10 Sleep Tips From The World’s Most Successful Women

The idea that SLEEPING LESS and being plugged in 24/7 is the way to succeed is finally losing credence. ANTONIA HART discovers that more, and better sleep, IMPROVES YOUR PERFORMANCE at work


Sleep-hacking – learning to get the best possible sleep in the shortest possible time –is the latest tool in the kit of the competitive non-sleeper. You know the one: bed after midnight, but up at five, and boasting about it, as if scraping by on a few hours a night were a badge of honour, proof of being the hardest and most indispensible worker in the company. As if not needing sleep were a kind of superpower gifted only to the hardcore. But lack of sleep ruins concentration, creativity, memory, problem-solving. It makes you intolerant, irritable, stressed, hostile, and more likely to act unethically. That’s a pretty unsettling thought considering you might in a sleep-deprived state be sitting on an interview panel, taking your place at the board table or reviewing a human resources problem on top of the day’s countless minor decisions.

Sleep machismo generates some legendary stats. Like Thatcher, Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi says she only needs four hours’ sleep a night. Marissa Mayer, apparently, put in 130-hour weeks and frequent all-nighters at Google before landing her plum job at Yahoo!, while at Apple, employees start getting emails from CEO Tim Cook at 4.30am.

But in 2013 Sheryl Sandberg carved out enough time from being COO at Facebook (and getting home every evening for a family dinner) to write Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. She didn’t get less sleep as a result, she got more: the Lean In approach, she says, is not about staying up all night and doing everything everyone asks of you, but about making better choices and better decisions. “I try to get between seven and eight hours, a lot more than I got years ago: four to five hours.” It was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who made Sandberg think about the necessity for proper sleep. “For many years I thought the way I would get everything done was to get less sleep. And Arianna, every time I would see her, the first thing she would say was ‘How much sleep are you getting? You need to sleep more’.”

Huffington has taken a refreshing approach to the prevailing culture of sleep machismo. A workaholic herself, she ended up fainting from exhaustion, hitting her desk on the way down, breaking her cheekbone and necessitating stitches under her eyebrow. Since then she’s become an evangelist for sleep, and loses no opportunity to shoot down anyone peddling the notion that the less sleep you get the harder you’re working.

1. Build in recovery

A few years ago, says life coach Amanda Scott, leadership development was all about how to bring your A game to work, how to be the most effective leader with your talents and personality. “It’s more rounded now. You may be a great leader, but you won’t sustain it without managing yourself, your health, your fitness, without giving time to self-care and building in recovery time. And sleep is a huge part of that.” It’s about balancing energy expenditure and energy recovery, which is what Sligo woman Ursula Devaney, of Energy4Resilience, teaches through her employee resilience and performance management programmes: “And just as I’d never advise anyone to go to work without breakfast, I’d never advise someone to go to work without enough sleep. It affects your emotional, mental and physical energies.” Recovery time is so important to athletes that the National Basketball Association engaged the services of Harvard Medical School’s renowned “sleep doctor”, Charles Czeisler, and he was just as interested in the players’ post-match sleep as in their preparatory seven to nine hours. Czeisler doesn’t just advise sports people, he’s also convinced NASA and the Secret Service that sleep is the third pillar of health, so it’s advice we might think about taking.

2. Be sleep – aware

After a short or fractured night’s sleep, you may think that a blow-dry, a walk to work and a macchiato will transform you into someone who’s fighting fit for purpose. If only. But it’s when you think you’re fine that errors of judgment can slip in, so you have to keep tabs on your state of rest, and how your performance changes when sleep is squeezed between a late night and an early start.

Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO and this year rated 22nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes, became sleep-aware after an urgent wake-up call not dissimilar to Arianna Huffington’s. Global travel, late meetings and dinners, “the things you do when you’re a jet-setting executive who doesn’t pay attention to what’s right” meant she would sometimes only sleep a frighteningly short, and predictably unsustainable, three hours a night. She ended up in hospital and had to rethink her recovery approach. “I put myself on the regime of understanding the impact and effect of my actions on my health: what I eat and how much I sleep … Now, I’m significantly healthier. I’m lighter. I can run with the best of them. I keep myself fit and have a sharper mind.”

If you’re keen to monitor not just length but depth and variety of sleep, there’s an array of apps and gadgets. Movement-based apps like SleepCycle or 24/7 mean sleeping with your smartphone not just beside, but on your bed. The wrist-worn FitBit or ActiWatch are other options, or perhaps you’re already slavering obediently after the glowing Apple Watch, which will monitor your sleep and fire off a load of sleep-related data to the cloud (Tim Cook won’t have much call for it himself, clearly). Graphing your night-time thrashing and dreamtime can be weirdly gripping, but will any of them actually improve your sleep? I think we all know the answer to that.

3. Develop good sleep hygiene

Sometimes you just have to reset. And it is possible: you can, like Huffington, Sandberg and Burns, create what Allison Keating, psychologist with Bwell, calls good sleep hygiene – good sleep patterns and routines. “If you take a rigorous, timetabled approach, you can reset your circadian rhythms. Go to bed at the same time every night, get up at the same time, having allowed about eight hours’ sleep time. Don’t be tempted to have a lie-in at the weekend. After a couple of weeks of keeping to your timetable you’ll find your natural biological rhythms have been reset. You’ll actually feel refreshed when you get up in the mornings.”

