Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Is More Important Than You Think

sleepMy sleep evangelism started with my own painful wake-up call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and burnout.

That moment, and the events leading up to it, will resonate with a lot of working mothers. I’d just returned home after taking my daughter Christina, then a junior in high school, on a tour of prospective colleges. The ground rules we’d agreed on — or, more accurately, that she demanded — were that I would not be on my BlackBerry during the days. But that didn’t mean I would stop working (sacrilege!).

Each night we’d eat dinner late and get back to the hotel exhausted. Then, in some sort of role reversal, Christina would do the responsible thing and go to sleep while I acted the part of the sneaky teenager and stayed up late. After she’d fallen asleep, I’d fire up the computer and BlackBerry, responding to all the “urgent” emails and generally attempting to squeeze a full day’s work into what should have been my sleep time. This would go on until about 3 am, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. After three or four hours of sleep, I’d be back up for the day shift. Work, after all, was much more important than sleep, at least to my 2007 self. I thought: Hey, I’m running a startup — one that’s got my name on it. Clearly I’m indispensable, so I must work all night, responding to a hundred emails and then writing a long blog post while being the perfect mother during the day.

This way of working and living seemed to serve me well — until it didn’t.

After I collapsed from exhaustion that day in 2007, I concluded that our sense of being indispensable is central to the sleep crisis we’re facing. We need to let go of that as soon as possible. It’s especially important for working women who feel as if they’re in a no-win situation, forced to sacrifice sleep in the course of juggling work and life. That’s a choice nobody should ever have to make. When we don’t take care of ourselves, our health, productivity, and happiness suffer, and we can’t be of service to anyone else.

It turns out that women need more sleep than men, so the lack of sleep has even more negative mental and physical effects on us. Duke Medical Center researchers found that sleep deprivation puts women at a greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression. What’s more: “Poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression, and anger,” in women than in men, says Edward Suarez, the lead author of the study.

The lesson, of course, is not that women shouldn’t be working. The lesson is that, as challenging as it is, it’s vital that companies establish policies — like paid family leave and access to affordable quality child care — that will allow everyone to prioritize sleep.

And there are steps we can all take on an individual level to get better sleep. The busier we are — and the more people who depend on us for their own well-being — the more important it is that we make a point to disconnect from our devices for the sake of our sleep and our overall well-being.

When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all its problems and unfinished business, behind us. I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I take a hot bath with Epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby — a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, and even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed. Think of each stage of your bedtime ritual as designed to help you shed more of your stubborn daytime worries.                                                     

I’m often asked a question that goes something like this: “Arianna, it’s great that you get all this sleep now, but would you have had the same career if you had done this earlier in your life?” And my answer isn’t just a categorical yes — I also believe that not only would I have achieved whatever I’ve achieved, but I would have done it with more joy and with less of a cost to my health and relationships.

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