Sleep for succes: tips for recovery during sleep and optimal focus the next day

Martijn Ruitenburg

These are busy times for you! And uncertain times perhaps.... You've got plenty to do during the day and you want to give it your best. Not just to get the job done, but also to make the best possible impression on your manager. 

After a hard day of work, there are still a few loose ends to be resolved, so in the evening you grab your laptop. You are still working until 21:30. An hour later, when you're tired and ready for a good night of sleep, you can't seem to fall asleep. You reach for your phone for some distraction, but it doesn't help much. You watch the clock ticking. 

The next morning, the alarm rings at 6.30am. You are instantly 'on', but certainly not rested. And you notice this, because it takes a lot of effort to keep your attention during the day. You have to read your e-mails three times to understand what is written, you forget to attend a meeting and in the course of the afternoon everything goes black. You would like to close your eyes, but you have no time for that! And so you carry on, as good as it gets.

The consequences of sleep deprivation

When waking up, ask yourself: am I rested? Which is a different question than 'Do I have energy? 

The hustle and bustle of our daily lives can make us feel full of energy in the morning because there is so much to do. But often the question whether you are rested produces a less positive answer. And that means you haven't fully recovered from all your efforts. 

But what are the consequences of this? And how quickly do we suffer from a lack of sufficient sleep?

Since the end of the First World War, people have started to study 'sleep'.1 After all, many soldiers had to function with a great lack of sufficient sleep. What effects did this have on their performance? 

The ultimate consequences of sleep deprivation soon became apparent: if you didn't sleep at all, you would eventually die. Less severe, but nevertheless important in our daily functioning, are the short-term effects of a lack of sleep:

  • we have more trouble remembering things
  • we are less able to manage our emotions
  • we become more irritable 
  • we are less able to concentrate.

Research shows that after 17 hours of being awake we drive just as well (read: badly) as someone who has drunk more than the permitted amount of alcohol.1 All the more reason to look at how you can improve your nightly recovery. 

Good sleep for optimal focus

Sleep is like a reset button for physical and mental energy. The latest scientific insights explain why a ‘clear mind’ is not possible without good sleep: only when you sleep the clearing of waste products in your brain takes place. And without complete cleansing, there is no empty head, no optimal focus. And without optimal focus, no optimal performance. 

So a good night's sleep is the absolute basis for focus, energy and productivity. The vast majority of people (90%) need 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep.1 And yet many of us sleep less hours. Either you simply go to bed too late to make these hours before the alarm clock rings (either the real alarm clock or the children who act as alarm clocks). 

Or you are in bed on time, but there are all sorts of distractions that prevent you from falling asleep. Your phone, the television or all kinds of wandering thoughts about things that are on your mind. 

If you don’t belong to the 10% of people who need more or less than 7.5 hours sleep, a structural sleep deficit will mean that you are less productive, energetic and focused than you could be. 

And that means that in terms of focus, energy and productivity, there may be more in store for you!

How do you improve your sleep?

So make good and sufficient sleep important. The tips below are based on two important principles of good sleep: 

  • You give your head and body a chance to prepare for sleep by reducing activities over the course of the evening
  • You create a routine, so that your sleep rhythm becomes predictable. Your biological clock, which is the basis for good sleep, is very happy about this.

The following tips will help you sleep well:

  • Go to bed on time, so that you can sleep for 7.5 hours until you have to wake up. If your alarm clock rings at 7 o'clock, make sure you are in bed by 23:00 to fall asleep. 
  • Reduce brain activities in the evening (work, phone, e-mail). Do you want to sleep around 23:00? Then start preparing around 22:00 by minimising physical and mental activity. No more work, no extensive use of your phone and no sport. 
  • Create a fixed bed-going routine. Switching off around 10 p.m. is part of the routine and can be followed by locking doors, switching on the dishwasher, getting your bag ready, etc. This way, you 'teach' your biological clock when you want to go to sleep. 

Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Your biological clock is influenced by light and dark. The darker your room, the easier and deeper you will sleep. Cyclists in the Tour de France even tape over the cracks under the hotel room doors to make it as dark as possible. 

Don't eat or exercise too late in the evening. These activities signal your biological clock that you want to be and stay awake. That is not very useful if you actually want to go to sleep within the hour. 

  • Build in enough moments of rest during the day. The day determines your night' is a saying that indicates that good sleep actually starts with the organisation of your day. 

Your brain needs to be able to wander every now and then. It can only do that if you don't focus for a while and don't absorb any information. So set aside moments to do nothing: stare out the window, go for a walk, close your eyes ....

Take a short powernap.2 Set your alarm clock to 20 minutes, to make sure you only enter the light sleep phase. After a short powernap, many people feel fresher, more energetic and more concentrated. 

The best time for the power nap is around 1.30 pm, when our biological clock makes us sleepy. In any case, don't take the powernap later than 6 p.m., to avoid negatively influencing your night's sleep.

What does good sleep give you?

We regularly hear that people who have started sleeping better are surprised about the effects it has on them. And that these effects are noticeable quite soon. 

Amongst other things, we hear:

You are more productive because you can focus longer.

You have more energy in the afternoon and evening

You are less easily irritated and are therefore a nicer person to other people.

You are more resilient: you are less likely to get upset if you suffer a setback.

You wake up more rested 

You are better able to tackle more difficult or less pleasant tasks earlier and to complete them more quickly.

Sleep well!

For the next two weeks, apply a maximum of two tips that you think could improve your sleep. Keep this up for at least two weeks. After all, you have to give your biological clock time to get used to it.

Sources

1. Coenen, A.M.L. (2016) The Sleeping Brain: sleep, a condition for well-being and performance. 

2. Jansen, K. (2020). The Powernap Paradox

Martijn Ruitenburg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.