Sleep when you’re dead? That may be sooner than you think

February 3, 2020

Not another article about sleep.

Not another key board bashing warrior, surrounded by a zen like bubble of 10 hours of sleep nightly.

Not exactly. As I write this article it is currently 0450 UK time. Needless to say, I have not had my 8 hours nor have I had the last laugh. #irony

This article will apply to you if you are:

1. Training and know you are not getting enough sleep (less than 7 hours)

2. Training and have hit a bit of plateau so are exploring different variables to manipulate

3. Not training, but know you are not getting enough sleep

4. Sleeping for around 7 hours or more but still not feeling alert or awake when you get up

5. Bored at work because your job is so dull, you’d rather watch two rain drops on the window race to see who wins the race to the bottom of the pane

Let me begin this journey with a short story:

I recently had an operation. Semi-serious. I had my wisdom teeth out (this was not the operation) which for anyone else out there who has gone through the same, we are united in our new found loss of wisdom.

The area became infected. Badly.

After having let it fester for a couple days like every bloke in their 20s I finally went to the doctors, and the consultant who saw me laughed and said “it’s not that serious, only 30% of people die from this type of infection”……

Cool, thanks for the backhandedly awkward reassuring message

This infection left me with a face like a semi inflated hot air balloon (see below pic), being carted to A&E in a blue light ambulance and in hospital for several nights with some tubes stuck up my neck to drain the infected area.

The surgeon briefed me on the procedure with comforting and reassuring messages like “You may never be able to smile again on the right side of your face, I hope you don’t mind”…..

That aside, I couldn’t help but think “You look shattered, how long have you been on this shift”.

This was further exacerbated by the fact I was half way through Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep (1)…. Not the best light reading when you’re about to go under the knife.

I’m normally quite a calm and reassured person but as I was being wheeled to the operating theatre the frightening statistics mentioned in Matthew’s book churned through my mind:

- Once you’ve been awake for more than 16 hours, your mental capacity is so impaired you would be as deficient as someone who has had four of five pints of lager (1)
- Adults that sleep for less than 5 hours will show a significant decrease in alertness (2)
- Cognitive decline alongside a decrease in motor skills, motivation and initiative is shown after 5-10 days of sleep deprivation (3)
- In addition to the above, doctors with sleep deprivation have also found to be associated with emotional side effects such as depression, cynicism and a lack of empathy for patients (4-6)

Then I was given intravenous morphine and was out like a lamp.

Happy days.

I woke up feeling a lot less swollen and with a sense of gratitude that my surgeon had clearly gotten enough sleep the night before, or at least perfectly timed her caffeine intake to heighten alertness at the peak time of operating.

This has massive crossovers to the world of work and more specifically professional services. There is almost certainly a culture of “sleeping when you’re dead”, late nights in the office to 10pm are common, as is staying up and working until midnight when you get home to finish that client deliverable.

As the article suggests however, if you’re bedtime behaviours fall into the above brackets, you’ll also be headed 6 feet under fast then you think with lack of sleep being linked with higher rates of:

- Cancer
- Weight gain & diabetes
- Heart disease
- Decreased testosterone
- Weakened immune system
- DNA damage

Not a great place to be I’m sure we will all agree.

I believe part of the reason for this is that people are generally quite unproductive when they are at work, and therefore work that needs to be done spills into their private life (7)
But that is one for a whole other article.

Why are people unproductive… we aren’t getting enough sleep! When we don’t get enough sleep, studies have shown that we are less attentive (8), make more mistakes (9) and have less capacity to remember information (10). It’s that blasted chicken and egg scenario again isn’t it!

Get ready to re-work slides 20-100 in your client deliverable that you stayed up to 0100 AM to finish 

But everyone knows we should be getting more sleep right? Just like we know the earth is not flat and the best way to lose weight is through calorie deficit.

So what can you do about it?

Here are 10 steps you can take away and put into practice NOW. Do any 1 of these and your sleep will improve. Do at least 3 and you will see marked improvements. Do all of these and you will transcend into the higher echelons of sleep deity’s, gliding through your day like that competition winning paper aeroplane you made in year 3.

I am as sure of that as Samwise Gamgee was that Gollum was just no good for Frodo in his quest to destroy the ring.

1. Control your bedtime environment
Make your room nice and coooooooool. We tend to sleep better in cooler environments. Also start charging your phone outside your room. This benefits of this are compounding. Trust me.

2. Try to develop an evening routine
Schedule in some time to unwind before bed time. Clients we have worked with cite things like setting an alarm/reminder to do this as useful. The I-Phone’s bedtime feature is useful for this.

In your routine set aside some time each evening to brain dump all the things that are on your mind. This may feel weird in the first couple of instances but you will be surprised how this can relieve stress and tension as your head hits the pillow. I started by taking a pen and paper and just writing for a couple of minutes. You could also consider using the 6 minute diary. My evening routine is here:

a. Pack gym or work bag for following day and place this in the hallway alongside keys, wallet and travel card
b. Take shower or bath
c. Plug my phone into charge outside of my room and don’t look at it again
d. Complete 6 minute diary
e. Read a book

3. Take a bath or hot shower
Having a hot bath or shower can help to draw blood away from your vital organs towards your skin which leads to an overall drop in body temperature (weird huh). This means you’ll feel nice and sleepy, combined with feeling pretty darn relaxed. Consider listening to "Let go by Alan Partridge" alongside for maximum relaxation.

