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Sleep, the Overlooked Leadership Tool

As the founder of FPW Media, I faced a range of unexpected challenges in the early years of the company. I knew starting a new marketing agency would require hard work and perseverance. I considered the logistical, financial, and strategic aspects of this new venture but never considered the impact it would have on one specific area of my life – my sleep schedule. 

In the first few years of FPW, I found myself sleeping less and sleeping poorly. This trend continued for four years until I realized this was an unhealthy and unhelpful way to live. After I became aware of the negative effects sleep deprivation could have on my ability to lead my team, I committed to ending this unhealthy trend. Now, I make concerted efforts to improve my sleep schedule and spread awareness to other executives about the importance of sleep for their personal and corporate lives. 

Within start-up culture, there’s a popular idea that suggests sleep is a bad thing. Getting by on just a few hours of sleep is almost a badge of honor among founders and executives; a means of showing their dedication to the company.  And with the tough demands of running a company, finding an extra eight hours in your day to achieve an adequate amount of sleep can seem impossible. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership has revealed that up to 42% of leaders get 6 hours or less of sleep each night. This culture around sleep deprivation hampers an executive’s leadership abilities and can negatively impact their company in the long run. 

Numerous studies, particularly from Mckinsey, show that sleep deprivation degrades high-order cognitive processes such as problem-solving, reasoning, organization, inhibition, planning, and executing plans. A McKinsey survey of 81 organizations and 189,000 people worldwide revealed four leadership qualities of high-performing executive teams. These include the ability to operate with a strong orientation to results, solve problems effectively, seek out different perspectives, and support others. Each of these key leadership behaviors can also be detrimentally affected by a lack of sleep.

Sleep supports healthy brain function by giving it a chance to recharge and retain necessary information. Getting adequate sleep allows your brain to perform essential functions properly including attention, concentration, creativity, insight development, pattern recognition, learning, and memory. Conversely, a lack of sleep can cause elevated emotional reactions to negative situations and an impaired ability to develop trusted relationships among your employees and colleagues. Losing even just one night of sleep can lead to an 11% increase in response time, which is similar to being illegally drunk. 

As an executive and a leader, sleep is one of the most critical activities you can partake in. Operating on a sleep deficit can lead to poor decision-making. And when the wellbeing of your company and employees depend on the decisions you make, getting enough sleep becomes much more than a personal health goal.

According to the National Library of Medicine, many people underestimate their sleep deprivation and the effect has on their daily lives. People who sleep an average of 6 hours per night for two weeks are shown to function as poorly as someone who hasn’t slept in 24 hours. The only difference is that the subjects in this study who slept for an average of 6 hours for two weeks thought they were performing at the top of their game. 

Once you decide to prioritize sleep, the next step is to set and maintain a proper sleep schedule. I’ve found many techniques that work for me, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each person will have different sleeping techniques that work for them. For example, while the recommended amount of sleep is 8 hours a night, some people only need seven, and others may need as much as ten. 

I have tested a variety of techniques to build a proper sleep schedule and have found the greatest benefit from taking advantage of advancements in personal health technology. I wear an Aura Ring that tracks multiple aspects of my sleep to provide accurate information on the duration and quality of my sleep. Even if you’re getting eight hours of sleep per night, you may not be getting high-quality restful sleep. My Aura Ring has helped improve my sleep schedule by informing me of the actions I take that result in a lower quality of sleep. 

Additionally, I prioritize sleep by building it into my schedule. If I need to get up at a certain time, I will adjust the time I go to bed the night before to ensure I receive enough sleep. I also sleep at the same time every night, even when traveling across time zones. As FPW’s founder, I often travel to the east coast to meet with new and current clients, but I always remain on the same sleep schedule, regardless of the time difference. 

Other proven techniques for improving sleep quality include getting adequate exercise, proper nutrition, and limiting blue light. I have a treadmill at my desk that allows me to remain active throughout the workday, but exercising outside the office will also support better quality sleep. I also wear blue light glasses to limit my time with blue light. Another option to decrease blue light exposure is turning your screen to night mode to increase its warmth in the evenings. 

While these techniques work for me, they may not work for everyone. Despite traveling often, I am unable to sleep on planes, but someone who is able to sleep on planes can alter their calculus of travel around this, booking their flights so they can take a nap or catch up on sleep while flying. The AppleWatch and FitBit are two alternative devices that can track your sleep and relay help inform your sleep schedule decisions. 

Ultimately, the best thing you can do when you decide to commit to a sleep schedule is to find what works for you. You need to be mindful of your sleep schedule and habits, how it’s affecting your performance, and what activities are making your sleep better or worse. Accentuate the activities that help your sleep schedule and avoid the negative actions that hurt your sleep schedule. By doing this, you can start and maintain a healthy sleep schedule that increases your performance at work and helps you serve as a better executive for your employees.