Why Sleep Is The MOST Important Habit For A Successful Life

Dark blue sky at night and crescent moon sleeping

Today, we’re going to talk about the most important habit of all: sleep.

We all know that habits are essential for effective (and efficient) personal growth.

According to studies, almost half of what we do every day is done on autopilot, so it’s really no surprise that, in order to become a better person, achieve your goals, and live a better life, you need to incorporate good habits in your day-to-day life.

Good habits can make you happier, more productive, more focused, more successful.

Now, what do most people do when they finally understand the importance of habits?

They read some books or blog posts, they create a list of the “most important habits” they need to form, and then they attempt to incorporate several of these into their life, all at the same time.

Do you struggle with forming good habits because of this same mistake?

If yes, stop it. Trying to do too many things at the same time is never the right strategy.

However, even if you do choose only one single habit to focus on, you can still struggle with incorporating it into your daily life and sticking with it on the long-term.

That’s because you’ve chosen the wrong habit to start with.

The Most Important Habit That Too Many People “Forget”

There are these so-called “keystone habits” that, once they are formed, start a positive chain effect that makes it easier to succeed in all other areas of life. Though, the same is true for bad habits, so pay attention to those as well.

Now, there is one keystone habit that is “more keystone” than others, and this is sleep.

Sadly, while good sleep is easily the most important habit, it’s also one of the most overlooked.

Most people focus on other things like how to be productive, focused, happy, energetic, etc.

They forget one tiny detail: all of these are heavily influenced by the quality of your sleep.

Without adequate sleep, you can forget about doing well in other areas of life.

That’s why today we’re going to discover (or rather, “remind” ourselves of) the importance of good sleep.

I don’t know if you yourself are sleep deprived or not, but there’s one thing I can say for sure: there are way too many people that completely undervalue the importance of sleep.

If you have been consistently not getting the right amount and quality of sleep, or know of someone that doesn’t, perhaps your family members, I encourage you to do one thing:

Keep reading, this article is for you. You will see how sleep works, benefits of sleep, and effects of lack of sleep.

I’ll try to explain everything without using too much jargon, so you can understand easily.

Well, it’s also because I am absolutely not a “science guy”, so I myself wouldn’t really understand too much of the specialized language 😉

How Sleep Works—A Few Basics to Know

Before looking into the benefits of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation, it’s best to first learn about how sleep works.

There will be a few scientific terms, but don’t worry, they are not that scary.

Circadian Rhythm

All humans have an internal 24-hour clock, called “circadian rhythm”. It basically determines when we want to be awake and when we want to be asleep.

It also controls many other things, like our preferred time for eating and drinking, our moods and emotions, our core body temperature, our metabolic rate.

A typical 24-hour cycle looks something like this:

24-hour circadian rhythm
Image from Wikimedia Commons (Link)

Obviously, it changes from person to person, and it’s influenced by factors like light, time of the day, and melatonin.

The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus

Uhm… Suprachias-what?

You only need to know two things about it:

  1. It’s pronounced “soo-pra-kai-as-mat-ik”
  2. It sits in the middle of our brain, representing the 24-hour biological clock that follows and controls our circadian rhythm.

Melatonin

Melatonin is often called the “sleep hormone”, since it is a hormone that induces our brain to desire sleep.

Immediately after dusk, the suprachiasmatic nucleus “orders” melatonin to rise in quantity. This is why melatonin is also called the “hormone of darkness”, since it starts increasing in quantity when the sun goes down.

Note that melatonin does not influence how we generate sleep. It only tells our brain “It’s time to get ready for sleep!”.

Adenosine and “Sleep Pressure”

Adenosine is a chemical substance that builds up starting from the moment we wake up. The longer we are awake, the more adenosine will accumulate.

And the more adenosine accumulates in our brain, the more we feel the “sleep pressure” and desire to go to bed.

Normally, most people feel a strong urge to sleep after being awake for twelve to sixteen hours.

There’s no way to stop adenosine from accumulating.

What About Coffee?

Coffee beans

Many people use caffeine (which is commonly found in drinks like coffee and tea, or foods like dark chocolate) to “cheat” and avoid sleepiness. Well, a LOT of people drink coffee even when they don’t really need it, but do it just because it’s become a habit, or just because “who the hell would be such a loser to order milk or juice at the bar instead of coffee or cappuccino?”)

