Good, consistent, high-quality sleep is not just helpful for experiencing flow and peak performance, it’s a prerequisite. The problem is, the definition of good sleep is often confusing for many people. In this section, we’ll explore what good sleep actually is, how you can measure it and how you can improve your sleep for optimal performance.
The characteristics of good sleep, according to sleep scientists and organizations like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, include: 7-8 hours of consistent, uninterrupted sleep consisting of 4-6 complete sleep cycles with adequate time spent in each of the 4 stages of sleep. A more practical definition I like to use is 7-8 hours of sleep 6 or more nights per week where you wake up rested and have consistent focus, concentration and energy throughout the day.
In order to better understand what’s meant by high-quality sleep, let’s take a simplified look at the 4 stages of sleep, the benefits of each, and why they’re important.
The 4 Stages of Sleep
- Stage 1 – Very light sleep. In this stage you’re beginning to drift off to sleep, occupying that place inbetween sleep and wakefulness. It is like opening a doorway to deeper levels of sleep. This stage of sleep usually lasts 10-15 minutes for the healthy sleeper.
- Stage 2 – Medium to light sleep. In this stage you have lost consciousness and have stepped through the doorway of very light sleep into a more restful state. As much as 50-60% of your sleep throughout the night takes place in this stage for healthy sleepers. People who report feeling consistently fatigued and unrested even after 7-9 hours of sleep are spending upwards of 80% of their sleep time in this stage.
- Stage 3 – Very deep, non-REM sleep. In this stage the activities of your body, brain and mind have all diminished significantly. Your body is entering into a state of deep rest and recovery. There are many health benefits which include 1) reducing inflammation, 2) healing damaged cells and tissues, 3) finding and removing tumor cells, 4) detoxifying the brain and spinal cord. Very deep, non-REM sleep is where we go to heal and recover. A healthy sleeper will generally spend about 10-20% of their sleep time in this stage.
- Stage 4 – Deep REM Sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement where your eyes move rapidly side-to-side while you’re deep in your dreams. Many psychologists and sleep experts refer to this stage of sleep as “free therapy.” The reason is that during REM sleep your brain is rapidly reorganizing the memories of your experiences throughout the day and reducing the severity of current traumatic memories. This stage of sleep is also responsible for deep learning due to brain’s reorganization efforts where it creates stronger links between information and improves your ability to recall it quickly. A healthy sleeper will generally spend about 15-25% of their time in this stage.
Sleep is a very complex and necessary process that all animals need in order to thrive and survive. While stages 3 and 4 are responsible for the majority of health benefits associated with sleep, each stage plays a critical role and is important. In the next section, we’ll explore some methods for measuring and tracking your sleep.
Measuring and Tracking Your Sleep
The amount of time you sleep is important but how well you are sleeping is an even more important metric. Here are some methods to help you track your sleep.
Use a daily sleep journal for 1-2 months, tracking some very specific measurements such as:
- Estimated total time in bed (from what time to what time).
- Estimated total time asleep.
- Number of time you (or your partner) remembers you waking or getting up.
- Did you need your alarm to wake up?
- Did you feel rested after sleep or still very tired? (Note: slow and groggy in the morning isn’t necessarily a sign of bad sleep).
- Did you feel very tired midday, need to take an afternoon nap, or need some afternoon caffeine?
- Did you feel more soreness, stiffness or pain in your body than you would have expected throughout the day?
- Did you feel less mental alertness, focus or memory than usual during the day?
- Did you feel less emotinally resilient or more stressed out than usual during the day?
For this sleep-journal exercise answer 1-4 when you first wake up and 5-9 before you go to bed that evening. This exercise alone will help you know if you are sleeping well enough to improve your health and perform at your peak.
There are quite a few wearables and other devices that can help you know if you’re getting the optimal quantity and quality of sleep each night. I’ll include some links to the solutions I’ve personally used or am familiar with. Note: I’m not affiliated with any of these companies. The benefit of a good sleep tracking wearable is that in addition to your subjective, manual sleep journal, you can also see a good estimate of how much time you’re spending in each stage of sleep. The combination of these personal data can help you know where you’re struggling and how to potentially improve your sleep quality and duration which we’ll discuss in part 2 of this article.
Since this isn’t a technical review of sleep trackers I won’t get into the specifications, pros, and cons of each one. There are hundreds of blogs out there comparing these and many more trackers like them. Just be aware that most review blogs are also affiliates and while they seem to provide an unbiased review, they do have a financial incentive for you to click and buy specific products from their page.
My Top 3 Sleep Trackers:
You may note that the Apple watch is conspicuously not on the list. The reason for that is I just don’t think it’s a very good solution for tracking sleep. I’ve found it lacks both precision and accuracy compared to some other trackers.
It’s estimated that 60-75% of Americans struggle with sleep and it is even more common for entrepreneurs and high achievers to miss out on this vital part of health. There are tons of purported solutions to help you sleep including devices, supplements, drugs and activities like sleep hygiene. It’s difficult to know exactly what to try unless we first have a good baseline understanding of our overall sleep quality and where we may be struggling. I encourage you to take some time to get to know your own sleep strengths and weaknesses. In the following part of this series on sleep, we’ll explore some practical and evidence-based solutions you can use to optimize this critical component of your health and performance.
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