This story is part of a 10-piece series for which HuffPost staffers agreed to experiment with improving their health and decreasing their stress on the job. It’s also part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative focusing on thriving in the workplace.
Getting just one extra hour of sleep each night might sound easy, but actually doing it for a week was far more difficult -- and rewarding -- than I ever expected.
As both a health journalist and a wellness junkie, I know that getting a good night's rest is essential to physical and mental health, productivity, mood and well-being. The American Sleep Foundation recommends an average of eight hours per night. But life had recently gotten stressful for me, and sleep was unfortunately the first thing to fall by the wayside.
For the past few months as I've been preparing for a book launch (in addition to my demanding day job), I had settled into a nightly routine of six and a half to seven hours of sleep. When I had so much to do, sleeping eight long hours every night (not just on the weekend) seemed like a tall order.
But sleep and stress are a vicious cycle: When I get stressed, it's difficult to sleep, and when I'm getting less sleep, I'm more stressed out and less able to get things done. Studies have shown that 24 hours of sleep deprivation can significantly raise stress hormone levels, and as little as four hours of sleep loss has been found to increase stress levels as well.
"Stress is to sleep as yin is to yang -- opposite forces that are forever linked," Dr. Chris Winter told The Huffington Post in 2013. "Stress prevents sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and its consequences."
So, I embarked on a personal challenge to get eight full hours of rest.
For five days straight, I set out to sleep eight hours each night. Since it usually takes me at least 20 minutes to fall asleep, I made sure to get into bed eight and a half hours before I needed to wake up in the morning. Throughout the week, I'll practice good sleep hygiene -- using my bed only for sleep, making sure the room is dark and the temperature is comfortable, and using a sound machine to block out street noise.
I knew it would be difficult for me to get in bed early enough, but I was prepared to change my habits just for a week. I hoped to feel a little less stressed by the end of it.
It's Monday morning and I am TIRED. Hopping into bed early on Sunday night and getting a full night's rest, it seemed, had left me even more exhausted than usual in the morning -- as if finally getting a decent night's sleep had left my body wanting more. I'm a little tired throughout the day, but feeling a bit more productive and alert than usual.
I get in bed at 11 p.m. on Monday, fall asleep probably around 11:30 p.m. and wake up at 7:45 a.m. (admittedly, after pressing the snooze button twice). It's still difficult to wake up, but today my energy is pretty even throughout the day, and I surprise myself with how much I get done.
I wake up without pressing the snooze this morning -- a small victory. Again I notice that my energy is even throughout the day. I hit a bit of a wall at 3 p.m. and have a green tea, but otherwise I work pretty steadily through the day until 6 p.m. Tonight, I actually look forward to crawling into bed early.
I went to bed at 11:25 p.m. yesterday and woke up at 7:30 a.m. feeling pretty amazing! It always takes me a while to fall asleep, but still, I think this means that I got a little more than eight hours of sleep -- and I'm feeling pretty good about it. The day goes by in a flash, and I don't even need a second cup of coffee.
I get eight and a half hours of sleep on Thursday night (which requires leaving an event early but is so worth it) and I wake up feeling good. I'm not quite brimming with morning energy yet, but feeling better (and less stressed) than I've felt all week. An unexpected urgent assignment comes my way and I calmly tackle it without getting stressed about all the other things I needed to get done today (for me, this is a significant victory).
Looking back, I notice that over the course of the week I've gotten work done more efficiently -- completing my daily tasks and getting through my to-do list with less time and effort required.
My to-do list is still long, but somehow I felt less overwhelmed by it. That sense of having way too much on my plate has dissipated considerably. I even feel the spark of an insight: There is time, and energy, for everything that matters.
The bottom line? Getting enough sleep requires making sleep a priority.
The most striking -- and most unexpected -- effect of the challenge was what it did to my stress levels. By the end of the week, although I was still facing the same demands and stresses, I felt much more in control.
After a week, I've just begun the journey to change my sleep habits, and it's going to take more time and continued effort to feel the effects. Still, it only took five days for me to begin to remember what it feels like to be truly rested.
The bottom line? Getting enough sleep requires making sleep a priority. Yes, you might have to go home a little early from a party, sacrifice your morning run or find a way to work just one hour less, but it's so worth it. Ultimately, it's one of the easiest things that anyone can do to feel better and less stressed. I'm converted!
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