It pays to count your sh/leep

Last Friday I arrived at CDG in Paris on the ‘Red Eye’ from New York. And I did have red eyes from the lack of sleep – I never manage to get decent shut-eye on airplanes…

I was off on a whirlwind weekend with a mix of work and fun at INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau that’s celebrating its 50-year anniversary. I ran into many of my former colleagues and alumni of the school and it was invigorating and fun to catch up with them all.

Having shared stories about the twists and turns that our lives had taken since we were last together, I was struck by the fact that many of the alumni who had left the school a decade ago were now working in stressful jobs involving long hours. Most were married with young kids, and almost all had a tired look around their eyes – sleep seemed to be a rare luxury these days! Research shows, however, that sleep is more of a necessity than luxury…

So, how much sleep do we need to function optimally? This is a question that has been subject of many scientific experiments, and there is no straightforward answer. Around two thirds of us can be classed as ‘hummingbirds’, where we have a certain cadence during the 24 hour rhythm that makes us more productive either during the earlier or the later part of the day (unless you are a ‘lark’ and function best between 6 and 7 am or an ‘owl’ and get to your best after 6 pm). How many hours of sleep we need depends on the individual, but generally the recommendation is to aim for 7 -9 hours a day. Once you’ve gauged your personal need for zzz’s, here’s how having enough sleep benefits you:


We are all too familiar with that ‘foggy’ feeling that we struggle with when deprived of sleep.  It gets harder to concentrate and both our cognitive and motor functions are compromised. What is more interesting is that – contrary to common perception – our brain does not rest during sleep but processes and stores new learnings, weeds out irrelevant data, and improves our memory. ‘Sleeping on it’ often gives us the clarity we need to put together life’s puzzles and to come up with solutions.

Experiments with students have shown that if you present a math problem and allow them to think about solutions over the next 12 hours, 20 percent will develop an innovative solution. If part of these 12 hours involves 8 hours of sleep, the number of innovative solutions tripled, from 20 to 60 percent. So next time you run a team building effort, consider spreading it over two days, starting off the first day with presenting the group challenges and allowing them to offer solutions the following day.


There actually is a ‘nap zone’: a time in the early to mid afternoon when we are biologically programmed to give our brains a ‘rest’ and take a brief 30 to 45 minute nap. Most of us work through this transient sleepiness. However, scientific evidence shows that not much work gets done during that ‘slump’. A study by NASA showed a 34 percent increase in productivity after a 26-minute nap, and similar studies have shown that a 45-minute rest will improve cognitive performance over the following 6 hours. For those of you that need to stay up all night to finish a project – taking at 30-minute nap that day will significantly boost your productivity that night.

Productivity is also increased as is your ability to deal with stress, and you’ll build better relations with peers as you can manage your emotions more effectively. Sufficient sleep makes you less grumpy and excitable…

Health (and for the vain amongst us: looks!)

Your body produces extra protein molecules while you sleep, and these help to restore your body at a cellular level. Enough rest reduces the levels of inflammation in your body and, in a study of healthy 30-year olds who only slept 4 hours a day for 6 days straight, results showed that their body chemistry resembled that of a 60-year old at the end of this experiment!

Getting enough shut-eye also helps to regulate the hormones that affect and control our appetite. Have you ever noticed how you crave fat and carbohydrates when you are tired..?

Ok, well I’ve hopefully convinced you of the necessity of sleep to do well in your waking hours, so here are some tips to help you take that first step and help you to fall asleep:

  • finish eating at least 2 hours before you go to sleep
  • try to stick to a regular routine of sleep and wake times (including weekends)
  • keep work and television out of your bedroom
  • exercise regularly
  • have a comfortable mattress and bedding, and consider white noise
  • go to bed around an hour before you expect to fall asleep

And if you still have trouble falling asleep, then it’s time to imagine yourself on a farm and start counting sheep!