Sleeping 9 to 5; why going to bed early could revitalise your career

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From better productivity levels to being nicer to your colleagues, why going to bed early could revitalise your career.

When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg – ranked by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in the world – was first in negotiations for her job with Mark Zuckerberg, he asked if they could schedule in a phone interview at 9.30pm. Sandberg politely declined and asked if they could rearrange. When Zuckerberg pressed her on the matter – worrying she was unwell – she told him she would be tucked up in bed well before then, just as she is every night thank you very much.

Sounds early to those of us who struggle to drift off before midnight, right? But Sandberg is not alone in her early-to-bed routine. Take a look at some of the world’s most impressive women and there’s a common thread: they all turn in early. Take US Vogue’s Anna Wintour, for example; she famously goes to bed at 10pm and wakes up at 5am to play tennis. Then there’s Michelle Obama, who proudly claims, “I am a sleeper. When you wake up at 4.30 in the morning to do a workout, you’re sleepy at 8 in the evening.”

The trend continues with Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who praises the impact of an early night on her happiness levels, and Arianna Huffington, who describes early nights as her “biggest priority” in life. In fact, grill any number of CEOs, multitaskers, business heads and entrepreneurs – male or female – and a huge proportion will admit to relying on early nights to set them up for the day.

And it’s not just famous names who are turning in early for the sake of their careers. Hannah Williams, 41, is director of a PR agency and mother of two. She credits her energy and productivity levels to her early (10pm absolute latest) bedtime.

“Whenever anyone asks how I do it, I tell them it’s all down to early nights,” she says. “I get up at 5.30am, go for a run, check my emails and write my day’s to-do list. I’m more productive and less anxious in the office, and I know I get my best quality sleep the right side of midnight.”

It’s a far cry from the image of a caffeine-addled businesswoman burning the midnight oil and getting by on four hours’ sleep (well, we’re not all Margaret Thatcher). And it’s anathema to the “one-upmanship” denounced by Huffington in her 2010 TED talk; a rallying cry against the idea that sleep is for wimps – something she learnt the hard way in 2007 when she collapsed from exhaustion due to sleep deprivation.

Since then, Huffington has described sleep deprivation as “the root of all bad business decisions” and has called on leaders of governments and businesses to sleep more, hoping it will reduce the emphasis on the idea that you have to be willing to burn out to be successful.

So while the idea of nodding off by 9pm may sound like the ultimate luxury to those of us with busy lives, stressful jobs and hardworking Netflix accounts (or like social suicide for those of us who are used to dining out and downing drinks well into the weekday wee hours), could we actually be missing a trick? With myriad health benefits, an army of devotees and the potential to make us better at our jobs, could going to bed early be the missing weapon in our workplace armoury? 

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep therapist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, certainly thinks so – after all, going to bed with sundown and being up with the lark is a classic representation of survival of the fittest.

“Humans evolved to go to bed early,” she says. “When we were hunter gatherers, there would have been an increased risk of attack as dawn broke, so nature has cleverly designed us to get our most powerful sleep when it’s dark and we wake with first light.”

Despite this, a 2013 report from The Sleep Council found that almost half of us go to bed after 11pm, while a mere 10% of us are under the sheets between 9 and 10pm. “In big cities, the availability of cheap electricity has brought us artificial lighting and a multitude of electronic devices that compete with us going to sleep at night,” says Dr Malcolm Von Schantz from the University of Surrey.

As a result, most of us go to bed much later than our ancestors did.” Dr Guy Meadows, director at The Sleep School, believes that with our busy schedules, sleep has fallen way down our list of priorities. “We’re working longer, getting home later and once we’re in the door we check emails or do more work, all of which means we’re just not switching off,” he says. “We still want social lives and some down time so we stay up later to see friends or watch TV. As a result, sleep gets bumped back.”

But by favouring just one more episode of Orange Is The New Black over an extra hour in bed, we’re missing out on a raft health benefits – all of which can propel us up the career ladder. “Getting more sleep is the single most powerful performance-enhancing thing you can do,” says Meadows. “It consolidates memory, enhances creativity and manages our moods, and it has physical benefits such as regulating the hormones that control our appetite, boosting cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of diabetes.”

Indeed, nobody wants a colleague falling asleep in their flat white. Just ask Huffington, who says that since she has prioritised sleep she has, “Never been more creative, more productive or less reactive.” In fact, this ‘early to bed, early to rise’ phenomenon is scientifically proven to contribute to success.

