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If you ask Huffington Post founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington about the key to success, she’ll tell you it all comes down to sleep.
She should know; she learned this lesson the hard way.
In 2007, exhausted from getting only a few hours’ sleep a night and running on fumes, Huffington’s body finally surrendered to her sleep deprivation. She awoke from her inevitable and unplanned slumber in a pool of blood after hitting her head on the way down.
This was the wake-up call the media mogul needed to finally prioritize sleep, and now, with the release of her sleep manifesto, “The Sleep Revolution,” she wants to help everyone, from world leaders to the everyday worker, to get a better night’s sleep.
Huffington admits that she’s no sleep scientist, but in researching her book, she’s spoken with enough of them and delved into enough research to be considered an expert on the topic.
In her book she brings to light jarring data that includes what she calls “our current sleep crisis” (about 70% of American workers describe their sleep as “insufficient”) and the cost of not sleeping, like irreversible brain damage and erectile dysfunction.
Business Insider recently spoke with Huffington about the importance of sleep, its elusiveness in our modern society, and some best practices to get more of it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
- Flickr / Andrew Malone
Rachel Gillett: Why is sleep so important?
Arianna Huffington: Let’s start with our brain. We used to think that sleep was a time of inactivity, and now we actually know that sleep is a time of frenetic activity. That’s the time when the planning system of the brain – what they call the lymphatic system – is actually activated and cleans up all of the accumulated toxins from the day. And if that doesn’t happen, the results are really tragic, including leading to Alzheimer’s disease.
The brain has two functions: Either it’s alert and awake, or asleep and cleaning up. That’s why we are now reevaluating as a culture the importance of something we thought we could get away without doing.
The health aspects are a little more obvious. We all know that when we’ve been sleep-deprived for a little while, we are more likely to catch a cold because our immune system is suppressed. But sleep is much more important than that, because every disease, whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, is connected to sleep deprivation.
Gillett: What are some of the most surprising or counterintuitive research findings you came across about the importance of sleep?
Huffington: One of the most counterintuitive findings has to do with weight. We think that in order to lose weight, we need to hit the gym early in the morning, even if it means that we don’t get all of the sleep that we need.
Well, no. If you want to lose weight, stay in bed until you’ve had enough sleep. We now have all of this scientific evidence that shows that if you are sleep-deprived, your body actually craves the very foods that are going to put on weight like carbs and sweets. Also the hormone that regulates hunger is suppressed, and as a result, you’re more likely to be hungry all of the time.
We’ve all been there, you know, in the middle of the afternoon, we get really, really tired, we’re dragging ourselves through our meetings, and we go for that doughnut or that sugary pick-me-up. That is the worst thing that we can do for weight. So sleep if you want to lose weight.
Gillett: What’s the business case for getting more sleep?
Huffington: McKinsey recently put out a study that makes very clear in scientific terms the connection between business leadership and getting more sleep. At first I thought it was an Onion headline actually, to have McKinsey consultants writing in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of sleep for business leadership, especially because one of the consultants was identified as a McKinsey sleep specialist. But no, it’s not an Onion headline; it’s the truth.
The science shows that the prefrontal cortex, where the executive functions that are part of leadership – the problem-solving functions, the team-building functions – are housed, is degraded if we don’t get enough sleep. So all of the things we value in business are going to be affected in a negative way if we don’t get enough sleep.
If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing how we’ve all been living under the delusion that the most successful people in business are people who are working 24/7. In fact, leaders and executives have regularly congratulated people for working 24/7, which we now know is the cognitive equivalent of coming to work drunk.
And from the point of view of the bottom line, there’s a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and an increase in stress and negative health effects. Therefore healthcare costs go up and productivity is impaired.
Gillett: What are some industries where a lack of sleep is really detrimental?
Huffington: Sleep becomes a matter of life and death on the road, or if you are a pilot, or if you are driving a train. We have all heard news stories over the last year of train derailments, of truck drivers like the Walmart truck driver who ran into Tracy Morgan’s car.
Also politics, especially the current campaign, is sort of exhibit A of sleep deprivation. Donald Trump has famously said that he only sleeps for four and a half hours a night, and often with his phone, because he can’t be separated from his Twitter – and don’t we all wish he slept more. Because clearly it’s having an impact.
The stuff he says and the retweeting of Mussolini that he does – all the stuff that he has to take back – is an example of someone whose cognitive ability to process information, to control his impulses, is diminished. And the more sleep-deprived politicians like Trump and others become during the campaign, the more things they say and do that are regrettable from the point of view of the campaigns, and also from the point of view of the whole tone of the election.
Gillett: What are the negative effects of stress on our sleep and ways we can mitigate that?
Huffington: Stress and sleep are incredibly interconnected. First of all, when we’re sleep-deprived, the stress hormone cortisol is released in our brain and in our bodies. And when stress rises and becomes cumulative during the day, it’s much harder to fall asleep at night because it’s harder to slow down and quiet our brains. So the key here is to recognize that and to create a ritual for going to sleep.
Everybody has to see what works for them, but for me the key is to every night before I’m going to go to sleep, thirty minutes before, turn off all of my devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. That is key. Disconnecting from technology means disconnecting from our daily lives, with all the challenges and the obstacles that we all face.
Then I personally like to have a hot bath – it’s kind of washing away the day – but you can have a hot shower if you prefer. I always wear something to bed that is not what I wear to the gym, even if it is a different kind of T-shirt.
