Sleep as a career strategy

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

“I am so burned out,” my coaching client told me, her head in her hands. “I am so unmotivated. I’m really struggling to juggle my work and my family.”

“Tell me about your sleep,” I answered.

I recently read “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” by Matthew Walker, Ph.D., and it rocked my world — and my career coaching approach. Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at University of California, Berkeley; the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science; and a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University — and probably knows what he’s talking about.

“I don’t need a lot of sleep,” my client assured me. “I can get by with five or six hours.” There’s a greater than 99 percent chance that she’s wrong about that. (More on that later.)

But Walker, describing the outcome of an experiment in his sleep lab, writes that 10 days of six hours of sleep a night was all it took to become as impaired in performance as going without sleep for 24 hours straight.

Just try to juggle a big job, small children and a marriage with any kind of equanimity and good decision-making without having slept for 24 hours. No wonder my client feels burned out.

I used to think that exercise was the most important thing. I was wrong: It’s sleep.

“Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer,” writes Walker. “Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.”

And that’s just the first page of the book. Scared yet?

“My sleep behavior is a health crisis for me,” said another client, a father of young children and a founder of a startup with 50 employees, after reading Walker’s book. “I need to figure out how to protect and preserve my sleep, night after night.”

I asked him what time he turns the light off at night. He’s now experimenting with setting an alarm for going to bed, rather than for getting out of bed.

I’m requiring my kids to read “Why We Sleep” over their summer vacation. “This book is going to ruin going to parties,” my 12-year-old protested, thinking ahead to college.

“Yes, it absolutely will,” I told her.

I’ve had friends and clients tell me that they don’t need a lot of sleep. There is, in fact, a rare genetic variant that enables some people to survive on six hours of sleep without impairment, but that number is a fraction of 1 percent of the population, Walker explains.

It’s probably not you.

“Individuals unwittingly spend years of their life in a sub-optimal state of psychological and physiological functioning, never maximizing their potential of mind or body due to the blind persistence in sleeping too little,” Walker writes.

It’s like he’s an executive coach. You want to maximize your potential?

Go to sleep!

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.