Want to magically increase your performance? Sleep

eat sleep swim repeat

“Sleep is a natural performance enhancing drug. Tragic how many people think they can get by on 7 hours or less.”  @DHH

My two oldest sons were elite swimmers. As teenagers then university students, it may have seemed to outside observers that they were lazy, as when they weren’t swimming or at lectures they were mostly eating and sleeping.

What may not have been obvious was that eating and sleeping were consciously planned and part of their training regime. Eating and sleeping weren’t what they did when they weren’t training, it was part of the training. When you train well over twenty hours per week and also maintain a high academic workload, fueling and resting are essential.

The younger of these two boys seemed to take this to all new levels. Not only did he typically eat well over 8000 calories per day (that is about 4 times the average adult requirement!), he could also easily sleep 12 or more hours per day. If sleeping were an Olympic sport, he may well have won Cayman’s first medal!

Perhaps inspired by my boys and my own experience as an athlete in the past, I’ve always focussed on human performance and support leaders around this as part of my 1:1 work with clients.

When someone appears tired, unfocussed, demotivated, scattered, very often I’ll ask them (or pick up without having to ask) that they don’t sleep well.

Sleeping is critical for performance, addressing sleep issues is not optional, it is paramount. Perhaps you don’t think you have an issue with sleep, but do you sleep at least 7 hours per night and wake up without an alarm each morning? If not, then I’d say there is real room for improvement.

DHH and addressing macho working cultures

Now, back to DHH. He is co-founder of Basecamp and, with his collaborator Jason Fried, author of multiple books, including “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work“. Suffice to say that I totally align with him on addressing the macho culture of “I don’t need more than 3 or 4 hours of sleep, people at my company work all the hours it takes to make it work” etc.

We are all far more effective when we are rested, relaxed, motivated, so a workplace that recognises the humans that work in it and supports and addresses their needs will always get so much more performance (and in a shorter time) than those who pretend that their people can simply “hustle” and “put in the hours”.

The startup arena is full of this b.s., but they are not alone. Law firms tends to grind their lawyers to “put in the {billable} hours”. It makes no sense to me. Most lawyers I know are very bright critical thinkers who are there (one would hope) to add value to their clients, so why are they on a hamster wheel of transactional work and behaviour, where they honour responsiveness and hitting deadlines more than quality of thought, analysis and so value provided? I don’t know about you, but if I have need of a commercial lawyer, I want them giving me their best and seeing what I don’t see, picking up with their critical thinking what others may miss. If they are working 14 hours a day under huge pressure, they are NOT working at their optimum performance.

So, what is the alternative?

Living the advice

I’ll go on later to reference the article DHH picked up on, but for a moment I’ll share my own experience and example. Much of my work is 1:1 with those brave enough to lead transformative change. As I’ve noted, their ability as a human to perform at an elite level consistently is key for this, so I often coach and consult them around this.

Years ago, despite applying sound principles around rest and nutrition etc to my sporting life,  I used to allow myself to be overloaded in my work life. I mean, I’d frequently visit a city on business and be scheduled from before breakfast until late in the night, never having even a moment of unscheduled time to see any of the city, meet friends there etc.

At some point, I realised that this was not serving me or my clients well and make a conscious decision to change. I now consciously manage my own performance (and my EA holds me to it, she is great at accountability for me to augment my own self-responsibility!). After all, if I am to credibly coach and advise clients on their performance, I must “walk the talk”! A few elements of this for me, then:

  • I go to bed within 30 minutes of the same time every night, allowing myself around 8 hours before…
  • I wake at the same time each morning, almost every morning waking a few minutes before the alarm would go off.
  • I exercise to over 70% of my heart rate max at least three times per week, plus walk at least 8k at least 4 days per week (and so plan my days and meetings to allow both).
  • I watch what I eat, the type of food I eat, when I eat, plus I drink alcohol only moderately.

This isn’t for fun, to signal virtue etc, it all is about my performance. When I sit with a client, whether in person or on video, to give them my best I must be fully present and deeply listening to them at all levels, then allowing the right questions and feedback to flow at the right time. This requires a high level of focus and in a way that is at the same time relaxed, so as to allow “flow”. I simply can’t do it to an optimum level when I am tired in any way.

There is much more I consciously do and invest in for my performance, both physically as well as emotionally, spiritually, but you get the point. Be as single-minded in focus on your own performance as you can if you wish to operate at a high level for yourself and others.

So, to close, to the article DHH referenced.

Justin Verlander: The Astros’ Ace and Sleep Guru

(full article from the NY Times here, excerpts below)

It was early May 2018 and Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros’ star third baseman, had only one home run on the season. His teammate Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers of this generation, noticed Bregman’s low power and hints of fatigue, and asked how many hours Bregman had slept the night before.

Six, Bregman answered. And his normal amount? Six, as well.

The responses bewildered Verlander. He promptly told Bregman, 25, that he slept at least 10 hours a night and said Bregman should start getting more hours himself.

“I felt like that’s overdoing it,” Bregman said. “You shouldn’t sleep that much.

“Then I started sleeping that much and, next thing you know, I hit 30 homers after that.”

then, illustrating my theme that performance enhancement by sleep is not just for athletes but all of us:

For professional athletes, quality sleep provides crucial restorative effects and naturally restocks the body’s testosterone and growth hormone, said Neomi Shah, a sleep medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“It’s a legal way to improve athletic performance,” she said. “And it goes beyond it, too, in terms of better well-being and an ability to make decisions.”

Now, beyond baseball, it notes:

Many elite athletes, from Venus Williams and Roger Federer on pro tennis tours to LeBron James in the N.B.A., have said they sleep at least 10 hours a night.

So, next time you or someone you know proudly tell you they are “hustling”, or that they don’t need much sleep, ignore them, and perhaps (if they are open to it), consider, as Justin Verlander did for his teammate, gently suggesting another way.

Also published on Medium.