Contributed by Tara Swart, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer, neuroscientist, and executive leadership coach.
What makes a good leader?
Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.
In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain's executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.
That final element—rest—is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you're effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.
Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires 7-8 hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.
While high stress levels can make sleeping more difficult, getting a good night's sleep can also help to reduce the effects of stress.
How can I improve the quality of my sleep?
There are many simple but effective ways you can improve the quality of your sleep. Those who work late on phones, laptops, and tablets are at a higher risk of poor sleep quality. This is because melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start work. Our ability to fall asleep, and the quality of that sleep, is thus impacted. Brain activity may increase by virtue of the information we are consuming at those late hours as well. Turning off all screens an hour before bed is a good antidote to this.
Other simple ways of improving sleep quality include:
- Making sure you are sleeping in complete darkness—no stand-by lights in the bedroom and with black-out curtains (or wear an eye mask).
- Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2:00pm. The half-life of caffeine is 8-10 hours and its effects can disturb your sleep.
- Try lavendar. Our olfactory nerves directly connect the nose to the limbic part of our brain. Lavender is the strongest naturally occurring neuro-modulator. Try using it to relax and to create an association with sleep when you go to bed.
- Skip the nightcap. Although alcohol is often used by people to help them fall asleep, it interferes with proper sleep cycles and does not provide a benefit.
If your sleep has been disrupted, there are ways you can cope in the short term:
- Napping during the day gives your brain a power boost. A 30-minute nap improves your learning and memory. A 60–90 minute nap will help additional connections to form, which aids creativity.
- As little as 12 minutes of meditation or mindfulness activity can boost your cognitive function significantly enough to build up your mental resilience.
Through my work as a leadership coach and the courses I teach at MIT (Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People and Neuroscience for Leadership) I regularly come across driven, ambitious, capable people who want to excel at what they do. But often they have not considered the mental resilience it will take to achieve and sustain their goals, whether heading up a global company or simply reaching the next level in their career. Resting your brain properly through a good night's sleep is essential to achieving mental resilience and peak brain performance.