The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Healthy Sleep Habits
On April 6, 2007, after working 18-hour days building The Huffington Post, founder Arianna Huffington woke up in her home office in a pool of blood. She had collapsed while working, hitting her face on the desk and breaking her cheekbone. After that incident, she went from doctor to doctor, undergoing multiple tests to find out what was wrong.
It wasn’t a disease or other underlying health problem that caused Huffington’s collapse, but rather something you and many other busy founders experience every day: She was exhausted.
“There is that level of tiredness where you don’t actually even notice you’re tired because you no longer remember how not being tired feels,” Huffington writes in her healthy sleep habits book The Sleep Revolution. “I was sleepwalking through my life.”
Those chilling words are relatable for any founder who is trying to build and scale a business. When your inbox is overflowing and your schedule is packed, what is the first thing to go?
You Need Healthy Sleep Habits, Especially as a Founder
But cutting out sleep under the false notion that you’ll be more productive is a bad idea. Maybe you’ll finish that proposal by staying up till 2 a.m. and still get up for that 8 a.m. client call. Six hours of sleep should be fine, right?
But according to sleep experts—it’s not. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are numerous. Why do you think it’s something all people share, across ages, countries, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses? We all need it to thrive.
Studies show sleep is crucial to maintaining a healthy immune system, metabolism, and memory. It helps your brain learn and helps your body restore itself and repair tissue.
Perhaps the best way to underscore the importance of good sleep is to demonstrate what happens when you don’t sleep. The most famous example of this is when 16-year-old Randy Gardner broke a world record in 1965 by staying awake for 11 consecutive days. On top of having trouble focusing, struggling to form short-term memories, and feeling irritable, Mr. Gardner started to hallucinate. The effects were so dangerous that the Guinness Book of Records has stopped listing this record so as not to encourage others to try to break it.
So, you get a little less sleep than optimal tonight. All that’ll happen is you might be a little sluggish the next day, right? Wrong.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, going too long with too little sleep makes you more likely to suffer from heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
A study published this year found that just two nights in a row of less than six hours of sleep decreases your performance for the next six days.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t afford to have suboptimal performance for an entire week. Your business depends on you to lead it. It’s tempting to cut sleep because you might have fooled yourself into thinking you can function just fine on fewer hours. But that’s not what science shows.
If you still think a lack of sleep doesn’t really affect decision-making or performance, consider the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island or the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl; in both cases, investigators concluded that sleep deprivation played a significant role.
While most errors will not be nearly as tragic, it’s hard to ignore the fact that people do not function at their best when they’re not sleeping enough. As business owners, we owe it to ourselves, our staff, and our customers to operate responsibly, and that includes getting enough sleep to make those critical decisions.
How can we increase the hours and improve the quality of our sleep, so we’re fully recharged and able to be more productive in our business?
Sleep Habits to Recharge Your Body and Supercharge Your Business
As an entrepreneur and poor sleeper, the topic of healthy sleep habits interests me deeply. In 2016, for about 40 days, I made it a point to start winding down around 9 p.m., be in bed by 11 p.m., and keep my smartphone outside of the bedroom while I slept (instead of right within reach, as usual).
The results were astounding. While I didn’t set up a scientific study or keep a journal, I did notice that I fell asleep much faster (I have always had a hard time falling asleep), and I awoke feeling more refreshed. Sadly, I have since fallen back into bad habits.
But let’s take a deeper look at some healthy sleep habits that helped me improve my sleep quality, plus some other tips I’d like to implement.
1. Make Your Bedroom a ‘No-Phone Zone’
How many nights do you stay up in bed, your smartphone glowing in the darkness, while you check a few emails before going to sleep? How many mornings do you hit your inbox just as quickly as you hit the alarm?
I admit, I am guilty of this. And according to data from the National Sleep Foundation, I am not alone. Ninety-five percent of people surveyed said they use electronic devices right before bed, with the biggest offenders being those under the age of 30.
The problem with this ubiquitous habit is that research suggests having a smartphone with you while you sleep can decrease your sleep quality and cause you to take a longer time to fall asleep.
The solution? Keep the phone (and for that matter, the laptop!) outside of your bedroom. The idea is to create physical spaces dedicated to certain tasks. The kitchen is for eating, the living room is for watching TV, the office desk is for working, and the bed is for sleeping. This makes it easier for us to make that mental switch into “work mode” and “sleep mode,” and it prevents our work from bleeding too much into our personal life.
2. Communicate Your Work Unavailability at Night
Now that we’ve talked about physical boundaries, let’s talk about setting boundaries with people too. Let clients, customers, and employees know what your available hours are and that you do not respond to emails or phone calls at night. Protect your sleep time, and others will respect your sleep time.
By far, one of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced as a digital entrepreneur is the immediacy of the apps I use in my workflow. Slack, Google Hangouts, and even Skype’s chat feature lend a certain sense of urgency to every message received. I find that the best way to handle this is to be clear upfront with every person I work with, be it a client or a colleague, that I don’t respond to messages past a certain time of day. I’m even considering working it into my contracts.
It’s important to note that even while you’re in Do Not Disturb mode in Slack, your teammates have the option of pushing through a notification to you if it’s an emergency.
