Stop Letting Work Sabotage Your Sleep
Prevent late-night work from keeping you up at night with these three expert-backed tips.
If you’re like many people right now, you don’t have a cubicle or a commute to separate your work and personal life. You may find yourself eating dinner while you reply to emails, or falling behind on the series you usually unwind with because you’re busy checking things off your to-do list. You might think that putting in extra hours will help you sleep better because, well, once you do power down, you’re exhausted. But experts say it doesn’t really work that way.
“Working late, particularly on a computer screen, can lead to a physical and psychological state of hyperarousal similar to how caffeine or nicotine can affect you, and it can reduce the quality and efficiency of your sleep,” says Charles Samuels, MD, the medical director for the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance, in Calgary, Alberta.
Let’s say it’s 9 pm and you reply to an email about a high-pressure project. Twenty minutes later, you’re still thinking about it as you brush your teeth. Fifteen minutes after that, you climb into bed. Instead of feeling tired, you’re wired, which makes it harder to drift off and stay asleep.
“Working late, particularly on a computer screen, can lead to a physical and psychological state of hyperarousal similar to how caffeine or nicotine can affect you.”
Charles Samuels, MD, Medical Director for the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance
There are two factors at play here: technology and the work itself. Exposure to short-wave blue light from your computer and phone can cause your brain to drag its feet on releasing melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep, says Samuels. (Quick sidebar: TV screens might not emit the same wavelength of light as the other devices do, says Samuels, so watching one episode of something relaxing before bed shouldn’t disrupt your Z’s.)
And if what you’re working on is emotionally or cognitively stimulating, “the net effect is that it takes longer to fall asleep, slashing your total sleep time, so you feel less rested the next day,” says Samuels. You may be getting less REM (rapid eye movement) sleep too, he adds. According to the National Sleep Foundation, REM is the cycle of sleep believed to benefit learning, memory and mood. Being the high achiever that you are, you probably don’t want to skimp on that.
Assuming your manager isn't cool with extending some deadlines so you can get a full seven-plus hours of sleep every night (and if so, kudos to them), here are a few things you can do to protect your sleep.
- Put a Hard Stop to Blue Light
Melatonin secretion generally begins four to six hours before bed. While there’s no definitive timeline for when to shut things down, Samuels says four hours before bedtime is ideal, and an hour is the minimum. If you need a daily reminder, put it in your work calendar as a recurring meeting. If you’ve got too much to do, either print what you can, or download a blue light–filter app or wear blue light–blocking glasses, which have special lenses to remove that sleep-disrupting wavelength.
- Clock In Early
Think you’re being creative and doing good work at 2 am? The science is stacked against you. “Cognitive effectiveness, which is essentially how quickly, accurately and easily your brain processes things, is always better on a fully rested mind,” says Samuels. If you’re working abnormal or extra hours, do your most mentally demanding tasks when you feel the most alert rather than when you’re wrapping up for the day. “Because you’re putting in the hard hours earlier, your sleep quality will be better — and your work quality will be better too,” says Samuels.
- Make a Routine and Stick to It
A schedule that’s all over the place can disrupt how your body functions (aka your circadian rhythm, or what drives when you naturally sleep and wake), and it’s been tied to weight gain and feeling emotionally down, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. If you can’t help but work late, you can train your body to get used to it, like nurses on an overnight shift do. Try pushing your dinnertime, bedtime and wake time all to a later hour, says Linda Sackett-Lundeen, a research scientist at the Halberg Chronobiology Center at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Just keep your new times consistent.
And keep in mind that the best workers are the ones who take care of themselves off the clock. By prioritizing your sleep, you’re doing your team a solid too.
Words: Marjorie Korn
Illustration: Ryan Johnson