By Linda Formichelli
How many hours would you say you sleep every night?
We WAHWs are busy, well, working at home, being wives, taking care of the household, and maybe even raising kids. Sleep — what’s that?
The women’s media agree: I’ve written for many of the major women’s magazines, so I’ve seen up close and personal that the “sleepless mom” is a trope you can’t escape. Article after article, blog post after blog post, quote studies saying we’re a chronically underslept nation…and that goes double for busy working women like us.
Except time use studies show that we actually sleep more than we think. When researchers asked people to actually log how they spend their time, instead of reporting numbers from their memory, the results were surprising: The average American racks up over 8.5 hours of snooze time every night.
We’re not outright lying when we brag to our friends that we’re running on fumes, or that we need an intravenous infusion of Starbucks Black Eye because we get only 4 hours of sleep every night. But being too busy to sleep is a badge of honor in our culture, so we innocently, unconsciously, tend to skew the numbers down. Way down. The time use logs tell the real story.
The Surprising Way to Get More Done
A study in the journal Sleep concluded that “Only shorter than average sleepers (<7.5 h) spent more time socializing, relaxing, and engaging in leisure activities, while both short (<5.5 h) and long sleepers (> or =8.5 h) watched more TV than the average sleeper.”
Is this merely a function of having more awake time when you sleep 5.5 hours than when you sleep 8.5 hours? It doesn’t seem so. Notice that people who sleep less than 5.5 hours per night are also less active and social. Also key is the fact that both short and long sleepers spend more time zoning out in front of the boob tube.
So: Want to work more, have more fun, get more done? The solution may be to simply sleep less.
I can hear it now: “What a dangerous suggestion! Haven’t you ever heard of drowsy drivers, and workplace accidents caused by tired employees?”
Wait! I’m not suggesting that we sacrifice healthy sleep in exchange for higher productivity, and that we cut down our snooze time until we’re walking zombies. That is a dangerous suggestion.
What I am saying is that we get more sleep than we think, and we may not need as much as we get.
How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
The National Sleep Foundation reports that the average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, but a 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the ideal is closer to 7 hours.
Not only that, but the NSF says that some people are “Short Sleepers,” who “habitually get 5-6 or fewer hours of sleep per 24 hours, without impairment in daytime functioning. Their sleep is typically unbroken and, although short, is not a result of voluntarily restricted sleep.”
So imagine you’re sleeping 8.5 hours every night just because you heard it’s healthy, and hey, who doesn’t like to lounge in bed as long as humanly possible? If your ideal is actually closer to 7 and you make that happen, you gain 1.5 hours of awake time every day. Imagine what you can get done in an extra hour and a half every day!
And if you’re one of the lucky Short Sleepers who can get by on a little as 5 hours per night still feeling great, but you’re forcing yourself to sleep more because you’ve heard the average adult needs 7-9 hours, you could be adding a whopping 4 hours to your day! That’s enough for a part-time work-at-home career.
We’re all different. Some of us need less sleep, some need more. Instead of going with the status quo and potentially losing out on productive hours during your day, find out where on the spectrum you land by experimenting.
The Wall Street Journal article says that people should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep with a trial lasting from a few days to a week. (Vacation time is ideal for this.) Don’t set your alarm clock, avoid electronics a few hours before hitting the sack, and keep a sleep journal. After a few days, see how much sleep your body tends to want naturally. If you feel fine during the day, chances are you’ve figured out your ideal sleep time.
Other experts recommend setting your alarm for 15 minutes earlier every few days until you feel tired during the day, and then bumping your snooze time back up 15 minutes permanently.
Sleep Better So You Can Sleep Less
Now that you know how much sleep you really need to function at your best all day long, try experimenting with sleep hacks that will improve the quality of your slumber so you may be able to cut down even more. You may feel just as amazing getting six hours of top-quality, solid sleep as you do when you get 8 hours of light or broken sleep.
Here are some hacks that work for many people, and if you Google “sleep hacks,” you’ll find many, many more.
Practice good sleep hygiene.
Not really a hack, but sleep hygiene practices are the basics of good, healthy sleep, so start here: Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet; avoid alcohol and caffeine; log off of all electronics a couple hours before bedtime; and use your bed only for sleeping and romps with your mate, so your brain doesn’t associate the bed with reading, work, or other non-sleep (and non-sex) activities.
Some people swear by melatonin, doses of magnesium and calcium, cups of chamomile tea, fish oil capsules, and calming herbs like valerian. ChristopherHobbs.com has a good overview, but do research each supplement separately as some of them, such as kava, come with warnings attached.
Go with the rhythm.
Ever had your alarm go off, and even though you technically got enough sleep, you feel groggy and disoriented? That could be because we sleep in 90-minute cycles, and your alarm jolted you awake in the middle of one.
Waking up at the end of one 90-minute cycle, before another one starts, can help put the kibosh on daytime grogginess. Apps like Sleep Cycle (free) wake you up when you’re in the lightest phase of sleep that’s close to the time you need to get up.
It’s hard to sleep when you’re freaking out about an annoying client, a late payment, and everything you have to do the next day. Meditation helps tame your monkey mind so you can fall asleep easily and sleep better. I love the free guided meditations from TheMeditationPodcast.com — they even have one specifically to help you fall asleep, and another one to help you wake up.
I also discovered an app called Pzizz (free) that’s like a miracle in electronic form. Set your sleep time for anywhere from 15 minutes up to 12 hours and Pzizz generates a new custom soundtrack with soothing music, nature sounds, and a soft British voice that lulls you to sleep. Even better, the newest version of Pzizz has a “power nap” mode to use during the day to get a short bout of intense relaxation and wake up feeling refreshed. You don’t even need to fall fully asleep for it to work. (I’ve tried it, and it’s true!)
Make Your Sleep Work for YOU
If you take anything away from this post, it should be that no two people are the same, no matter what the experts proclaim. The only way to find out how much snooze time you need is to practice good sleep hygiene, experiment with timing, and try out sleep hacks to see what works for you.
Now that you’ve added extra hours to your day, please take the time to Comment below: Let us know whether you’ve tried hacking your sleep, what’s worked for you, resources you recommend, and how much sleep you’ve discovered you really need.
Linda Formichelli is the author of the new book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie, which has a whole chapter on why you should sleep less…as well as chapters on why you should also shower less, be inconsistent, and talk to yourself to get more done.