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Quick hacks to functioning at work on little sleep

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Less than five per cent of the world’s population are naturally short sleepers. Margaret Thatcher was theorised to be such a person – she allegedly slept for only four hours a night. 

While it isn’t easy to pinpoint when Thatcher first took to her minimal sleep schedule, the figure of four hours has passed into lore. It is now used as a benchmark of endurance. CEOs from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! to Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi get by on four hours a night, while Donald Trump claimed to survive on three. And even if you sleep for over four hours, one all-nighter or late night out can ruin how you feel the next day – and we’re not talking about a hangover.

You might expect that losing a small amount of sleep wouldn’t matter at all, but even a minor reduction can dramatically effect you. In 2003, Gregory Belenky of the Sleep And Performance Research Centre at Washington State University staged one of the world’s most comprehensive studies into sleep loss.

Volunteers who obtained nine hours’ sleep each night remained highly alert, while those spending just three or five hours in bed quickly became tired and inattentive. However, the results from those getting seven hours’ sleep per night proved especially surprising. Although these volunteers assured researchers they were as wide awake as those on nine hours, the data revealed a different story.

Spend just a few nights sleeping for seven hours or less and your brain goes into slow motion, Belenky suggested. To make matters worse, you will continue to feel fine and so won’t make allowances for your sluggish mind. 

Oddly enough, though, someone who is severely sleep deprived is in fact as attentive and awake as someone who isn’t. There’s just one big difference: they can only deliver the exact same results as someone who isn’t given it is a non-repeated exercise and they give it their best shot

“The main finding is that the brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes, but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure,” said Clifford Saper from Harvard. So the trick lies in trying to stay alert, and there are definitely ways to help make the day easier and actually get things done. You probably won’t feel too cheery, but you can avoid turning into a zombie at least.

There are quite a few quick-fixes. For example, go for a walk outside, splash some cold water on your face, have some strong gum, talk to someone, tidy your desk a bit or even massage your hands.

According to experts, however, you can check quite a few things off your “how to wake up” list early on. One of the biggest tips seems to be resisting the urge to hit the snooze button on your alarm when it goes off. 

“Oh my goodness. No snooze,” said Orfeu Buxton, a professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Don’t insult yourself like that.” Buxton suggested that those seven-minute extra increments of dozing aren’t actually restorative sleep and won’t make you any more alert. You’d do better to set your alarm for the latest possible moment, or even put the alarm far from the bed so you would have no choice but to get up and turn the noise off.

Research also suggested that eating within an hour of waking up will boost your mood and cognitive performance for the early part of your day. Like with your snooze button, you’re going to have to exercise some willpower here, too; sleepy people tend to crave simple carbs and sugar, Buxton said, but those are a bad bet for the sleep-deprived.

“Anything that causes that sugar spike and insulin spike is followed by a crash, so it’s going to make you more sleepy later,” he said. Stick to whole grains, protein, maybe a little fruit. “The junk will help, but only for about 20 minutes. It’s exactly like the snooze button,” Buxton said.

But, of course, what would a guide to hacking your way awake be without adding coffee to the mix? You’ll feel groggy just after waking up – this is something researchers call sleep inertia – but after 20 or 30 minutes, the fog will begin to clear a bit. “After that sleep inertia phase, there’ll be a rebound period of alertness,” Buxton said. “There’s the least reason to have coffee then. That coffee will be much more helpful midday.” 

It also helps to get your toughest tasks done first. Don’t fall into the trap of tackling the important things later on thinking you’ll be more awake – unfortunately this may be the most alert you’ll be all day, so take advantage of it. Buxton said: “A different construct would be: I’m almost totally out of gas; I need to use all of that for the most important things, and nothing else.”

Maybe try lying low that day. You might consider rescheduling meetings or phone calls, if possible. Of course, positive interactions with others are rewarding and alerting,, but the problem is the sleep-deprived person in that interaction. Buxton suggested that sleep-deprived people are less able to detect others’ nonverbal cues, that they are “more curmudgeonly, and not the most communicative” in team situations.

“So if you’re feeling surly, maybe you should avoid people, and not set yourself up for failure,” he continued. “It’s really best to interact with others when you can be your best.” 

You can even take a YouTube break. Better yet, take a cat video break – seriously. It was suggested that even if people watched cat videos on YouTube to procrastinate or while they should be working, the emotional pay-off may actually help them take on tough tasks afterward. In other words, watching cat videos could make you a force to be reckoned with in the office – and it’s all because watching cats fall, chase things, or get humiliated by being dressed in shark suits, make us happy and hopefully helps wake us up a bit.

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