3. Have an Evening ‘Wind Down’ Routine
Many entrepreneurship articles revolve around the perfect morning routine that can jumpstart your productivity at work, but let’s not forget we need an evening routine that helps us wind down for sleep! Few of us can transition from a hectic day of working with customers to a restful good night’s sleep.
Try shutting down your work at least one hour before bedtime to allow your brain to release melatonin and prepare to go to sleep. This includes avoiding looking at any light-emitting screens before bedtime, such as your cell phone, laptop, or TV.
Why? Studies show that blue light emission (the type that comes from our laptops, smartphones, and certain e-readers) is harmful to our sleep; it suppresses melatonin, delays our circadian clock, and reduces our alertness the next morning, among other things.
If you can’t put the screen away before bedtime, there are a couple of options that can reduce the amount of blue light your eyes are exposed to.
- Flux app – This free app changes your computer screen’s color temperature depending on the time of day, your location, and your sleep schedule. During the day, it keeps the computer screen the typical blue tone, which mimics sunlight. But at night, Flux changes your computer screen to a warm, orangey tone so your brain doesn’t get mixed signals.
- Blue-light-blocking computer glasses – Based on the same principle above, Felix Gray glasses filter blue light, with the added bonus of reducing glare too.
For me, my winding down would begin at 9 p.m. I’d tidy up the kitchen and wash the dishes. Then I’d brew a hot cup of herbal tea, read, pray, reflect on the day, place my cell phone outside the bedroom, and head to bed. At first, it was really difficult not to do my usual scrolling through social media on my phone while lying in bed, but eventually, I found my mind was racing less and less, and I was able to fall asleep faster without my smartphone to distract me.
4. Outsource Your Nighttime Tasks
You don’t have to do everything yourself. One of the huge benefits to outsourcing work is that you can designate tasks to your employees or contractors while you sleep. This works especially well if you choose to hire a virtual assistant who is in a different timezone. For example, if you live in Australia, having a U.S.-based VA means they can check your inbox during their waking hours while you sleep.
And for founders who feel they have to personally handle every customer support email that hits their inbox: outsource it! Have a customer service rep work the night shift while you catch some Zs.
One of the things that plague my bedtime hours is waking up with a start when I realize I forgot to reply to a work email. (Sad, I know.)
To prevent this, I recently hired a virtual assistant to manage my inbox. She responds to the emails she can handle, and if there’s something that requires my response, she reminds me.
The idea is to get to the point where you don’t get frantic because you worry an emergency might pop up when you should be dozing off. Very rarely does a business emergency happen while you sleep, but if you’re worried about it, have a system in place where others in your company can handle any situations that may arise at anytime.
Where to find a virtual assistant
- Reach out to your network. I found my virtual assistant by posting an announcement on my business’s social media. I was able to find a trustworthy VA who had been following my business for years.
- Zirtual matches you with college-educated, U.S.-based VAs, though they’re only available 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., so this wouldn’t be a good fit for overnight work.
- Fancy Hands provides U.S.-based assistants who can answer a certain number of requests per month.
5. Track Your Sleep
You’ve probably heard the old marketing adage, “You can’t improve what you don’t track.” As business owners, we track our revenue, expenses, profit margins, user growth, and more. I’d like to apply the same principle to our sleep. While you don’t have to get too mechanical about it, it’s helpful to keep a sleep journal or use an app to be able to see patterns as you work to improve your sleep.
If you don’t want to think too much about it, Apple Watches and Fitbits track your sleep for you. You can also use free apps, such as Sleep Cycle, to track your sleep patterns.
The cool thing about Sleep Cycle is once it’s installed, you can place your smartphone on the nightstand, and it analyzes your movement while you sleep.
This helps it calculate the best time to wake you up, which is the moment you’re sleeping the lightest. The idea is that if your deep sleep is interrupted, you’ll wake up feeling way worse than if you were awakened at a more optimal time.
So with Sleep Cycle, you can set your wakeup time, and then the app will wake you up within 30 minutes of the time you set, choosing the best moment to wake you up based on your sleep patterns. This might help you wake up feeling more refreshed.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: What happened to your earlier suggestion of making your bedroom a “no phone zone”? For the sake of benefiting from Sleep Cycle’s sleep pattern analysis, I’d still recommend using the app for a short time. The app has charts showing how long you were in bed and how long you were in deep sleep, plus it rates your sleep quality—all useful data if you want to track your progress.
So maybe you could use Sleep Cycle for one week before you begin implementing new sleep habits to get a baseline. Then, after you implement your new healthy sleep habits, use the app again for one week to see if there’s any improvement. The bottom line is, it’s a useful tool, as long as it doesn’t tempt you to use your phone when you should be snoozing.
Do You Have Healthy Sleep Habits?
As entrepreneurs, we need to reject the notion that losing sleep is a worthy sacrifice. As you saw in Arianna Huffington’s case, giving up sleep to work more on your business can lead to dangerous effects on your health, and in turn, your business’s health. And that’s just not a price we should be willing to pay.
By implementing these healthy sleep habits, you’ll be able to get better quality sleep that allows you to recharge your mind and body and work on your business at your full potential:
- Get rid of electronics in your bedroom
- Have an evening routine to help you wind down
- Let people know you’re unavailable for work at night
- Outsource nighttime tasks for your business
- Track your sleep progress
Out of the loads of advice out there in the entrepreneurial world, this might be the most radical bit you’ve seen yet: That’s enough work for today; go get some good sleep.