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How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Clients sometimes ask me how much sleep they should be getting. What they’re really asking is “How little sleep can I get away with?”

Here I want to look at the question from a different perspective. What do you gain by having ‘enough’ sleep? Then, how much is that for you?

Studies have shown that when people are short of just a couple of hours sleep each night, they experience a significant reduction in their ability to think clearly. Their thinking becomes so impaired that it is equivalent to being over the drink-drive limit.

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Recently I read a report that here in the UK about 20% of all drivers involved in road traffic accidents are in some way sleep-deprived – not whole nights without sleep but just a few hours here or there. NASA’s high speed jet pilots are not permitted to fly for three days after they’ve had a bad night’s sleep (after all those machines do cost rather a lot of money).

In a moment I’ll share the current thinking about a good target for the amount of sleep needed, but first, let’s see if you are getting enough sleep.

Consider one of your relatively routine weeks, one where you get up at a roughly similar time each day, starting work at the same time. Does an alarm clock wake you up? If it does, then you’re short of sleep.

Of course there are folks who work shifts, or travel a lot, or for one reason or another keep changing what time they need to wake up. In these situations, of course you’ll need an alarm clock, and yes – you will usually be slightly sleep-deprived.

Here is a second test that I asked some of my clients to try. Sometime during the day, say about 2-3 hours after you’ve woken up and 4-5 hours before your normal bedtime, go and find a quiet place. A quiet, dark and comfortably warm place to be, ideally lying on a bed. Now for 15 minutes just do nothing. If you find that your mind is racing and stimulating you, then just bring your attention back to being there in this quiet dark still place. Nothing fancy – just do that. If you fall asleep at any time then you are short of sleep. If you know that you’ll need to set an alarm to let you know when the 15 minutes is up, well, you know the answer already…

Current scientific thinking is that for most of us seven hours of sleep a night is what is needed. Not seven hours in bed, but seven hours of sleep. Now, I know there’s the odd exception like Margaret Thatcher with her famous four hours, but don’t forget to add on all the cat naps that she also took during the day.

Many top athletes are on the record as saying they will aim for between 10-12 hours of sleep a night, especially when in competition mode. A recent study of professional basketball players found that over a 6-week period, during which they deliberately extended their sleep by two hours per night, they experienced around a 10% improvement in performance -a phenomenal increase.

By all means see how little sleep you can get away with; however those around you will be dealing with somebody who is effectively ‘drunk.’ Are you at your best for them and for yourself?

Why not experiment for a couple of months to see if getting the sleep that you need can improve your life? Perhaps try to notice if some of the problems you thought you had at the outset might, at the very least, lessen. One or two might even diminish and go away.


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