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Take Back Your Work Productivity by Taking Charge of Your Sleep

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businessman asleep at computer

Are you a night owl? One of the tribe who pride themselves on functioning well on three to four hours of sleep when others need eight?

I was one, too, until my career kicked off and I crashed and burned. Fresh out of college and with more sleep debt than common sense, I pushed through Monday-to-Friday with my mind on the weekend, promising myself two days of sleeping in and lazing around. Sound familiar?

Maybe you’re also finding that pulling all-nighters or half-nighters isn’t doable anymore. Not unless you fancy being a scattered mess at work the next day — a surefire way to impress your first boss.

I eventually learned to work yawn-free and with my eyes wide open. Here’s how you, too, can leave the night owl behind to get a leg up on the career ladder:

Disillusion yourself

The first thing to go was my belief that I felt great and was highly productive after only a few hours of sleep.

This might have been true in college when I was power napping between study sessions, but not in the real world where naps are a hot commodity and the threat exhaustion looms large.

Those of us who regularly restrict our sleep to four to six hours a night might be oblivious to our performance, rating it much higher than it actually is, according to a study published in SLEEP, a scientific journal that publishes papers about, well, sleep. With your focus, motivation and engagement suffering throughout the day, there’s no glory in depriving yourself of sleep.

Even worse, your mood can take a dive, too, and no one likes the office Grinch.

Set goals

Early on, I set an ambitious goal for when I wanted to be asleep. To get there, I gradually brought my bedtime forward in half-hour increments each week.

As it became tougher on my self-control to go to bed earlier, I shortened these windows to 15-minute increments. Finally it became a habit to be ready for sleep by 9:45 p.m. and asleep by 10:45 p.m. at the very latest.

My other goal defines my ideal sleep length. You might find this helpful if you’ve ever had the depressing realization when setting your (overly loud) alarm clock that you’re going to get inhumanely few hours of sleep. And that’s not counting the time it’ll take to fall asleep.

Sleeping about seven hours energizes me plenty and inspires morning wakefulness. In fact, my thorough enjoyment of waking early has dispersed any doubts that I should’ve stuck to being a night owl.

And the reward for meeting your goals? Less eye-rubbing in the morning and a stronger sense of control over your workload. A night of insufficient sleep feels like a huge setback and is punishment in itself.

Automate it

Forming bedtime and morning routines around my new sleep schedule helped me stick with it. Today, sleep is what follows stretching and brushing my teeth.

Having a bedtime routine has been shown to correlate with better sleep quality in children and the elderly (according to studies in SLEEP), so there’s reason to assume it might benefit the rest of us as well.

In the morning, take some time to enjoy your breakfast in peace or take a walk outside. Another scientific journal, Physiology & Behavior, linked exposure to natural light in the mornings to better sleep quality and better productivity.

What you can’t do in moderation, avoid completely

Naps, formerly my lifeline and preferred way of topping up on sleep, are now banned. Too often a power nap postponed my bedtime. Eliminating them was the only way I could ensure I’d get a solid amount of sleep at night.

The snooze button is another offender. Since I’ve set my sleep pattern straight, the compulsion to snooze is almost gone. As you may know, the only thing snoozing ever did was make it much harder to get up and out of bed in the morning.

The result

I never stay up late unless there’s something concrete to do (scrolling through my Twitter timeline doesn’t count). To prioritize sleep over work and other duties, I’ve stopped seeing it as a waste of time. Sleep tops off our mental and emotional reserves, allowing us to function at our best.

Most importantly, I wake up happier in the morning and am more confident I can handle whatever challenges the day brings me.

Changing my sleep schedule has truly turned my life around. It might change yours, too. (Click here to Tweet this post.)

Helena Pilih is a night owl turned sleep enthusiast and a contributor to Sleepio, a website run by experts dedicated to sleep improvement.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.