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Washington Post blog: You are feeling veeery sleepy

June 6, 2012
Ned Johnson

This is a repost of a guest blog Ned Johnson penned for The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post.

"There is no way I can do all of this work and get a good night's sleep."

That is the modern lament of high-achieving students in today's high-pressured world. "If only I can get paper/project X and test/task Y behind me THEN I can finally get some Zzzs."

This is not a recipe for success. Just as financial planners will tell you to pay yourself first, James Maas (the nation's foremost sleep expert) will tell you to make sleep a priority SO THAT you can be successful in all other things.

He reports bluntly that "sleep deprivation literally makes you stupid, clumsy, stressed out, unhealthy and will shorten your life.”

Well, there you go!

We want our kids to succeed in school but rarely do we focus on how.

We could do more to teach them how success — and the brain — work but, instead, we employ one liners meant to motivate kids: Work harder. Be more disciplined. Stay motivated. We encourage, praise, berate, badger, beg and bribe.

There’s a better, scientifically proven place to start: With sleep.

Rested brains learn well and perform well. At a recent talk I gave, 80% of teens and adults self-reported sleeping less than six hours the previous night. Forget the fact that science shows the average adult needs more than eight hours and the average teen more than nine. Consider one of the studies referenced by Maas, which shows that the effect of one alcoholic beverage on a sleep-deprived mind (two weeks of six hours a night) was the same cognitive impairment as SIX drinks on a rested brain.

A peak performer is fully alert, dynamic, energetic, in a good mood, and cognitively sharp. To be a peak performer, you must be able to concentrate, remember, make critical and creative decisions, and communicate persuasively. None of this is possible without quality sleep.

So convinced am I of the importance of sleep for kids' health and academic achievement, I've taken to bribing kids. At a recent talk I offered $1,000 to the winner of a “Sleep Challenge.”  Folks had to (self-report) how much they slept each night. Anyone who slept eight or more hours each night for 21 days could enter into a drawing. Of 80+ people who took a “Sleep Challenge,”,we had two completed entries. Two.

Would you bribe, badger or try to motivate your kids to get good grades? What would you give for them to be more focused, healthier, more equanimous, more motivated, more productive, and friendlier?

Remember the student’s comment: “There’s no way I can do all this work and get a good night’s sleep.”

Her comment might be true, but are there ways of maximizing sleep and good work? Try these:

  1. Make sleep as important as other things. Start with eight plus hours as your goal and plan your commitments with an eye towards a set bed time.
  2. Work towards that deadline. For every kid who says "I work best under pressure," I see a kid who really ONLY works under pressure. Ok, then. Have some pressure of the deadline to allow you to do a two-hour task in give or take two hours. Without the pressure of a bedtime/deadline, two hours of work easily and often consumes four hours.
  3. If you determine that it is impossible to get it all done in the available time, reconsider your commitments. Short-term, we all get buried by commitments that stack up. But if your chronic condition is one of being over-subscribed and under-rested, think hard about what you can shed. Again, make sleep at least as important as your other commitments.

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