How not to sleepwalk through your workday
Insomnia—or difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep interfering with wakefulness—can sometimes make you feel like your productivity has gone out to lunch. Associated features of insomnia— whether acute or chronic—vary from person to person but usually include irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, fatigue, inattention, reduced concentration and processing speed, and loss of motivation. Not having restful deep sleep can negatively impact all areas of our lives and keep us from performing our best at work.
Authored by: Christina Pierpaoli Parker, PhD
So, after a rough night (or several), how can you go about your workday without sleepwalking through it?
Read below for a few evidence-based behavioral, environmental, and cognitive strategies to consider implementing after you’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.
Environmental factors play a large role in entraining our circadian rhythm and course-correcting our day after a rough night.
Strategy 1: Get lit
Light is one such factor. A zeitgeber—German for “time giver”— light works to synchronize our circadian rhythm, or our internal clock, via a drowsiness-promoting hormone called melatonin. Light—blue or otherwise—sends signals to photoreceptors in the retinas prompting the suprachiasmatic nucleus to stop producing melatonin. In other words, light interrupts its production, darkness promotes it. It’s for this reason humans sleep in darkness and remain active in daylight.
To shake off the heavy residue of a sleepless night, try to bathe your retinas in 15-30 minutes of sunlight upon waking and, ideally, as often as possible throughout your workday. If you work from home, consider working outside. Or at least try working near a window and keeping your office light and bright. And if you don’t have a window, quit your job.
In that case, consider setting alarms for every 30-60 minutes or so to remind yourself to step outside for a dose of sunlight, even just 5 minutes of it.
Strategy 2: Frontload your caffeine intake
Adenosine circulates throughout our central nervous system (CNS) to regulate the homeostatic sleep drive, one of the two systems involved in regulating human sleep and wakefulness. This system governs the increased propensity to sleep with more time spent awake. Increased wakefulness means more accumulated “pressure” to fall asleep. Adenosine builds this sleep pressure with and resets after sleeping.
Caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist, binding to adenosine receptor sites involved in accumulating sleep pressure, therefore blocking its buildup. In most healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life somewhere between 5 to 6 hours, meaning after 5 to 6 hours, 50% of the dose remains your CNS.
And after a night or two of insomnia, you might feel tempted to overconsume caffeine to get through your day – but don’t. This cycle can quickly get vicious, keeping you stuck using caffeine to mitigate fatigue during the day but impairing your ability to initiate and maintain sleep at night.
Keep your caffeine handy and convenient in the morning but aim to eliminate it after 12 PM, especially if you experience insomnia.
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What we do (or don’t) during the day can perpetuate symptoms of fatigue at work and maintain our insomnia symptoms at night.
Strategies 3 & 4: Breakup with prolonged sitting and move on
Accumulating evidence links prolonged, uninterrupted sitting to metabolic parameters, including blood pressure, obesity, insulin resistance, and blood glucose dysregulation. Aside from the metabolic consequences, whole working day sitting also impacts fatigue and cognition – potentially amplifying the effects of a bad night.
Some research, for example, has found employees report reduced fatigue across the day using sit-to-stand desks relative to seated work. Other studies comparing uninterrupted sitting with 3-minute bouts of light-intensity walking every 30 minutes reveal decreases in employees’ self-reported levels of drowsiness and sluggishness.
A host of reasons may explain why, including increased: 1) cerebral blood flow, 2) expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates neuronal activation and 3) enhanced availability of performance-enhancing neurotransmitters, including epinephrine and norepinephrine.
When you arrive at the office, consider standing at your desk – at least for a few minutes to start—and gradually adding time as your stamina, tolerance, and self-efficacy increase. And if you don’t have a convertible standing desk, adding a platform or a few thick books beneath your computer will do the trick.
On rough days, also make brief bouts of movement part of your work protocol – it’ll improve your fatigue now and benefit your sleep later.
Remember: sleep pressure, or the body’s “hunger” for sleep, accumulates with increased time spent awake. Mild, moderate, or vigorous daytime energy expenditure in any form – walking, swimming, taking the stairs— can stimulate sleep-promoting adenosine. More activity during the day means more sleep pressure and, usually, quicker, deeper, and more consolidated sleep at night.
Strategy 5: Do something new and slightly challenging
Have you ever noticed yourself on the verge of dozing off when you’re doing something repetitive and boring at work? That’s your brain’s way of saying, “thanks, but nothing to see here.”
Adaptation to a dynamic world promotes survival, and our brains have evolved to remember salient events diverging from business as usual.
Novel and slightly challenging experiences induce dopamine release in the hippocampus, promoting attention and memory. The nucleus accumbens—which receives direct projections from the hippocampus— also plays a significant role in motivation, reward, pleasure, and even slow-wave (or deep) sleep. When these regions of the brain go un or under-stimulated, we may feel drowsy.
In other words, novel (vs. repetitive, unchallenging, familiar) stimuli/tasks not only activate regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure, they also keep us present and captivated. This trifecta of pleasure, presence, and captivation usually feels energizing.
This doesn’t mean shirking your work responsibilities after a sleepless night. But during those moments of intense dragging, consider briefly pivoting to a new project rather than opting for something routine or repetitive. Once your energy levels perk up, you can revisit the stale, boring stuff.
Our thoughts and appraisals about a bad night of sleep and its consequences for our productivity can also influence how we participate in vs. sleepwalk through our workday.
Strategy 6: Reframe
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) makes a few assumptions – chiefly that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have synergistic and reciprocal relationships. Our thoughts influence our feelings, our feelings influence our behaviors, and our behaviors influence our physical health.
We can’t directly control how we feel, but we can control what we do and think in response to those feelings. Similarly, while we can’t *directly* control our sleep on any given night, but we can influence how we respond to a rough night to reduce its hold over us during the workday.
It’s easy to catastrophize, and if you find yourself doing this most nights of the week and experience associated issues falling or staying asleep, seek treatment.
In the meantime, consider this reframe: the body is always attempting to achieve homeostasis. A bad night of sleep last night significantly increases the odds of having better sleep tonight.
See each night as a new night— it doesn’t matter what happened last night. Sleep naturally unfolds when we allow ourselves to let go of conscious activities, including deliberate efforts to make sleep happen.
Strategy 7: Practice radical acceptance
But sometimes, examining and challenging our thoughts can feel fatiguing, especially if you already feel fatigued. Radical acceptance describes seeing reality as it is, without judgment. It doesn’t mean we like, invite, or want our pain (in whatever form it takes) – it just means we stop fighting with it. Counterintuitively, radically accepting and seeing our daytime fatigue with compassion can give us the cognitive and emotional bandwidth to start changing our reality. But changing reality requires first accepting reality, not rejecting it.
Rough nights happen to everyone – but implementing a few basic behavioral, environmental, and cognitive tools on the backend can keep you from sleepwalking through the day.
Using caffeine strategically as well as implementing light, movement, and novelty into your workday routine can help. You may even consider asking for a convertible standing desk. But don’t underestimate the contribution of your thoughts to your energy levels. Reframing your thoughts and sticking to the facts, not grappling with them, can give you the emotional and cognitive bandwidth you need to get through the day.