4. Train in the morning
Training in the morning just works for so many reasons. Once you’ve nailed your training, you can carry on with the rest of your day and no matter what that entails, you will have ticked off the biggest thing on your list that is going to help achieve your fitness goal.

You then don’t have to fight your way through the chest and bi’s brigade before waiting 30 mins for a squat rack either as gyms are normally less busy in the morning.

5. Buy blackout curtains
Absolute no brainer. Even a small amount of light has been shown to reduce the quality of sleep. I use these: Blackout curtains

6. Use tech to help, not hinder
There are numerous apps and tech hacks that can be used to help get a better sleep. I use:
a. This alarm clock:
Sunrise alarm clock

It wakes you up with light as opposed to sound and, coupled with an eye mask can help ease your other half’s concerns if you are not on the same sleep schedule
b. Pzizz power nap app:
c. F.lux: makes your computer screen adjust light to time of day
d. Use blue light filters on your phone (I phone is called Night Shift)
e. Use blue light reducing bulbs which can connect to your wi-fi and help to reduce blue light on a timer (not an option I have tried and not cheap either), preparing you for sleep

7. Eliminate obstacles in the morning
Prepare as much as possible the night before so that future you has it easy.

It can help to make a list of all the things you need to do in the morning so that you can maximise the amount of time you and the land of nod spend together. Like the brain dump mentioned in step 2, this might feel weird but can be very helpful.

To build on this you can prepare a lot of things the night before, for instance:

- getting your gym stuff ready and placing it in an obvious and easy spot
- your work clothes ready so that you can take these with you on the way to the gym
- your food packed so that you don’t have to fanny around with this in the morning
- stacking the dishwasher so that you don’t have to undergo the three-day old Tupperware unveiling
- putting coffee in the machine so you just have to click a button
- putting your protein shake in your shaker so you just have to put water in and shake it like yo moma gave ya
- putting the bin out so that you don’t have to lose time with this in the morning
- put your car keys or travel card in an obvious and easy place so that you don’t have to waste time looking for this

You want to limit the amount of obstacles you encounter as even the most avid of gym users will use these as barriers to getting up

8. Limit your caffeine after 12pm
The sad thing is that caffeine stays in our body for a bloody annoyingly long time after it’s been consumed. So whilst it can have positive effects on things like training and short-term alertness, I’d recommend limiting it after midday. This means things like coffee/tea/diet fizzy drinks. If you want to carry on with the diet fizzy drinks however, 7-Up Zero is caffeine free 

If you are a caffeine fiend, then try to reduce it over a 3 week cycle that might look something like this:

Week 1: Coffee @ 9, Coffee @ 12, Decaf @ 1500
Week 2: Coffee @ 9, Decaf @ 12, Decaf @ 1500
Week 3: Decaf @ 9, Decaf @ 12, Decaf @ 1500

9. Power napping is real
I struggle to nap so this is not something I personally use but power napping (as long as done before 3pm) for periods of 20-30 minutes can be very useful to give yourself a shot of sleep, and help you remain focussed and productive.

10. Avoid alcohol where possible
Another sad fact is that alcohol reduces our sleep quality. Ever gone out for a couple of glasses of wine on a Wednesday, returned home and still got 8 hours sleep but woke up feeling like you’ve had 4? This is because alcohol can drastically reduce REM sleep

Summary for those who cba reading whole article

1. Get into a routine of winding down before bed and eliminating any obstacles for the morning after
2. Limit your caffeine intake past midday, and limit booze where possible
3. Spend at least 7 hours in bed with your head on the pillow with the lights out and no screens

Now I should probably get back to sleep myself!


1. Why We Sleep, M. Walker (2019)
2. Dinges DF, Graeber RC, Rosekind MR, et al. Principles and guidelines for duty and rest scheduling in commercial aviation [technical memorandum]. Moffett Field, CA: NASA Ames Research Center; 1996. Cited by: Gaba DM, Howard SK. Patient safety: Fatigue among clinicians and the safety of patients. N Eng J Med 2002;347:1249-1255.
3. Carskadon M, Dement WC. Cumulative effects of sleep restriction on daytime sleepiness. Psychophysiology 1981;18:107-113.
4. Smith JW, Denny WF, Witzke DB. Emotional impairment in internal medicine house staff. Results of a national survey. JAMA 1986;255:1155-1158.
5. Samkoff JS, Jacques CH. A review of studies concerning effects of sleep deprivation and fatigue on residents’ performance. Acad Med 1991;66:687-693.
6. Coulehan J, Williams PC. Vanquishing virtue: The impact of medical education. Acad Med 2001;76:598-605.
7. Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (2020), Accessed 02/02/20
8. Schwarz, J.F.A., Geisler, P., Hajak, G., Zulley, J., Rupprecht, R., Wetter, T.C., Popp, R.F.J., 2016. The effect of partial sleep deprivation on computer-based measures of fitness to drive. Sleep Breath. 20, 285–292
9. Lahti, T., Sysi-Aho, J., Haukka, J., Partonen, T., 2011. Work-related accidents and daylight saving time in Finland. Occup. Med. 6, 26–28
10. Lim, J., Dinges, D.F., 2008. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1129, 305–322.

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Sleep when you’re dead?

February 3, 2020

One Thought to “Sleep when you’re dead?”

  1. Great – easy read, informative and humorous! Lots of tips and tricks which are easily transferable into my life.

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