Anyway, how does caffeine disrupt sleep? In short, it “steals” adenosine’s favorite spots in the brain, and from there it blocks the sleepiness signal that would normally go to the brain.

This way, as long as there’s caffeine circulating in our blood, we won’t feel much desire to sleep.

But there are main 3 reasons why caffeine is not a perfect solution:

    1. Caffeine only blocks the sleep signal, but doesn’t stop adenosine from accumulating. Once your liver destroys this “caffeine barrier”, you are hit with both the sleepiness you would have experienced hours before if you hadn’t consumed caffeine and all the adenosine that has accumulated in the meantime. This will disrupt your sleep patterns.
    2. Our body takes on average 10 to 14 hours to get rid of caffeine completely. This means that if you drink a cup of coffee after dinner, let’s say 8 pm, by 2 am there will be a good 50% of caffeine that’s still very active. The remaining 50% will not only make it hard to fall asleep, but it will keep opposing and disrupting sleep quality throughout the night.
      This also means that if you want to go to sleep earlier than 2 am (like you should), let’s say 10 pm, you should drink coffee only in the morning, or not drink it at all.
    3. Even though so many people are into the habit of drinking coffee, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Caffeine is a stimulant drug, so it’s very addictive. If possible, avoid consuming too much of it.

But…!

Now, since I get the same kind of complaints whenever I suggest that cutting back on caffeine might be a good idea, and since you might say the same things they already tell me, I want to quickly confirm my position.

Some of the things they usually say to me are:

  • “Caffeine has many benefits, you know? You are probably not informed enough.”
  • “Why do you think so many people drink coffee? And why do you think so many recipes involve the use of coffee?”
  • “If it really was so harmful then people would stop drinking coffee. This means that it’s ok to keep consuming it.”
  • “You’re an idiot.”

And the answer I like to give is: Yes, and No.

  • YES, coffee has many benefits. It may enhance your brain functions, improve your energy levels, protect your liver. It might also lower the risk of Parkinson’s, of Alzheimer’s, of Type 2 Diabetes.
  • YES, it is extremely popular and widely consumed, and for many people drinking a cup of coffee every day has basically become mainstream.
    But NO, “So many people do X thing” is not a good argument and it doesn’t mean that these “many people” are always right.
  • NO, even though it has so many benefits, you should still cut back on coffee.
    Why? Because if you start increasing the quantity of caffeine you consume, there will be bad consequences, like anxiety, tooth decay, disrupted sleep (and all the negative effects related to it, like we’re going to see in a minute).
    And guess what, you will want to consume more, because caffeine is an addicting substance.
    Now, do you even need a reason for NOT becoming addicted to something? 
  • Finally, YES. I’m always open to the possibility that I am the real idiot and that other people are probably smarter than me.

I hope I proved my point.

If you want to keep drinking coffee, you’re absolutely free to do so! I mean, I’m not here trying to impose anything on anyone.

I’m just suggesting what I believe can be beneficial to you. That’s my only reason for writing what I write on this site.

Ok, enough coffee, let’s keep learning about sleep.

Sleep Stages

In 1952, professor Kleitman and his assistant Aserinsky made an outstanding discovery: humans don’t just sleep. They cycle through two different types of sleep: NREM Sleep (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM Sleep (Rapid-Eye Movement).

They gave these names based on the fact that when humans sleep, their eyes don’t stay still, but move more or less rapidly from one side to the other.

When we sleep, we sleep in cycles. Every sleep cycle lasts on average 90 minutes, and starts with NREM sleep, followed by REM sleep.

NREM Sleep

NREM sleep is divided into stages 1-3 (previously 1-4), with increasing depth and therefore difficulty required to wake up.

Every sleep cycle starts with NREM 1, during which you are easily “wakeable”.

In the last stage, stage 3 (formerly 3+4), happens the deepest sleep, from which even your neighbor singing Nessun Dorma in the middle of the night wouldn’t easily wake you up.

One of the key functions of NREM sleep (more on that later) is to relax our body and repair our muscles and immune system.