4. No news is good news

We guzzle newsfeeds all day long, so the ten o’clock television news is no longer a night-time necessity, yet somehow it’s a hard habit to break. Just do it, says Allison Keating. “You certainly shouldn’t be watching anything very violent last thing in the evening. I would never advise watching the news after about 9pm. Television puts your body into a passive state and makes your mind active, so if you are winding down before bed, you’ll find you think you’re tired, and want to go to bed, but may find yourself wakeful when you get there.”

5. Mmm, melatonin

Of course with the television off, you just reach for the tablet, the laptop, the smartphone. Fashion entrepreneur Tanya McGilligan, founder of www.style-ikon.ie, is a late-night iPadder: “I am on it until 1am every night, and I watch television while on it. Some of my suppliers are in different time zones – South Korea, the west coast of America – so I’m in contact with them late in the evening. And if I don’t complete my to do list by the end of the day, I might finish up at 2am.” The problem with this kind of activity is not just that you’re keeping your brain active right up to the last second, but also that the activity is on a backlit screen. Allison Keating explains that for adults, the sleep hormone melatonin is released at about ten o’clock in the evening. “But the blue light these devices emit specifically blocks melatonin. You need to prepare for sleep in the dark.”

6. The cool of the night

A raised body temperature inhibits sleep. It’s one reason why women may feel less rested during their periods, when their core temperature is higher. It’s raised by exercise, too, so there’s none of that after about 9.30am Bedrooms are often too hot – keep them cool, open-windowed and dark to facilitate all that lovely melatonin. Keep your bed for its primary purpose – or purposes. It should look, feel and smell enticing. Get an alarm clock to replace the smartphone you’ve switched off and left charging in another room. Get a new pillow, says Arianna Huffington, get a new pillowcase. Have your bedroom as empty as possible: a dark, cool, restful retreat.

7. Unmerge

“Forget the balance,” as Facebook executive Emily White said, “this is the merge.” And really, who’d want to go back to the 9 to 5 culture? But while you’re using your personal Facebook account to promote a product, campaign, or service, connecting with friends through LinkedIn, organising a night out via your office email and talking on a conference call in your car before the school concert, the merge’s blurred lines means nothing’s all work, nothing’s all play. Jobs are portable, and it’s easier than ever to be lured to stay at work. At Facebook’s Dublin office: “We keep you full with free meals, plus kitchens stocked with unlimited snacks”, while at Google “Googlers can take a break in massage rooms, our music room or by playing classic arcade games”. So you don’t even have to leave the office to eat, or to relax. Have we become afraid to disengage for a few hours, or be seen to do so? And can we remain productive?

“When work merges with home life, or when you stay too long at the office, you’re slicing your recovery time, and probably not working that well anyway. The presenteeism culture gets worse during tough economic times,” says Ursula Devaney. “We tell ourselves we must be busy, we must appear indispensible, prove that we’re on top of things. We convince ourselves we don’t need sleep. But it’s foolish to lose our sense of the wellbeing of the worker, and of the person.”

8. Keep your own hours

It’s easy enough to arrive at your natural hours, but not so easy to stick to them, especially with competitive sleep deprivation being unhelpfully modelled every which way you turn. If you work for Thomas Cook, you work for Harriet Green. She sleeps three to four hours nightly, saying “I don’t sleep much. I never have. Sleep is overrated,” and proves it by getting up, and starting work, at 3.30am. She’s the CEO. She’s enormously successful. But habitually getting up in what is actually the middle of the night is a bad idea. She may be the boss, but you don’t have to emulate her. You’re not weaker, less able, less committed or less likely to succeed because you know the value of a good night’s sleep.

9. Deal by day

You reset your work boundaries, leave your devices charging downstairs. You’ve eschewed caffeine since lunchtime, you lie down in a pitch black room in whopping-thread-count sheets. You lick off the moustache left by your warm milky drink, inhale the lavender oil you’ve sprinkled over your pillow, and empty your mind. Three seconds later it fills with problems, and now you’re going to spend three hours worrying about them six ways from Sunday. The trick here is to catch your problems by the collar before they invade your sleep time. Allison Keating has more advice on this: “No later than 6 or 7pm, write down your worries for the day. By doing this you’re acknowledging them, but not having to sort them out. Just writing in a linear, logical way gives your brain a break. You’ll get to the worries, to dealing with them, but for tonight your brain can register them as looked after, and can allow itself to fall asleep.”

10. Nourish yourself

Keating’s parting advice is to be mindful of what nourishes you. And you – not your boss, not your co-workers, not your smartphone – decide when your working day stops. Forget all those CEOs who boast about sleeping for nine minutes every second night? Maybe it’s true. But they should develop sufficient awareness to talk about it responsibly. Sleep starvation is never clever. Sleep is nourishment. “Man is the only animal that deprives himself of sleep,” Ursula Devaney points out. Which just shows what a sadly foolish beast he is. But Einstein (a well-rested, ten-hour-a-night man) said the measure of intelligence is the ability to change – so here goes.

Antonia Hart

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our May issue, out Thursday May 5.

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