According to a recent study, American adults are sleeping on average less than seven hours a night -- down an hour and a half from the amount of sleep people got a hundred years ago. Many scientists believe that one of the major causes of our getting less sleep is the modern availability of round-the-clock activities and entertainment, the most pervasive source of which is now certainly the Internet. With the 'net, we can now work, study, or play at 3 A.M. and increasingly, we do. Naturally, most of us in the IT industry have formed an especially close bond with the 'net, making us more prone to losing sleep.
The fast-paced, highly competitive, and rapidly growing nature of our industry also makes us more likely to sleep less. To stay competitive, we often have to work way beyond the 40-hour work week, especially at smaller or emerging companies. For those who have started their own businesses, it's even worse -- work will usually go until exhaustion. To compound the issue, the field is still developing and changing so rapidly that we have to constantly study as if we were full-time students just to keep up. It's really no wonder we're not sleeping. There just isn't enough time in the day. The problem is that this lack of sleep can hurt us.
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Sleep deprivation and sleep debt
Sleep deprivation is exactly what it sounds like: depriving our bodies of sleep for long periods of time -- a full day and night or more. Sleep debt has a cumulative effect: When we don't get enough sleep (less than about 7.5 to 8.5 hours) night after night, we begin to experience many of the same problems as with regular sleep deprivation. These problems include
- Decreased alertness and manual dexterity
- Impaired memory and cognitive function
- Weakened immune system
Some more long-term issues thought to be linked to sleep deprivation include
- High blood pressure
If the long-term health risks aren't enough to encourage us to try to get to bed a little earlier, we should also keep in mind that impaired brain function and motor skills will decrease the quality of our work. We won't be able to solve problems as quickly. And because we aren't thinking clearly, we might even exacerbate the very problems we're trying to fix. One study found that subjects who had been 17 hours or more without sleep experienced the same -- if not worse -- impairment while driving as those who were at the legal limit for blood-alcohol content. So when we work without sleep, it could have similar effects to working while inebriated.
The real answer is quite simple: Devote seven or eight hours every night to sleep. It is best to try to keep the schedule consistent, as this will help our bodies keep what is called a circadian rhythm. Trying to sleep less during the week and then make up for it by oversleeping on the weekends will throw off that rhythm and make it much harder to wake up on Monday morning.
Stimulants such as caffeine will temporarily make us more alert and agile. They can't, however, be recommended as a real solution because they will wear off, leaving us in a state of withdrawal that is generally worse than before. Also, caffeine increases heart rate and blood pressure, which can compound other problems caused by sleep deprivation and put us at risk for other diseases.
One possible answer for those who simply cannot afford seven or eight hours of sleep every night is to take power naps. A power nap is a short period of sleep that ends just before entering deep sleep. Since the nap is so short, it is often possible to take one during a lunch break. A power nap is thought to give much of the same benefit of a regular sleep, but in only 20 to 30 minutes. Famous nappers include Winston Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein, Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo Da Vinci.
When taking a power nap, it's important to keep the duration short. If you allow yourself to enter deep sleep and don't complete it, you'll experience what's called sleep inertia -- basically morning grogginess -- and may feel worse than before.
The bottom line is this: Whatever temporary fixes you may implement, in the end nothing can truly substitute for a good night's sleep.
Kris Littlejohn grew up in a household of tech writers and has been playing with, building/disassembling, and writing about computers and other gadgets from an early age, including a number of articles for TechRepublic.