Rise and Shine: How to be Effective at Work

Posted by Fred Cohn on April 10, 2012
Rise and Shine: How to be Effective at Work

It was 7 in the morning during Beth H’s first week of work. She had recently graduated from Duke University and was living in New York City and working as an editorial intern at a national magazine. When the alarm clock went off, her first, barely conscious thought was “I’ll skip my first class.” Then she sat up with a start.

“I realized you can’t do that anymore,” she says. “It’s a job and people are paying you to work. This was real life.”

That experience is shared by thousands of college grads every year. If you’re about to enter the workforce, a drastic realignment of your sleep patterns is probably in order. No matter what your body may be telling you, you’ll be expected to be up-and-at-‘em first thing in the morning and at peak condition for the next eight, ten—even twelve—hours.

In the financial sector—especially in positions that demand coordination with Asian markets—you can easily be expected to start business at 7:00 a.m. The same day may even end with an 11:00 p.m. conference call. Then add in travel time: Your commute might require an hour or more spent on public transit or crawling through rush-hour congestion. And, in the workplace—unlike that 9:00 a.m. English lit lecture—you have to show up showered and shaven, with your outfit cleaned and pressed. All these factors will require you to set your alarm many hours earlier than your accustomed college wake-up time.

Add in the unfortunate fact that nature is working against you. If people between puberty and their mid-twenties obeyed their natural circadian rhythm (essentially the biological clock that indicates when to sleep and when to wake), they would go to bed later and sleep a lot later than their schedules permit. A young person’s body secretes a growth hormone at midnight that delays the production of melatonin (which helps induce drowsiness). In an ideal world, you would go to sleep after 2:00 a.m. and sleep until 11:00 a.m.

Your work schedule will not let this happen. You’ll have to learn to adapt. That initial adjustment may be traumatic—but it can be done.

Why Sleep?
The simplistic solution for coping with the change in schedule may be to make do with less sleep. It is, after all, possible to show up at work after just a few hours of shut-eye and make it through the day. You may be tired, but at least you’ll be there.

Bad idea. For one thing, grogginess will affect your performance. You want to be at the top of your game in your new job; if you haven’t slept enough, you won’t be functioning at your best.  

In competitive spheres, such as the financial sector, lack of sleep could be a sure way to start off on the wrong foot. “When they hire you on Wall Street, you have to perform well—refreshed and raring to go,” says Connie Thanasoulis, cofounder of the career-coaching firm SixFigureStart. “If you aren’t alert, it’s going to hurt your reputation. If you ask about something that’s already been covered, it looks like you aren’t paying attention.”

But it isn’t just your career that can suffer—your health can too. According to psychologist James Maas—the author of Sleep for Success! and the inventor of the power nap concept—sleep deprivation can contribute to a series of calamities. Fifty percent of traffic accidents involve people who don’t get enough sleep. Add in high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, memory loss, and even heart attacks, and the detrimental effects of too little sleep can be alarming.

Even though your new work schedule will make it hard to get a good night’s sleep, it’s actually more important to get proper rest now than when you’re older. “Until about age 25 to 27, your brain is still developing; it’s growing new connections,” says Michael Grandner, a researcher with the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania. “As your sleep schedule gets disrupted, some of these connections get disrupted too.”

From adolescence until their mid-twenties, says Maas, people really should get in excess of nine hours sleep a night. Few people get that much—studies show that young people get an average of just 6.1 hours. “Basically, from puberty to 26 years of age, people are walking zombies.”

Some college sports teams have taken these neurological effects into account in setting their practice schedules. When once they required athletes to practice twice a day—early in the morning, then again after classes—they discovered that if they cut out the morning session, the teams went on to perform better despite having logged fewer hours on the field. But employers aren’t likely to cut you the same kind of slack.

Training the Puppy
To a large extent, adapting to your new work schedule is a matter of discipline.

“Sleep is like a puppy,” says Grandner. “It’s very trainable; it wants to be trained. But if you don’t train it, it will figure what to do on its own.”

A key step in setting an effective sleep schedule, Grandner says, is to establish regularity. That means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day—even on weekends. “Even if your body will naturally want to go to bed later, you teach it, ‘No-no—you want to go to bed now.’”

Of course, you can’t just hop into bed two hours earlier than normal and expect sleep to take hold. In order to train your body for effective sleep, you may have to make changes, large and small, in a lot of your daily habits. Exercise is essential, and so is a good diet full of protein and low in sugar and fats.

Eating too late at night will affect your breathing when you sleep. True enough, your work schedule may prevent you from getting home in time for a good meal well before hitting the hay. In those cases, Steven Y. Park, an otolaryngologist and the author of Sleep Interrupted, suggests that in such cases, it’s better to prepare a meal to eat at work than to wolf dinner down too close to bedtime.

Try to use the hour or so before bed to set the stage for your sleep. That means avoiding stimulating distractions. Maas suggests avoiding computer devices, especially the iPad: “It sends out blue, daylight-spectrum light that blocks the flow of melatonin,” Maas reports.

You may want to listen to music, but be careful in your choices. “Don’t keep it rocking and rolling until the moment before you go to bed,” says psychologist Alex Lukeman, author of Sleep Well, Sleep Deep. “Mozart or Miles—not heavy metal.”

Some experts recommend shutting off the TV well in advance of bedtime—a measure that runs directly counter to most people’s habits. But even if you use the boob tube as a bedside companion, you should be careful about what you watch. “Watching the news before you go to sleep is the worst thing for your sleep quality—it’s all about getting hyped up,” says Park. “If you watch anything at all, it should be soothing or funny.”

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