If there was a secret weapon in leadership, would you use it?
Most of us would say ‘absolutely’—as long as it’s ethical.
So here’s a leadership weapon almost no leader will talk about. In fact, in some circles, it’s embarrassing to talk about.
More specifically, getting enough of it.
In more than a few high octane leadership circles, barely sleeping is seen as a badge of honor (I can run on four hours a night!).
But what if your lack of sleep wasn’t a badge of honor at all?
What if your lack of sleep is undermining your leadership? Making you worse, not better?
And what if it’s not just taking a toll on you at work, but also at home … making you a worse parent, spouse and even friend?
So … What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
The Center for Disease Control recently called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic, arguing it causes industrial accidents, motor vehicle accidents and even medical errors.
1. Lack of sleep can literally kill you.
And the implications are a little more serious than nodding off in a meeting after lunch. According to medical research, chronic lack of sleep can cause weight gain, age your skin, harm your sex drive, impair memory, and contribute to illnesses as serious as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and even premature death.
It’s a little shocking, but it’s not actually an exaggeration to say that a chronic lack of sleep can kill you.
2. Lack of sleep often leads to burnout.
I know for me, chronic lack of sleep was one of the key factors that led to my burnout a number of years back.
Like many leaders, in the name of caring for others, I had stopped caring for myself and my family. I thought I was super human and I only needed four to five hours of sleep a night.
I’m not the only leader who burned out. Perry Noble and I chronicle our stories of burnout in quite a bit of detail here, and the post also contains a lot of resources that Perry and I have put together to help leaders who are burning out.
3. At a minimum, it will make you hard to live with.
Even if you’re not dead, sick or burning out, lack of sleep can turn you into you a bit of a jerk.
Unrested, you’ll snap at the kids more, fight with your spouse more, and even at work, you won’t be fun to hang around.
Or at least all of the above is true for me.
Here’s what I find.
I am at my most kind when I’m the most rested. When I’m tired, I’m just not nearly as nice to be around.
If you can’t identify with that statement, it’s probably because you haven’t been well rested in, well, years.
You’ll be amazed what happens if you ever get enough sleep to finally not be tired any more. Seriously.
Sleep Is Like Money. You Can End Up in Debt.
So what happens if you’re chronically overtired?
The same thing that happens when you’re in debt … that’s what.
One of the key lessons I learned in my burnout back in 2006 is that sleep is like money.
You can run a surplus … or you can run a deficit.
And just like with finances, when you run a deficit over time, you end up with debt that you carry from month to month and year to year. A debt that needs to be paid off.
This lesson became inescapable for me personally in August 2006. Three months into my burnout, I was having a hard time functioning.
In fact, my fatigue was inescapable. So I decided to sleep every time my body told me I was tired.
I slept a lot that August. Eight to 11 hours a night. I added to that multiple naps a day whenever I could grab them.
By the end of the month, I felt much better.
I could work again. I could breathe again.
While my burnout wasn’t fully over, I felt flickers of hope again.
Soon, I was on the gradual road to recovery.
So What Can You Do? Five Keys to Staying Rested
So how do you stay rested?
Better yet, how do you get rested if you’re reading this article and are quietly saying “oh crap?”
1. Lose the stigma.
I love that a few years ago Michael Hyatt went public by admitting that he takes naps. Thank you Michael!
Not only does Michael take naps, but so, as he pointed out, have many great leaders in history.
I have always been a napper. I even nap at work occasionally. But I feel like if someone caught me, I’d be in trouble.
That’s a bad thing.
For me, a 10-minute nap can be the difference between heading into the afternoon raring to go and dragging my knuckles wishing it was 5:00. It can be the difference between being sharp and being in a fog or being disinterested.
It’s not just the stigma around naps leaders need to lose, it’s the stigma around a good night’s sleep.
I unapologetically go to bed on time when I’m on the road hanging out with other leaders, and when I’m at home.
A rested me is a better me. Just ask my wife. Just ask my kids. Just ask my team.
2. Catch up.
You might be in your equivalent of August 2006 for me. You might need to take a week or two off to sleep.
Or maybe you’re just running hard for a season. Catch up.
I realize you might have young kids or be in launch mode for a new project.
But here’s the truth.
You will always have a reason to cheat your sleep.
You will never have a reason to catch up, unless you decide it’s time.
So decide it’s time.
If you have young kids, trade nights for being on call with your spouse until you are both as caught up as you can be.
If you’re a single parent, ask someone to take the kids for a night or two and then sleep.
If you don’t have young kids, you really don’t have a good excuse. Just get disciplined.
3. Develop better sleep routines.
Here are few things that can help you sleep better.
1. Go to bed at the same time every night. Researchers say you will sleep better if you do.
2. Go to bed earlier. This was huge for me. Instead of staying up late to get stuff done, get up earlier to get things done. Sleep in on the front side. I try to be asleep every night by 10:30. Sometimes it’s as early as 9:30. And I’m up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning. That’s my sweet spot.
3. Sleep in a dark room and turn off electronics. I love my phone, but it’s off (as in powered down) every night. If it’s an emergency, someone will knock at my door and wake me up. If the world ends, well, there’s not much I can do about it anyway when I’m asleep.
4. Get as good a mattress as you can afford. Get as picky about a good mattress as you can with your budget. You’ll spend 1/3 of your life on it. So invest well.
5. Don’t eat much before bed. It helps you sleep better … it really does.
4. Watch for the signs.
Since I burned out, I have paid super close attention to the signals my body tells me about my fatigue level. As soon as I sense I’m running a sleep deficit, I try to pay it off.
Here are some signs that tell me I’m tired:
1. A bad or sullen mood. Someone once said that 70 percent of discipleship is a good night’s sleep. Well, yes it is. I am more of a Christian when I’m well rested. So I watch my mood like a hawk. Being short with people, angry, sad or lacking mercy are all signs I’m tired.
2. I watch my passion level. When I’m rested, I’m excited about work, about life and about seeing people. If everything seems like a chore or an obligation, I’m out of balance. For sure, some things will always seem like a chore, but everything shouldn’t.
3. I watch my creativity. If I have trouble coming up with great ideas or great content, it’s a sign my mind is tired. I probably need more sleep.
4. I find myself nodding off. When I’m tired in meetings, driving or watching TV, it’s a sign I need more sleep. I know that’s obvious, but it’s so easy for this to become ‘normal’ I just thought I’d mention it.
5. React quickly.
I still run hard. We all have busy seasons and busy weeks, and I get tired regularly. Part of my personality is I love to push myself and push limits. I get that.
But now I react quickly when I’m getting tired.
Why don’t you try that this week?
Take a nap.
Cancel your plans for tonight and go to bed early.
You’ll be fresher more often, and you’ll have far more energy for your family, for life and for work.
That’s what I’ve been learning about sleep as a leader and as a follower of Christ.
It should be no surprise that God wants us to spend 1/7 of our life resting (Sabbath) and created us to sleep 1/3 of our life away.
Your calling, your family and your life are too important for you not to sleep.
Now you can use your new secret weapon.
What are you learning about sleep?