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You might need less sleep than you think

Many Americans are sleep-deprived. But you can’t always solve the problem by logging more hours.

You might need less sleep than you think
[Photo: Eric Nopanen/Unsplash]

Sleep—we all need it to survive, but in our digital-filled, 24/7 lifestyle, getting enough of it can feel like a luxury. As Fast Company‘s Liz Segran previously reported, around 30% of Americans report experiencing moments of insomnia, and around 10% reported having more than three sleepless nights “for months on end.”

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That has consequences for our health and productivity. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to all sorts of health conditions, not to mention impair cognitive function. And despite all the sleep-hacking devices out there, the consensus around sleep seems to be that Americans just don’t get enough of it. That might be true, but it’s not as simple as, “you’re always tired at work, so you must need more sleep.” Here’s why.

The ‘perfect’ amount of sleep is different for every individual

For many years, eight hours has been touted as the magical number you should log each night. A 2015 report by the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between the ages of 25 to 64 should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep, while adults 65 and over should strive for seven to eight hours. However, depending on your genetics, medical conditions, and your exposure to stress, your “perfect” amount might fall inside and outside of that range. There are even certain humans, who, due to a genetic mutation, are short sleepers by nature. (Sadly you can’t train yourself to be one of those people.)

A good way to figure out how many hours of sleep you need is to sleep when you naturally feel tired and wake up without an alarm. In an episode for Secrets Of The Most Productive People, author Daniel Pink said that this exercise is a good way to figure out what “chronotype” you are. Are you a morning person, night owl, or somewhere in-between?

But it’s also helpful for figuring out how many hours of sleep you need. Of course, if you’ve been running on sleep debt, the number might be a little bit higher than what you really need, so it’s best to do this over the course of several days to see if that number of consistent. In fact, the next time you go on vacation is the perfect time to try this out.

Figure out the source of your tiredness

You might still be wondering—if  you are getting enough sleep, then why are you tired, grumpy, and finding it hard to focus at work?

There are several reasons for this. In a 2015 article for Fast Company, Gwen Moran outlined several clues that you can look out for. For example, you might assume that the errors you made were due to lack of sleep. But unless you track and pay attention to other variables, that might not be the culprit. Perhaps you were juggling several major projects that week, and you found it hard to direct your concentration to just one. Or maybe you’ve been facing a personal problem that you’ve found difficult to stop ruminating about.

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Speaking of personal problems, research has shown that the quality (and reality) of your relationships can affect the quality of your shut-eye. In an article for The Conversation, psychology professor Royette Tavernier wrote that in a survey of married couples, those who had “positive interactions” with their partner felt that they had higher quality sleep.

There are, of course, also physical factors that can contribute to your quality of sleep—from your bedding to the clothes you wear. Fast Company contributor Kaleigh Moore previously wrote that the temperature of your bed can make or break the quality of your night’s sleep. So can your bed mattress, your pillow, and even the clothes that you wear to bed. Rebecca Smith, founder of sleep performance gear brand Recliner, previously told Segran that sleepwear companies have often designed pajamas with the holiday season in mind rather than for year-round comfort.

Quality and quantity of sleep are both important

With all that knowledge in mind, there are several things you can do to make your sleep experience optimal—whether it’s quantity or quality your body needs. In a previous article for Fast Company, productivity expert and author Laura Vanderkam outlined the habits that are common among those who sleep well.

For starters, don’t underestimate the importance of a bedtime routine. Vanderkam says that people who get sufficient and good quality sleep per night often set themselves two “bedtimes.” The first is when they ‘slowdown’ and turn off their electronics and begin their wind-down routine before they shut their eyes. The second is when the turn off the lights and drift to sleep.

Vanderkam also stressed the importance of a gradual wake-up time. While not everyone has the luxury of waking up without an alarm, she suggests trying to find one that “wakes you slowly and gently,” so that rather than hitting snooze, you can linger in bed for a few minutes rather than force yourself to wake up in a state of grogginess.

Just like everything else, your attitude toward sleep can make also make all the difference in your sleep quality. According to Vanderkam, most people view their evenings as a time when they’re free from friends and family demands. So rather than prioritizing their sleep, they decide to indulge in an extra hour of TV or scroll through Instagram a bit more.

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But if you want to get a good night’s sleep, Vanderkam wrote, you need to change that mindset. “Take your lunch break. Get together with friends after work. Don’t work after the kids go to bed some nights, and start your fun at 8 p.m., not 10 p.m. And then, just as fundamentally, embrace your bedtime ritual as the ultimate in me time.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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