Can We All Just Stop Thinking About Work at 2 AM?

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We often hear that top achievers don't sleep much. Elon Musk, Aristoteles Onassis, Thomas Edison were all visionaries with a drive to push the boundaries of what’s possible. But the truth is that not sleeping enough, even if we're doing something productive, can hurt our performance in the long run -  not to mention our personal life.

Lack of sleep causes problems with job performance, productivity, and satisfaction, plus increases bad work behaviors. On the flip side, better sleep is linked to improved memory and learning. One of the best ways to ensure a productive workday is to make sure you’re getting enough.

We all know work stress is inevitable, and many of us think about work outside office hours. Some of our best ideas come when we’re not in front of our computers or in a virtual meeting. But this doesn't have to mess up your sleep.

I know what some of you are thinking: another HR self-help article I don’t have time for. There are no magic or simple solutions for a complex topic like this, but the following tips are simple and actionable. To stop thinking about work in the middle of the night, try these strategies:

  • Focus on your breathing. The way we breathe affects the tension and relaxation in our body. Here’s the basic idea: Breathing out longer than you breathe in will relax the body and also the mind. For many people, tension has become the new normal - not so healthy in the long run. With this exercise, you can relax your body in just one minute. As recommended by the British Heart Foundation, do this exercise 10 to 15 times a day for three days. Before the coffee machine, before a meeting, after a meeting 😉, before finishing work and before going to bed.

  • Make a to-do list. There’s always more work to be done and making a to-do list for the next day before bed helps you fall asleep faster - almost as much as taking a sleep aid - plus helps you wake up fewer times during the night. Unfinished tasks cycling through our minds keep us at a high level of cognitive activation, which is why we stay up at night. Writing down your tasks decreases cognitive activity, rumination, and worry. If you wake up in the middle of the night remembering a pressing task, keep a piece of paper and pen on your nightstand to write it down and let it go from your mind so you can get back to sleep.

  • Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts and feelings helps process emotions and reduces stress and anxiety, as it requires a greater level of psychological processing. Including positive events and things you're grateful for in your writing can help you realize a longer, more refreshing sleep.

  • Be good to yourself. Think of self-compassion as showing yourself the same kindness, care, and concern you would show a good friend. Recognizing that we’re all imperfect humans allows us to break the cycle of negative thoughts and self-judgment that come with stewing on things, which is linked to several negative effects, including insomnia.
  • Be active. This is arguably my favorite, and most helpful tactic - playing sports. Moderately intense exercise can decrease the rumination that keeps us up at night. According to John Hopkins Medicine, there's evidence that as little as 30 minutes of exercise after work can help us fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality. Exercise not only increases the amount of deep sleep we get, but exercise decompresses the mind.

If you follow these steps and shut down the computer early enough each night to get a good night’s sleep, you’ll be more effective during the hours you do work. Plus, you’ll be happier, healthier, and a better version of yourself outside of work too.

Drop me a line and let me know what you think!

Marisol Ribes

Vice President Human Resources, Linical Western Region

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