REM Sleep

REM sleep is the sleep stage in which we dream.

During this “dreaming stage”, our brain activity is incredibly active, almost like when we’re awake.

While NREM takes care mostly of our body, REM sleep focuses on our brain, helping us recover mentally.

Which Sleep Stage Is The Best?

One interesting thing about sleep cycles is that they are never the same.

When sleeping, at first NREM lasts longer than REM, but the longer we sleep (and the more cycles we go through), the more REM sleep dominates the sleep cycles.

So a question comes to mind: Is NREM sleep better than REM sleep? Or the other way around?

The answer is both. Both NREM and REM sleep have essential functions.

Not giving yourself enough of either one of the two is like saying “Welcome!” to all sorts of physical and mental problems.

Bad (REALLY Bad) Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Now here’s the good stuff everyone kind of knows, doesn’t know, or knows but chooses to ignore: What sleep deprivation does.

There are so many negative effects that we could be talking for hours.

No way there are so many! I’ve been sleeping less than 6 hours a night for years and I’m just fine!

Yeah, you’re fine. Except that you’re not.

Maybe you’ve gotten so used to your low energy levels and low alertness that you think it’s normal. But you’re not “doing just fine” sleeping so little.

True, there are actually some people that have a special gene that allows them to do well with just a few hours of sleep every night, but they are really (really) rare, and you’re probably not one of ‘em.

“The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population, and rounded to a whole number, is zero.”
— Dr. Thomas Roth

Now let’s just take a look at some effects of sleep deprivation:

1. Lack of Sleep Destroys Your Concentration

Woman in red T-shirt looking at her laptop and feeling stressed

Even a tiny dose of sleep deprivation will hugely impact your ability to focus.

If you aren’t able to concentrate, good luck with being productive.

The books you need to read, the projects you need to work on, the test you need to study for… Sorry, but you won’t be able to make progress in any important task you have.

So what do you do when you just can’t focus? You procrastinate. Perfect.

Not getting enough sleep is the ideal strategy for those who want to be Mr or Miss Zero Productivity.

2. Sleep Deprivation Makes You “Pass Out” Frequently

Emoji representing sleep deprivation and microsleeps

When under the effects of lack of sleep, you will frequently experience “microsleeps”, which only last for a few seconds.

Maybe it’s not that big of a deal, right?

But what if it happens when driving? We all know how big of a difference a few seconds of distraction can make when driving, especially if at a high speed.

In this case, we’re not even talking about distraction, nor are we talking about slow reflexes typical of drunk drivers.

No, microsleeps are worse.

“Microsleeping” means becoming completely unconscious for a few seconds, during which a person is not aware of anything happening around them.

Sadly, like I wrote in a few paragraphs above, many people have been sleep-deprived for so long that they don’t even know they are sleep-deprived, and have gotten used to it.

So what happens when sleep-deprived people say “I’m fine, I can drive”, just like those who have had a little too many drinks but still think they can drive home?

It happens that every year there’s a terrible amount of accidents caused by drowsy driving.

3. When You’re Sleep Deprived You Are Emotionally Unstable

Angry man wearing brown suit jacket speaking on the phone

“Why such a long face? Didn’t you sleep well last night?”

Have you ever said or heard this phrase (or any variant of it)? Don’t tell me you haven’t, because I won’t believe you.

It’s common knowledge that when someone doesn’t sleep well at night (or doesn’t sleep at all), the following day they are in such a bad mood that they will literally punch you if you even dare to say “Good morning!”

What’s the scientific explanation for this emotional reactivity that follows a bad night’s sleep?

In short: amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is located in the left and right side of the brain, and plays a key role in triggering strong emotions like anger and rage.

The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain located just above our eyeballs, and it is associated with the ability of making rational, logical thoughts and decisions.

Basically, what happens in a sleep-deprived individual is that:

  • their amygdala shows a remarkable amplification in emotional reactivity
  • their prefrontal cortex is “put to sleep”

So a person that hasn’t slept well tends to have an unstable mood that swings from being extremely negative (suicidal thoughts, aggression, behavioral problems) to extremely positive (hypersensitivity to pleasure, sensation-seeking, addiction), without any control given by the prefrontal cortex, which would normally act as a regulatory brake.

