Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Optimize Your Performance by Reconnecting to Your Biological Rhythms


It is 2:22 A.M. and I am working. I am not on a deadline nor did I procrastinate. I often find myself writing, reading or thinking in the wee hours of the morning.

Middle-of-the-Night Awakening is Normal

Historical research and scientific studies on sleep patterns found that I am not an anomaly. After years of believing I was suffering from insomnia, I now learn I am normal.

As reported recently in the New York Times, a history professor A. Roger Ekirch noticed references to a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” in numerous historical documents. On the scientific front, a psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Wehr, conducted sleep experiments on subjects by depriving them of artificial light. The subjects would settle into a new sleep pattern. The new / ancient sleep pattern consisted of 2 shifts of sleep punctuated by a few hours of wakefulness.  [1]

Why Did We Stop Sleeping in 2 Shifts?

 Unlike my ancestors and the sleep guinea pigs, my schedule forces me to be up at a certain time. When I am tired and ready for my second shift of sleep, it is close to my “get ready for work” time. So I usually stay up.

As a systems thinker, I wondered why we stopped following our built-in biological clock.

My research found that it happened during the industrial revolution. Factories were huge capital investments. To get the most out of these investments, plant owners and investors used the plant as much as possible. Relatively cheap and unskilled workers were needed to serve the machinery and keep it running. 

It is at this juncture that we started to obey the tyranny of the mechanical clock. The mechanical clock was identified by the U.S. historian Lewis Mumford as  “the key machine of the modern industrial age.” Mumford considered the clock more important than the steam engine. [2]

While we have since upgraded to a digital clock, unfortunately, our sleep habits are stuck in the machine age.   

What's The Problem: 1 in 3 Workers Sleeps Too Little 

Much of our economy has shifted to knowledge-based work. Ours is an age where plant capital is less costly than highly skilled human capital.

And much of that human capital is not getting enough sleep to perform optimally.  30% of employed U.S. adults or nearly 41 million workers sleep too little. [3]


We Are Missing The Huge Benefits of Restorative Rest

More frequent deep sleep is beneficial, reports the previously referenced New York Times article, since each session of deep sleep allows the brain to recharge and “function at a higher level, identify patterns faster, recall information more accurately, store new learning in long-term memory, make connections that were hidden in a jumble of information” [1].

Napping is not only good for the head, it is good for the heart. "Subjects who reported napping systematically" states a 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, "had a 37% reduction in coronary mortality compared to participants who did not nap." Naps reduce bodily stress. Diseases that are susceptible to stress, such as heart disease, benefit from naps [4]

High-performance Organizations Are Promoting the Nap

Some organizations recognize the link between sleep and performance. The 3PM power-nap is so common in the NBA that everyone in the league office knows not to interrupt the players’ restorative rest. [5] The U.S. military is exploring how to monitor soldiers' sleep and enforce nap times. Google provides nap rooms. And the Chinese, no slouches in worker productivity or hours worked, encourage and often mandate a nap.[1]

How Can We Fix It: Shift Back to Our Body Clock 

If we want to maximize our human capital we need to adjust our practices to biological rhythms and stop the unnatural and grueling machine pace. We wouldn't overwork a piece of equipment for long periods, so why do we exceed the biological capacity of humans?

There is historical precedent to make accommodations to our clock-based schedules. First proposed by Ben Franklin and implemented during WWI, daylight savings time was established to provide more light in the evening hours and less in the morning. Since our schedules are no longer governed by the sun, the amount of daylight falling at times when we are typically sleeping expands and is wasted. By shifting our clocks in the fall and spring each year, we harvest more daylight for our personal use


Remember to sleep when you are feeling grumpy, muddled or filled up with new information. And work when inspired. You may find, as I did, that the Sandman may vacate in the wee hours of the morning to allow the creative Muse to visit and inspire.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare in The Tempest 

Notes and References

1. New York Times Article on napping – "Rethinking Sleep". Read more at  NYTimes >>
2. Lewis Mumford and the clock. Read more at Wikipedia >>
3. Employee sleep patterns were analyzed by the Center for Disease Control using data captured by the National Health Survey. Read more at the CDC >> 
4. Midday napping slows heart disease. Read more at Medscape >> 
5. NBA Napping. Read more at NYTimes >>

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