Dr. James B. Maas is one of the world’s leading researchers and educators on sleep. In his book Power Sleep1, he explains that throughout history, most people slept about ten hours a night. But in 1879, Thomas Edison invented the electric light.
Suddenly, activity was no longer limited to the day’s span of natural light, and our sleeping habits started to change. Over the next century, people gradually reduced their sleeping time by 20 percent, to eight hours per night.
But it didn’t stop there. Research shows that Americans now average seven hours per night. One-third of the population is sleeping less than six hours per night.
As a result, at least 50 percent of the adult population is chronically sleep deprived. And this devastating trend is taking place throughout the industrialized world.
According to Dr. Maas, sleep is not a luxury but a necessity:
Recent studies of the neurological, chemical, and electrical activity of the sleeping brain . . . show that even minimal sleep loss can have profound detrimental effects on mood, cognition, performance, productivity, communication skills, accident rates, and general health, including the gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular functioning, and our immune systems.
If you want to feel great and perform at your very best, there’s no way around it—you need to get sufficient sleep.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
To answer the question of sleep, we’ll begin by having a look at a study conducted by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Pennsylvania2.
They began their experiment by gathering forty-eight people who were averaging 7–8 hours of sleep per night. These participants were split into four groups:
- Group 1 had to stay up for three days straight without sleeping.
- Group 2 slept for four hours per night for two weeks.
- Group 3 slept for six hours per night for two weeks.
- Group 4 slept for eight hours per night for two weeks.
All of the subjects were tested for their physical and mental performance throughout the experiment.
The participants in group 4, who slept eight hours per night, showed no cognitive decreases, attention lapses, or motor-skill declines. Meanwhile, groups 2 and 3, who slept four and six hours respectively, performed worse with each passing night. Group 2, at four hours of sleep per night, did the worst; but group 3, at six hours per night, didn’t do much better.
When the study was over, there were two notable findings:
- Sleep debt is cumulative. After one week, 25 percent of the participants of group 3, with six hours of sleep per night, were falling asleep at random times throughout the day. After two weeks, they had the same performance declines as if they had stayed up for two days straight. That’s worth repeating: if you sleep for six hours per night for two weeks, your mental and physical performance is just as bad as if you had stayed awake for forty-eight hours straight.
- Performance declines go unnoticed. When the subjects graded themselves, they believed that their performance had dropped for a few days and then tapered off. But in reality, they were performing worse every day. The takeaway here is that we are very poor judges of our own performance. So, even if you think you’re sleeping enough to perform optimally, there’s a good chance you’re not.
Are You Getting Enough Sleep?
According to James B. Maas, most adults need 7.5–9 hours of sleep per night. If you think that sounds extreme, I’d agree with you. But only because we live in a crazy society. And just because most people don’t get enough rest to stay healthy and perform well doesn’t mean you have to.
As Krishnamurti puts it in Think on These Things3: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
To ensure that you’re getting enough sleep, answer the following questions:
- How much sleep do you get each night during the week?
- Do you fall asleep the minute your head hits the pillow?
- Do you need an alarm clock to wake up?
If you’re sleeping fewer than eight hours per night, if you tend to fall asleep instantly, or if you need an alarm clock to wake you up, you can consider yourself sleep deprived.
Other signs of sleep deprivation include struggling to get out of bed; feeling tired, irritable, and stressed during the week; having trouble concentrating or remembering; and falling asleep while watching TV.
You know you’re getting sufficient sleep when you feel energetic, wide-awake, and alert all day, without a significant midday drop in alertness. Let’s have a look at how to make that happen.
1. Turn Your Bedroom Into a Haven for Sleep
Make sure your environment supports your sleep. Sleep researchers recommend adjusting your bedroom so that it is:
- Dark. Light, whether it be sunlight or a lamp, tells your brain that it needs to be awake and inhibits the sleep hormones from being released. So, make your bedroom as dark as you possibly can or get a comfortable sleep mask.
- Cool. Most people sleep best in a cool room. The ideal range is usually 65°F–70°F (18°C–21°C). If possible, set your thermostat accordingly.
- Quiet. A silent environment is crucial for good sleep. If peace and quiet are hard to come by, you can control the sounds in the bedroom by creating white noise with a fan. Or you can use a good pair of earplugs.
2. Adjust Your Daily Habits
Next, let’s have a look at how to sleep better by making a few changes in your daily habits:
- No caffeine after noon. Caffeine has a half-life of about 5–8 hours, meaning that if you had a coffee with 200 mg of caffeine in it at 10:00 a.m., 100 mg of that is still in your system as late as 2:00 p.m. So, if you’re going to use caffeine, do it as early as possible and preferably no later than noon. If you want to drink coffee later than that, choose decaf.
- No heavy workouts three hours before bedtime. Exercise is great for improving your sleep. But not if you do it too close to your bedtime. That’s because exercise raises your core temperature when it should be dropping. So, make sure you’re not working out too late.
- No eating three hours before bedtime. Your body has to work hard to digest your food. Don’t make it do that work when it should be shutting down to recover and repair via high-quality sleep.
- No tobacco. Tobacco use is linked to an extensive list of health problems, and poor sleep is one of them. How to quit using tobacco is beyond the scope of this article, but Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smoking4 is a great resource on this topic.
3. Optimize Your Sleep
And finally, here’s how to get the most out of your sleep every night:
- Establish your “Personal Sleep Quotient.” This is essentially how much sleep you need on a given night. Remember that you’re likely going to be in the 7.5- to 9-hour range. James B. Maas recommends that you go to bed at a time that will give you eight hours of sleep. If you don’t wake up without an alarm and feeling refreshed, give yourself an extra fifteen minutes until you can.
- Stick to a recurring sleeping pattern. Once you’ve established your sleep quotient, be consistent with it. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, including weekends. Of course, you don’t have to be perfect, but you’ll want to be pretty close. Regularity is important for setting and stabilizing your internal sleep-wake clock.
- Develop a “pre-sleep” ritual. To sleep soundly through the night, you need to prepare your body for the long period of inactivity ahead. Use the last hour before bed to find peace and calm. Turn off all your screens (e.g., your TV, computer, and mobile phone) and do something relaxing, like meditation, taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, light stretching, or reading.
How to Sleep Better, In Summary
- If you want to feel great and perform at your very best, you need to get sufficient sleep.
- Sleep debt is cumulative. If you sleep for six hours per night for two weeks, your mental and physical performance is just as bad as if you had stayed awake for forty-eight hours straight.
- Performance declines go unnoticed. Even if you think you’re sleeping enough, there’s a good chance you’re not.
- If you’re sleeping fewer than eight hours per night, if you tend to fall asleep instantly, or if you need an alarm clock to wake you up, you can consider yourself sleep deprived.
- Most adults need 7.5–9 hours of sleep per night.
Turn Your Bedroom Into a Haven for Sleep
✓ Make it dark.
✓ Make it cool.
✓ Make it quiet.
Adjust Your Daily Habits
✓ No caffeine after noon.
✓ No heavy workouts three hours before bedtime.
✓ No eating three hours before bedtime.
✓ No tobacco.
Optimize Your Sleep
✓ Establish your “Personal Sleep Quotient.”
✓ Stick to a recurring sleeping pattern.
✓ Develop a “pre-sleep” ritual.
This article is an excerpt from my book The Self-Discipline Blueprint.
- Power Sleep by James B. Maas
- The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness: dose-response effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology from chronic sleep restriction and total sleep deprivation.
- Think on These Things by Jiddu Krishnamurti
- Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr