If there is one positive that can be taken from our current time in lockdown, it’s that the majority of people are sleeping for significantly longer. Some research suggest we may be getting up to 20% more sleep each night and without the demands to be first in and last out at the office or having to endure the long commute, we’re giving our body’s the rest and recovery that many of us desperately need.
I want to also suggest that during this time, you have the opportunity get to know your body a bit more and understand exactly when it functions at its optimum level and when it needs to switch off. To do this you need to understand whether you’re a ‘night owl’ or a ‘morning lark’ and how this particular trait can affect so many aspects of your life.
Every person has their own chronotype or a personal preference for the way that they function throughout the day. Morning larks love to wake up early and get their day planned out before the rest of the world even thinks about getting out of bed. Night owls on the other hand, start their days later, they enjoy sleeping in and will function best during the evening hours. There is also a large percentage of the population that will fall somewhere in between these extremes.
Understanding your body’s natural circadian rhythm can have a huge impact on your work and personal life. Intuitively you will already know if you are more of a morning or evening person based on when you feel most productive during your day. Morning larks want to finish off all their major work before the early afternoon to start ‘winding down’ the day, while night owls are happy staying up and working into the small hours of the morning. This will also be true of your preferred time for physical activity.
Are you working with, or against your natural rhythm?
Throughout your life, the amount you sleep you are able to get and the time of day that you are required to function at your optimal level will vary. As a baby, your sleep schedule will generally only pose an issue to your parents if you keep them you up during the night! Naturally a baby will fall asleep early in the evening and wake early in the morning.
As a toddler, you are encouraged to go to bed early so that you can wake up on time for nursery and morning activities. Initially you may enjoy a lunchtime nap to recharge the batteries but this inevitably drops as you reach school age.
The reverse happens during your teenage years when you stay up late despite your school schedule. Your body is more inclined to be at its optimal level later in the day and your evening social life and the associated peer pressure with this encourages a delayed circadian rhythm. This makes early morning school classes very challenging, but that’s a subject for a later article.
Once you step into the working world, the demands of your job will dictate whether your sleeping schedule needs to shift again. Most of us will be required to fit into a typical 9-5 pattern which may be optimal for many, but challenging for others.
Alternatively, if you decide to set up as a baker, you will be required to wake up around 3am or 4am to start your business in order for your customers get the freshest bread when they walk in through your establishment’s doors. Conversely, if you choose to pursue a career as a nightclub DJ, you will have to be at your peak level in the late hours, staying up throughout the night and sleeping during the daytime.
If your work schedule goes against your natural body clock, then it’s inevitable that you will fail to get sufficient sleep each night and the conflict between your body clock and work schedule can severely affect your physical and mental health and in turn your ability to function throughout your working day.As you reach old age, you revert back to behaving the way it did when you were a toddler. This is partly due to your natural circadian rhythm and also due to the lack of social demands that you have in your life, meaning there is no longer the obligation to stay awake into the late hours. However, for the sake of your physical and mental health it is important to maintain a consistent sleep – wake routine.
Adult life: the enemy of a good night’s sleep
An imbalanced work-life schedule is not the only thing that affects sleep. Most people have different sleeping schedules during the weekdays and weekends. The weekdays force you to wake up early, while the weekends give you the luxury of sleeping in late. Whilst this sounds like an ideal solution, the constant changes in your sleeping schedule can give you jet lag-like symptoms as shifting your sleeping schedule so much each week doesn’t allow your body to adapt to any kind of regular cycle.
I understand that we like to work hard and play hard, but if you find yourself falling into bed on a Friday and Saturday night at the same time you would usually get out of bed on a weekday, it’s going to wreak havoc for your sleeping schedule and your ability to perform in your work or social life.
How does a lack of sleep affect you?
The common effects of a lack of sleep, such as irritability, brain fog, poor cognition and memory, are well known, and ne in three people will suffer from a lack of sleep due to stress or work-related issues. Not achieving an ample amount of rest every night should not being seen as a badge of honour and something to aspire to, and should be taken more seriously. A lack of sleep causes untold health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
Sure, you can survive the odd night on 4-5 hours of sleep, but if this becomes a consistent habit you’re going to struggle. Most adults need around eight hours of sleep every night for optimal performance. This number cannot be taken at face value, as everyone’s body works differently. You can only understand the amount of sleep you need through a process of trial and error. If you find yourself waking up tired and longing for a recovery nap throughout the day, chances are you are not getting enough sleep.
Want to find out what your optimal sleep wake routine is?
Like all personality types, chronotype also has a range. Few people are at the far ends of the night owl-morning lark spectrum, while a majority clump in the neutral chronotype, where they have no preference for morning, evening, or night.
Health wise, morning larks tend to fair better than night owls. People who wake up early report fewer health issues and a lesser chance of facing severe depression. On the other hand, it is believed that night owls have more mental stamina and creative energy than their morning counterparts.
In my opinion, life is about understanding your own strengths and weaknesses and creating habits and behaviours that allow you to perform at your optimal level. Common sense dictates that if you are naturally a night owl who has to adapt to a morning lark schedule, then you will inevitably struggle to perform.
In the past few years sleep and recovery has become an obsession of mine. I have studied Sleep Medicine at Oxford University and put my knowledge into practice through my own projects with The FA and continued work in Formula One.
Understanding your unique requirements for sleep and the optimal daily schedule to enable you to achieve the most from each day is the first step in my Sleep Coaching Programme. From June, I will be offering free sleep and performance consultations, if this is something you may be interested in please CONTACT me to register your interest.