Losing Sleep Over Your Business

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During finals week in college, my friends and I would proudly boast about how little we slept. Flash-forward 30-plus years, and I’m suddenly reliving those sleepless nights as a business owner. Like my college pals, many entrepreneurs wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor. But the key difference is they’re older now and dealing with higher levels of stress. What may seem like diligence can actually be dangerous — to your health and your business.

It would be hypocritical of me to say you must get at least eight hours of sleep a night. I certainly don’t. Despite the boasts of successful entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart, who claims to need only four hours of sleep a night because “there’s not enough time in the day,” most of us need more than that. So what’s a business owner to do?

First, we need to recognize the consequences of too little sleep. According to a number of sleep studies, a chronic lack of sleep will leave most of us fat, dumb and dead at an early age. A study released earlier this year by researchers from West Virginia University’s School of Medicine reported that people who sleep fewer than five hours a day double their risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Interestingly, the sleep study also showed that people who slept too much also had an increased risk of getting heart disease.

According to the study, we should ideally be getting seven hours of sleep a day. But the truth is that most business owners fall well short of that. In fact, James B. Maas, a sleep expert and professor at Cornell University, says that startup business owners in particular often lose more than 700 hours of sleep a year — about the same amount of sleep lost by parents of newborns. And the sleep deprivation doesn’t necessarily end as your business grows. Maas says most entrepreneurs are lucky if they get six hours of sleep a day.

Making up for lost sleep
There is some good news on the sleep deprivation front, though. For years we’ve been told you can’t make up for lost sleep. But a study conducted by Dr. David Dinges, the head of the sleep unit at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, showed that even after test subjects were deprived of sleep for five days (resulting in slowed reaction time and an inability to focus), their level of alertness “improved significantly” after a night of “recovery sleep.”

This is important for your employees as well. If you’ve asked them to put in extra hours for a big project or launch, give them (at minimum) a morning off to sleep in. According to Dinges’ research, this will help them regain any lost productivity.

While sometimes it’s the actual long hours of working that keeps entrepreneurs awake, more often the culprit is the inability to quiet our racing minds. The National Sleep Foundation offers some recommendations to help you do just that. While some of its suggestions (like “establish a regular bed and wake time”) may make sense for “civilians,” business owners are more likely to ignore them. But some of its advice might prove useful:

- Exercise regularly, but stop at least three hours before bedtime.

- Establish a consistent, relaxing “wind-down” bedtime routine.

- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet and comfortable.

Creating an official “worry hour” might help as well. Sometime before you hit the sack, write down your concerns and what you need to accomplish tomorrow, then forget about those things until morning. You might even follow the worry hour with an activity that takes your mind off business. Read a book. Watch TV. Meditate.

Although Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most famous entrepreneurs, advised us to get enough sleep (“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”), researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health get the final word: “Early to bed and early to rise is not associated with health, wealth or wisdom.”

So don’t lose too much sleep over your business — but don’t lose your drive and productivity, either. The secret, it seems, lies in striking a balance.

Want the scoop on more trends that can grow your business? Sign up for Rieva Lesonsky’s free TrendCast reports at www.smallbizdaily.com. Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Follow her at twitter.com/rieva.

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