In bed I only read physical books – I don’t read on my iPad or any screen. Again, it’s just disconnecting and getting ready for that precious time when we truly recharge ourselves so that we are ready to face the next day, not just efficiently, but joyfully.
Gillett: Any other tips for clearing your mind before bed?
Huffington: Some other techniques that have worked for me and that have been recommended by many scientists include the mind-dump: Write down everything that is on your mind, everything that remains incomplete, everything that you want to accomplish the next day, or the next week, or the next year, and then they’re down. That’s it, they’re no longer in your mind at a time when there’s nothing you can do about it.
The other thing that is incredibly helpful is to write a gratitude list, even if it’s just three things that you’re grateful for from that day. And if you want, share it with a friend. The reason for that is our mind tends to focus on what is not working in our lives, and in every life, even the most blessed, there are things that are working and things that are not working.
For some reason, just before we go to sleep, the things that are not going well take front center. And we need to change that by focusing on the things that we’re grateful for. They can be tiny things, it doesn’t matter. It just changes the focus of our brain and makes it easier to switch off and be able to have a peaceful and restorative sleep.
Gillett: Why are dreams so important, and what can we do to harness them?
Huffington: We’ve all had very significant dreams if we remember them. But also dreams are a time when we process a lot of the emotions of the day, so that they are not left there unresolved.
For me, dreams are a way to connect us to the mystery of life. They help us recognize that we’re not just our jobs, and however magnificent our jobs may be, there is something deeper, there is a deeper reality, an essence in all of us, and dreams help us connect with that.
It becomes much easier to remember and harness your dreams if, first of all, just before you go to sleep, you sort of give the message to your subconscious that you value your dreams and you want to remember them. I have a dream journal by my bed, and I have a pen that has a flashlight, so at night if I wake up and remember a dream and I want to capture it, I don’t have to turn on the light.
If you want to capture your dream, minimize anything you do before you write it down. Don’t turn on the light, don’t get up, just stay in bed, use your pen with the flashlight, and just write it down.
I have a lot of examples in the book of great scientists who had scientific problems resolved and insights given to them during dreams. And many major discoveries were the result of dreams, including Google. Larry Page has spoken about how the whole idea of Google came to him in a dream. As he put it in a commencement speech, “When a big dream comes, grab it.”
But we have to be prepared to grab it, and that requires valuing our dreams.
Gillett: You talk a lot about napping, and you have your nap rooms at The Huffington Post. What are the benefits of and the best practices for napping?
Huffington: There will always be times when we don’t get enough sleep: We have a sick child, we have a big deadline, we just toss and turn. My advice there is, as soon as you can, get a nap.
I want to encourage all workplaces, including Business Insider, to have a nap room. The truth is, I predict in the next few years nap rooms are going to be as universal as conference rooms, because the science now is conclusive about the value of napping. Do you want exhausted employees being exhausted during the day, or do you want them to go have a 20-minute nap and literally have another day ahead of them? Because that’s how restorative a nap is.
Anybody who has had a nap knows how suddenly you wake up as though you’ve woken up from a deep sleep. As for best practices, there is no ideal time of the day to nap. Nap as soon as you can, as soon as you feel tired. The most regular, normal time that people nap for is twenty minutes. But, even if you have ten minutes, it is just unbelievably restorative.
I suppose the reason why I’m so committed to getting enough sleep or napping as soon as I can if, for some reason, I didn’t get enough sleep the night before is that I don’t like myself when I’m sleep-deprived. I don’t like the person I become. I don’t like the fact that I become very reactive, very emotional, less creative, and also less joyful. I just go through the motions rather than actually being really present in my life and enjoying what I’m doing.
Gillett: Any advice for people who don’t have nap rooms in their office?
Huffington: If you don’t have a nap room in your office, first of all gather your forces and lobby for a nap room. Until you have a nap room, do you have a couch? Can you make sure that that couch is put in as private a place as possible? Then have your kit with your earplugs and your eye mask and you can lie on that couch.
If you don’t have a couch, bring a yoga mat, find the most private space in the office, and lie on the yoga mat. There are ways to make that happen if you believe that it will actually make you more effective, more productive, and happier.
Luckily, I think the stigma around napping is very fast being eliminated. I know when we launched our nap rooms at the Huffington Post in 2011, there was an enormous amount of skepticism and eye-rolling, and people were reluctant to be seen in the middle of the afternoon walking into a nap room. But that’s no longer the case – the nap rooms are always full, and I think in fact we need to open a third one.
I have a couch in my office, and I have a glass wall, so when I wanted to have a nap – I didn’t want to use the nap room so I wouldn’t take it away from others – I would nap on my couch and close the curtain. Now I no longer close the curtain. And that has helped eliminate the stigma, to show that you can nap publicly, and, actually, it’s a performance-enhancement tool, and it should be celebrated as such.
Gillett: How has better sleep affected you personally?
Huffington: I would say now I do end every day 95% of the time by getting eight hours of sleep, and that has transformed my life. It has brought so much joy and creativity into the next day. And without question, I can say I have been a much more effective leader at The Huffington Post because of that, because it’s been clearer for me where we need to go.
I’ve been able to see the icebergs of the changing media ecosystem before they hit the Titanic, and I think it’s been to a large extent responsible for the fact that we continue to be so successful and we continue to grow.