The Chemistry of Sleep: A Recipe for Effective Time Management

Time Management MagazineThis post originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Time Management for iPad Magazine.

Here are three things everyone needs to know about sleep: first it’s pure chemistry; second it’s a twenty-four-hour a day thing; third, it’s about quality over quantity.

Sleep is the single greatest investment in productivity and time management there is, followed in short succession by nutrition. When a person arrives at work, ready for a new day, he/she should be able to do so feeling mentally refreshed, alert and headache-free. But because sleep is associated with “not working,” it is discounted as a tedious necessity by many overly busy people, who opt to sacrifice it in the name of doing more work. The bitter irony here is that they would not actually have to do all that extra work, if adequate sleep had been allowed in the first place.

The chemistry of sleep is a hormonal process. Primarily, a hormone called melatonin, produced by the pineal gland located in the centre of the brain, triggers the nervous system to shut down for the night. Melatonin can only be manufactured in low-light conditions. What this means for busy working people is that the production of melatonin starts as soon as the light receptors of the body (the eye and the skin) perceive a decrease in ambient light. So as the sun starts to move toward the horizon, the body anticipates nightfall and starts to produce the hormone in anticipation of sleep.

In a nutshell, this means that the sleep sequence doesn’t start the moment people put their head on their pillow, but rather it begins as the workday draws towards its traditional end of 5:00-ish. The amount of melatonin in the bloodstream then builds up over the following six hours or so until a sufficient amount exists to help a person drift into a sleeping state.

The problems start when people fight this process, either intentionally or otherwise. For example, succumbing to the temptation to take work home in the evenings, to catch up on emails after dinner, or to simply keep on working, forces the body back into “alert” mode where it must fight against the introduction of melatonin by effectively diluting it. Furthermore numerous recent studies have shown that the blue light emitted from electronic devices such as TVs, computers and smartphones is precisely the type of light that is instrumental in decreasing melatonin production.

It is not necessary to remain totally inert between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and midnight; it’s more a matter of identifying activities that are enjoyable, and which continue the production of melatonin, and those that are more stressful and which naturally inhibit it. For example, playing a late evening game of hockey might be highly aerobic and stimulating, but since it represents a form of mental relaxation – it’s a hobby, not an obligation – the chemical process of melatonin production is not substantially inhibited. Contrast this to staying up late to do homework, or bookkeeping or taxes. The stress that comes from doing work that we would really rather not do erases the gains of melatonin production and severely jeopardizes the chance of getting a good night’s sleep.

The role of sleep is to provide rest for the body and mind, allowing both to repair the wear-and-tear from the day before. Healing happens overnight; kids do their growing overnight; dreams process thoughts, memories and experiences and sort them all out on the short-term memory platform of the brain where they are discarded the next morning. Most importantly the immune system is the primary beneficiary of good sleep, helping bolster against short-term illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as more long-term and dangerous conditions such as cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

When a person comes to work after having had a good amount of sleep – even just a few hours will do, not necessarily 8 or 9 – the mind is better able to prioritize, negotiate, delegate, communicate and focus. That’s where it becomes a time management issue. The time invested in allowing an evening to unfold as it should (rather than catching up on extra work) is paid back in terms of higher-quality productivity being attained in shorter periods the following day.



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