Sleep to Perform: Optimize Your Performance in the Workplace by Optimizing Your Sleep Routine

featured image for sleep to perform: 4 Tips To Improve Your Sleep Schedule To Optimize Your Performance
Updated Jan. 12, 2022 Published Apr. 2, 2018 13 Min. Read

Every month, the Design Pickle community answers a business, marketing, or technology question using the email survey tool YesInsights. This month we asked our community: How much sleep do you get on an average weeknight?
image of the graph from our question of the month campaign asking how much sleep do you get on an average weeknight?
After analyzing the data, we found out that the Design Pickle community is a bunch of snoozers…
…which is a good thing for creativity, recovery, and overall health!
18% of the community report to getting 8+ hours of sleep each weeknight.
Over half (55%) of those who took part in the survey reported getting an average of 6-7 hours of sleep each night, which is on par with the average 6.8 hours of shuteye most Americans are getting each night (according to a 2013 Gallups poll).
Unfortunately for the average snoozer, the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults (aged 26-64) – 1-2 hours more than they are typically getting each night.
As for the 27% of the community who admitted to getting less than five hours of sleep each night, things are looking pretty grim; research shows that short sleep actually increases your risk of premature death.
If premature death isn’t enough to scare you into bed early tonight, the CDC says that a lack of sleep is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and depression – chronic conditions that impede your quality of life as well as your longevity.
It’s time to put the Starbucks cup down and have a serious talk about snoozin’.
Let’s take a deeper look at the role sleep plays in maximizing your performance as well as best practices for falling asleep and staying asleep.
image of a quote from Benjamin Franklin on sleep

Best Practices for Falling Asleep, Staying Asleep and Coping with a Lack of Sleep from the Design Pickle Community

DISCLAIMER: We had so many responses from the community that we decided to base the information in this report around the advice of our clients, friends, and fans. All of their comments remain anonymous and are presented in bolded quotations throughout the report.

Best Practice #1: DAYTIME NAPS

“When I lack sleep, I just try and get little naps here and there.”
Research suggests that napping during the daytime actually improves the way we learn visual and motor skills. Those same studies found that napping for longer (60-90 minutes compared to 30-60 minutes) actually increased performance on a post-nap retest of skills learned earlier in the day.
Why does the length of your nap matter? Three letters: R.E.M.
R.E.M. stands for ‘rapid eye movement’ and is used to describe the sleep stage that involves – you guessed it – rapid eye movement. R.E.M. sleep cycles occur every 90-120 minutes during the night. The reason for the random, rapid movement of the eyes is still largely unknown, but years of research suggest dreams occur mostly during R.E.M. sleep, and that rapid eye movement might just be our eyeballs watching a dream scene play out in our mind.
The reason R.E.M. sleep improves visual and motor skill performance is still not quite agreed upon by the scientific community, but some hypotheses for the possible functions of REM sleep and dreaming have been proposed. One theory is that dreaming actually helps the brain undo some of the connections it has made during the day, ridding our brain of thoughts that could be potentially harmful to our psyche, including obsession and paranoia. Another theory is that dreaming helps our brain experience situations and feelings that we wouldn’t typically experience during wakeful hours (source: Neuroscience).
While the reason we go into R.E.M. is unknown, the effect of racking up the R.E.M. zzz’s is an improvement in both visual and motor learning performance – so try carving out 60-90 minutes minimum during the day to maximize your naptime benefits.
image of a man desperately trying to get some shut-eye
Naps may be a quick fix if you had to pull an emergency all-nighter, but know that chronic napping – or polyphasic sleep – cannot make up for a lack of quality sleep each night.
In fact, polyphasic sleep has actually been shown to suppress the release of growth hormone (HGH), a hormone vital for muscle growth, bone growth, and tissue repair. Since over 75% of the HGH our bodies make is secreted during R.E.M. sleep, it’s important to sleep long enough to reach the R.E.M. cycle. Otherwise, your body won’t secrete enough of this vital hormone and you’ll be left feeling sluggish, depressed, unable to concentrate, or experiencing high levels of emotional distress and anxiety (source: Healthline).
“I just don’t sleep much. For past 4.5 years, I sleep on average 3 hours a night. About once a month I crash for 12 or so hours.”
When you pull an all-nighter to finish a project or go a week getting less than the recommended sleep time each night, your brain will actually try to rebound the deep sleep you’ve been neglecting by spending more time in the deep sleep stages. R.E.M. rebound is your body’s way of making up for missed R.E.M. sleep due to sleep deprivation and can last up to 20% longer than your typical sleep cycle.
While your body may have ways of making up for missed sleep in the short term, long-term effects of sleep deprivation are dangerous for your health and could be a sign of a serious underlying condition – sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a condition that causes breathing to become difficult or stop altogether, waking you up multiple times during the night and chronically lowering your time spent in stages of deep sleep.
Signs of sleep apnea include loud snoring, difficulty staying asleep, attention deficit, irritability, excessive daytime sleepiness, and waking up experiencing shortness of breath, dry mouth, or itchy throat (source: Mayo Clinic).
If you feel like you may be suffering from sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Sleep apnea is a serious condition and may require a sleep specialist intervention.