In a 2008 University of North Texas study of 824 students, those who identified themselves as ‘larks’ had better grades than those who went to bed late. Researchers believe the most likely explanation is that morning people go to bed earlier, meaning they skip potentially distracting night-time activities.

Meanwhile, Harvard biologist Christoph Randler found that so-called ‘morning people’ are better planners and are more likely to anticipate problems and minimise them efficiently – traits which will no doubt make you P45-proof in the office. Early risers are also more likely to have time to eat breakfast (which studies have shown makes us more focused and productive throughout the day), and research by McMaster University in Ontario has shown that we have more willpower in the morning – so you’re far more likely to get that niggling report out of the way or go to that early morning gym session that could easily be ignored after a long day. 

Going to bed earlier could also mean you get along better with your colleagues, simply because it makes you happier (and less prone to tea-round rage, we’re guessing). Last year, a study from Binghamton University in the US found that participants who preferred going to bed later reported more negative thinking, neuroses and pessimism than early-to-bed types.

Some argue that by going to bed early and rising early, we become more in tune with the earth’s circadian rhythm (24-hour cycle), which can lead to more restorative sleep. But of course drifting off at 9pm isn’t easy for everyone, especially if your stubborn body clock wants you to stay up late and miss the last train home.

“The best time for bed, and the amount of sleep you need, is determined by genetics,” says Dr Meadows, meaning you can legitimately put the fact you’re often still awake when BBC Breakfast starts down to your parents. “But if you’re genetically predisposed to go to sleep at midnight, that doesn’t necessarily mean you miss out on deep sleep,” he reassures. “Problems arise if you’re a long sleeper who stays up late. For instance, if nine hours is your optimum sleeping duration but you go to bed at midnight and get up at 7am,” he says.

To assess whether you’re hitting the sack early enough, you need to get in tune with your circadian rhythm – the physical, mental and behavioural changes in your body which roughly follow a 24-hour cycle. See where you sit by tweaking your bedtime and the time you get up by an hour each way over a few days and keeping track of how you feel every hour throughout the day.

In a very basic sense, when this is balanced you should feel energetic in the early hours of the morning and tired enough to fall asleep when you crawl into bed at night. If you’re not a natural premidnight duvet-dweller, the good news is that it is possible to gradually shift your shuteye. Start by bringing bedtime forward by 30 minutes, advises Dr Meadows.

“Do this over a couple of weeks to see if you notice any changes. If you’re falling asleep within 15-30 minutes of your head hitting the pillow and waking up feeling more refreshed, you can gradually bring bedtime forward.”

It’s also a good idea to assess your relationship with technology, says Dr Ramlakhan. “Your routine in the 90 minutes before bed is crucial to your quality of sleep. Avoid over-stimulating your brain, so try not to watch TV, put away your laptop and phone and use this time to be mindful,” she says.

So yes, it might take some time to get into the routine, and yes, you might miss that ‘experiential’ hipster pop-up that only admits entrants after midnight, but surely that’s a small price to pay for something that is free, accessible and can make you so much better at life. Now go get into your pyjamas.

Can you train yourself to go to bed early?

Stylist’s art director and self-confessed night owl Natasha Tomalin tries out a 9pm to 5am sleep routine

Day 1 I find going to bed  early a real challenge. In  fact, I lie awake staring  at the ceiling until 11pm.  This makes getting up at  5am horrific. I can’t do  it. I rise at 6am instead  and potter about doing  nothing as I’m too dazed. 

Day 2 Going to bed at  9pm is hard. I work late  so don’t eat supper until  8.30pm, which is not  conducive to good  digestion and I end up  having nightmares.  However, I do manage  to get up at 5.30am and  go for a long swim. Win. 

Day 3 Having to cancel  evening plans so I can  “go to bed” is a drag,  and something I would  not enjoy doing regularly.  I still struggle to fall  asleep before 10.30pm,  but I feel much fresher  in the morning when  I go for a swim again. 

Day 4 This. Is. Awesome!  I’ve swum, done a round  of laundry and some life  admin, all before work!  I feel more awake than  ever. I have an energy  slump at 3pm but get  a second wind and feel  energised until 10pm. 

Day 5 I’m almost a  convert. 5am is too early  and I don’t agree with  going to bed at 9pm, it’s  just not achievable, but  I shall be readjusting the  time I wake up to 6.30am  twice a week as I am  a machine first thing.  

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