Andy Reviews: 'Why We Sleep' by Matthew Walker

By Andy Blow | 4 Minute Read

I’m a pretty avid ‘reader’. I use the air quotes because, these days, I actually listen to most of the books I get through on audible.com. I often lack the dedicated time to sit down with a book as I do travel a lot, although driving and travelling provides me with the ideal time to get stuck into a good audio book.

I picked out ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker about a year ago after a particularly arduous work trip to the USA left me incredibly tired, ill and burnt out. During that trip I’d taken about 10 flights in 12 days (two of them ‘red eyes’) and suffered the inevitable jet lag that comes with leaping across eight time zones. (I wrote about avoiding overtraining and burnout in work, life and sport in a previous blog if that’s something you struggle with).

 

Why We Sleep Book

 

I was initially curious to understand more about exactly what only having an average of four to five hours of sleep a night for nearly two weeks had done to my body and mind, as it was clearly not very good at all.

I was getting lots of mouth ulcers, becoming very grumpy, suffering with minor colds and infections, as well as struggling to concentrate on any difficult mental tasks for more than a few minutes at a time. It also took me ages to recover from these symptoms, even though I’d resumed relatively normal sleep patterns soon after I got back home from the trip.

Suffice to say, what I learned from the book dramatically changed my approach to travel and sleep in general. It’s one book that I’ve basically been recommending to everyone I know ever since because anyone, not just athletes, can potentially gain so much from reading it.

 

Basketball Player Asleep

 

There’s a fantastic quote that communicates the key message of the book in a nutshell:

 

“There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process in the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).”

 

The funny thing is that whilst I think we all basically believe we know that sleep is important, ‘Why We Sleep’ breaks down in great detail how sleep ‘works’ from a physiological and psychological point of view.

There are the positive and restorative effects sufficient ‘shut-eye’ has on a host of the body’s systems and mental capabilities, while also revealing the negative effects even relatively modest sleep deficiencies can have on health, well-being, performance, and overall life expectancy.

I found that through gaining a deeper understanding of exactly what a lack of sleep does to you, I suddenly had a very powerful motivational tool to examine my own behaviours and attitudes, and to steer myself towards getting enough of it.

For example, when travelling through the US on work trips in the past, I would routinely choose to take ‘red eye’ flights to get more done in my limited time away from home. I would hit back-to-back meetings in different places without losing entire days to travel and to save money on hotel rooms. I figured I could catch enough sleep on the plane to ‘get by’.

I knew from experience that on the days after a ‘red eye’ I was definitely not on top form, but figured that the perceived efficiency and money saving made this discomfort justifiable. I'd convince myself that I’d just catch up on lost sleep at a later date.

 

Red Eye Flight

 

But, the book taught me the extent to which this kind of behaviour can be damaging to health in the long term (as well as to performance in the short term) and it made me reassess entirely whether it was a good idea.

As a result, I basically have a ‘no red eye’ rule now (with the exception of flying home to the UK from the USA, as there are few options that don’t go overnight), as well as accepting that I have to build ‘travel days’ into my trips in order to make sure I see a proper hotel bed every night.

This might mean less meetings in total, but it definitely improves my short-term working (and exercising) performance and is better for my long-term health.

I also found the section of the book covering circadian rhythms fascinating. It was very reassuring to learn that there really are ‘early birds’ and ‘night owls’ in the population and that there is a genetic basis for this.

For most of my adult life, I’ve found that I have a tendency to be an ‘early bird’ as I almost always want to get up at around 5.30-6.30am and I’m generally at my most productive in the first few hours of the day, before I start to fade in the late afternoon and early evening.

In total contrast, Dave, PH’s Marketing Director, is definitely more of a ‘night owl’ as he hates a pre-7:30am alarm call and often does a lot of his creative work late into the evening when my brain has already powered down for the night.

 

Night Owl

 

This makes for an interesting work dynamic in that if he wants me to proofread work or comment on work we’re collaborating on, he’ll often leave it in my inbox late at night and, even if I see it before I head to bed, I find it best practice to read and digest it first thing the next morning when my brain is at its most receptive.

Understanding each other’s dynamic makes working together much easier as it fosters empathy about how the other person feels if you ask them to do stuff at the ‘wrong’ end of the day for them, so that’s another very specific and positive outcome from reading the book.

A common thing that people say to me when I recommend ‘Why We Sleep’ to them is that, whilst it sounds vaguely interesting, they already know that they need more sleep so what could they possibly learn by reading a whole book about it?

My response is that, whilst they may be right about the outcome (yes, they probably do need to get more sleep!), gaining a much deeper understanding of why it is so beneficial in such a range of different areas of their life is the key to them actually doing something about it.

Get this book on your bedtime reading list!

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