image of meditation - an easy way to relax before going to bed
“For coping with a lack of sleep, close your eyes for ten minutes or so and meditate.”
If you don’t have time to take a 90-minute siesta every workday, you’re going to need to soak up as much quality sleep as you can during the night. But when your head hits the pillow at night, is your mind calm and ready to sleep? Or does your brain start erupting with thoughts of today and plans for tomorrow?
If you identify with the latter (like most of us under-sleepers do), try meditating for 10-20 minutes before jumping into bed. Find a quiet space to practice calming breathing techniques or follow a guided meditation if you aren’t quite sure what you should be thinking (or, perhaps, not thinking).
“I meditate for 20 minutes before I go to bed. Really helps to clear my mind.”
According to Headspace, “meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective.”
In the case of falling asleep, a ‘healthy sense of perspective’ is realizing that getting a good night’s sleep will help you wake up refreshed and ready to achieve your goals; simply ruminating about deadlines and to-do’s will prevent your brain from getting into ‘sleep mode’ and you’ll wake up feeling less than ready to achieve your goals.
To build a bedtime meditation routine, start by following a guided meditation (it’s way less awkward than sitting in silence by yourself). A few great sources for bedtime-specific guided meditations are:

  1. Trixie Receive personalized recommendations based on your meditation history, habits, and engagement with the app.
  2. Deep Sleep with Andrew Johnson Let Andrew Johnson’s calming voice guide you through a bedtime-specific meditation.
  3. Fall asleep to the soothing sounds of a bedtime story being read aloud.
  4. Follow along with a bedtime-specific moving meditation Hatha Yoga class or simply listen to a bedtime-specific guided meditation.
  5. Sleep with Me Podcast Tune into a bedtime-story podcast designed to help you fall asleep fast.

Meditation is experienced differently by everyone and may take a few tries before you get the hang of it. Remember that the point of meditation is not to necessary shut off your thoughts, but rather to build a sense of awareness in the present moment and let go of the whirlwind of thoughts that are keeping your brain from dozing off.

