sleep expert Pat Byrne, on a recent Finding Mastery podcast, if you hold your arm out and can see your hand in front of you, it’s not dark enough. Pat also says that blue light (that light that’s coming from your screens) delays the production of melatonin (the hormone that primes you for sleepiness). Use technology wisely.

Temperature matters: Somewhere around 68-72 Fahrenheit (or 18-22 C).

Be consistent with your sleep patterns: Best-in-the-world performers need to consistently sleep well. Explore the number of hours of sleep that help you perform optimally. Build in enough time in your day (and evening) to ensure you have time to ease into your sleep preparation mode, as well as, to get your ideal hours of sleep. Be consistent and be diligent.

Clear your mind: Keep a small “to-do” journal next to your bed. In the event that as soon as you lay down your brain “turns-on” with to-do’s, jot them down to clear your mind. It’s amazing how simple this is, and how well it works.

Account for jet lag: As a rule, traveling east has more pronounced and lasting jet-lag effects. Youth and well-conditioned people have fewer negative effects than older, sedentary adults. Air travel is also known to dehydrate the body (which can also impact sleep). Building in hydration and jet-lag recovery strategies when traveling is likely to impact the quality of your sleep.

There are many additional “tips” on how to improve sleep (see articles on “sleep hygiene”) and it’s important to know the difference between poor sleep “habits” and a more serious sleep disorder (see articles on “sleep disorders”).

The strategies that I recommend require a particular amount of discipline to generate your desired outcome of improved sleep and subsequent improved performance. What habits help you to sleep well?

Best success on your adventure.

Check out WHOOP on Dr. Gervais’ Finding Mastery podcast.