Best Practice #3: NO-TECH ZONE

“Limiting screen time at night makes a HUGE difference for me!”
Do you find yourself scrolling through social media, staring at your TV screen, or answering emails before bedtime? If so… We need to talk.
image of someone scrolling through social media instead of going to bed!
According to Harvard Health, artificial light of any kind at night can suppress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that affects your circadian rhythm.
All humans have an internal clock called a circadian rhythm that runs in roughly 24-hour cycles (like a clock). These cycles align our bodies with the schedule of the sunrise and sunset. Since our bodies are programmed to sleep when the sun sets (i.e. when all of the natural lighting has ceased for the day), exposure to artificial light throws a wrench in our circadian rhythm and wakefulness ensues.
Not all light is created equal, though. Experiments performed by Harvard researchers found that the effects of blue light wavelengths can be up to 2x as strong at suppressing melatonin secretion for 2x as long as other wavelengths of light.
So what can you do to keep your circadian rhythm in check and ensure you fall asleep with the sun?
“Remove blue lights and turn off all electronics an hour before bedtime.”
It may sound crazy to cut your digital productivity hours short each day, but limiting your exposure to artificial light is vital for adequate melatonin production.
Set a technology ‘deadline’ one hour before bedtime each night for finishing up any work that involves looking a screen. Once you reach that time, no matter what, shut off all electronics (including the TV). Use this time to stretch, meditate, read, take a warm bath, or drink a cup of herbal tea to relax your body and mind.
“I set an alarm for 9:22 pm. When it goes off, it’s my signal to start shutting down. I pray for about 10 minutes, do the dishes for the day and go to bed. It’s rare for me to not be asleep almost immediately around 10:30.”
If you absolutely have to use a light during the nighttime hours, opt for a dim red light. Red light is the most conducive to sleep (the opposite of blue light), so choose the right light bulb for your bedroom accordingly.
A sleeping mask can also help decrease your exposure to light if your spouse stays up late using their phone or if you have roommates on a different sleep (i.e. light) schedule. Ear plugs can help if the noise is keeping you awake.
“I created a routine removing technology from my life at least 45 minutes before bed. I store my cell phone in my office and use an old school alarm clock.”
Banning your phone from the bedroom and using an old-school alarm clock is a brilliant way to prevent you from picking up your phone (and soaking up those blue hues). You’ll probably never be late for work again, either. **BEEP!! BEEP!! BEEP!!**
image of an old-school alarm clock
“Melatonin is my hero!”
A no-tech zone surrounding bedtime is the best way to prevent melatonin suppression, but there has been research to show that melatonin supplements may help with the sleep disorders jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, shift work disorder, and insomnia (source: NCCIH).
Be sure to talk to your doctor to find the dosage right for you before taking melatonin supplements. Taking too much melatonin can cause irritability, dizziness, nausea, and aches.

Best Practice #4: DAILY ROUTINE

You can have the most meditative, relaxing, tech-free, melatonin-inducing environment in the world before bedtime, but if your daily routine isn’t set up to accommodate 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night, then your fancy blue-light blocking glasses aren’t going to do much for your productivity during the day. Create boundaries during your work week that set you up to succeed at sleeping 7-9 hours each night.
One option is to schedule meetings within a certain timeframe during the day so you are never staying up late or waking up early to hop on a call.
“I don’t allow appointments (phone or in-person) before 11 am. When I go to sleep, I know that I won’t miss anything the next day – even if I sleep in late. I can get more creative work done in 3 well-rested hours than 8 sleep-deprived hours.”
Setting aside time in your schedule each day for exercise may help you fall asleep faster, too.
There is surprisingly little research on exercise and insomnia, but studies have shown that exercise significantly improves sleep in those with chronic insomnia.
image of someone exercising because getting exercise is crucial to going to sleep at a normal hour
If you can’t make it to the gym during the day for a structured workout, take frequent breaks when you can to stretch, walk, and move around. Try an at-home workout app like the Nike Training App to help you squeeze in an intense workout wherever you are in 30 minutes or less!
“I use the app “Sleep Cycle” to track my sleep and R.E.M. cycles, and it wakes me up in a 30-minute range that is least disruptive so that I start my day off right.”
Hate getting up early? Science says: don’t. Alarm clocks can be harmful to your natural circadian rhythm because you are jolted awake without completing your last sleep cycle. If you find yourself awake up before your alarm goes off, don’t hit snooze; this can actually confuse your body more and leave you feeling groggy all day long.
“As counterintuitive as it sounds, waking up to do yoga makes me feel more refreshed than the extra 30 minutes of sleep.”
Best way to ensure you’re going to have a good night’s sleep? Have a good day!
Seriously. The more you do, move, learn, and experience throughout the day, the more your body will crave recovery the moment your head hits the pillow. Zzz…
image of a warm, welcoming bed

Looking for more in-depth sleep resources?

“Read the book, “Eat, Sleep, Move” by Tom Rath. Some great tips on sleep.”
“Best resource I’ve ever had for sleep is a book by Shawn Stevenson called Sleep Smarter.”
Thank you for reading the Design Pickle question of the month report! If you’d like to join the discussion and influence next month’s report, sign up for our mailing list (it’s totally free).
We’ll wrap up our advice on optimizing your sleep routine to improve performance in the workplace with the best comment we received in the survey:
We agree with you, unslept friend (and even wrote a blog about it).
Happy Dreaming! ?

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