A good sleep is really essential for a person’s emotional health.

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”
— E. Joseph Cossman

4. Insufficient Sleep Makes You Dumber

Conversation between teacher and student about Pythagorean theorem

The brain structure that has a key role in memory and learning is called the hippocampus.

Have you ever watched the movie Memento, directed by Cristopher Nolan? No? That’s fine.

If you just watch the first 20 seconds of the trailer, you will find that the main character is unable to make new memories.

That’s because his hippocampus has been severely damaged.

And sleep deprivation does exactly that: it attacks your hippocampus, blocking your brain’s capacity for new learning.

So many students stay up late because they have “still so many things to study”. But it’s exactly because they don’t sleep enough that they aren’t able to study well and always end up having “still so many things  to study”. The same is true for most workers, too.

Effects of Lack of Sleep On Your Body

Ok, I see you’re getting bored, so let’s just outline a few more and go on, sounds good?

Insufficient sleep doesn’t only affect your brain, obviously.

Our body also feels the effects of lack of sleep:

  • Demolished immune system. Sleep uses all its resources to fight against sickness and infection. It’s not a coincidence that when we fall ill, our immune system demands more rest and we constantly feel the need for sleep.
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease;
  • Excessive desire to eat, despite being full;
  • Disrupted blood sugar levels, to a level that’s almost pre-diabetic;
  • Increased risk of stroke;
  • Higher probability of developing Alzheimer in life;
  • Etc.

Hey! Wake up! I finished listing the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

I had actually researched all these consequences of lack of sleep, but I decided not to analyze all of them in this article.

Because I’m not a sleep expert, and the main purpose of this blog and this article is to help you achieve more in life, and I guess you’re not here to learn everything about sleep, either.

So I think that explaining in-depth the first 4 points (effects of sleep deprivation on your brain) is already enough.

Also I didn’t want you to… fall asleep while reading an article about sleep.

Benefits of Sleep

Finally, we’re here to talk about the benefits of sleep.

Actually, we could already stop now.

I mean, we’ve seen all those negative effects caused by lack of sleep, right?

So it’s pretty obvious that, in order to avoid all those bad things, there’s one simple solution:

Get. Adequate. Sleep.

Avoiding all those negative effects is already a huge benefit and a good reason for giving more importance to sleep, don’t you agree?

However, I do want to talk about the additional benefits of sleep related to something very important: learning.

Sleep Improves Your Memory and Learning Skills

Sleeping is beneficial to your brain and your memory both before and after learning.

Sleep Before Learning

Sleep restores the brain’s capacity and makes room for new learning and new memories. This happens during stage 2 of NREM sleep, and is especially related to sleep spindles.

What are sleep spindles?

During stage 2 of NREM sleep, our brain activity is not always calm and slow. There are actually frequent little bursts of brain activity.

Those are called sleep spindles, and the more you can generate, the better your brain restores its learning ability.

Especially during the last few hours of sleep (out of the 7-9 hours of sleep recommended for adults and young adults), between long periods of REM sleep, there’s a high quantity of these NREM sleep spindles.

If you only sleep 6 hours or less, you are giving up on the great benefits that they give to your brain.

Sleep After Learning

During the day, you have read books, studied for a test, or practiced a speech.

Now, at night, sleep will protect the new information you’ve learned and consolidate it.

Again, deep NREM sleep is the crucial stage for memorizing information. The more deep NREM sleep you get, the more you will remember the day after.

Interestingly, it’s been found that when we want to retrieve information, we fetch memories from the short-term storage site of the hippocampus (the brain structure related to memory and learning, remember?).

However, after a good night’s sleep we tend to retrieve the same desired information not from the hippocampus, but from the neocortex, which is a region that serves as a long-term storage site for fact-based memories.

Basically, after you have slept at night, you wake up with both yesterday’s experiences safely saved in your long-term memory and a restored short-term capacity for new learning.

Sleep Makes You A Better Athlete or Musician

Silhouette of a running woman and hands playing piano

Sleep doesn’t just influence the learning of fact-based information, but it will also enhance your learning of every motor skill, like ping-pong, riding a bike, or playing an instrument.

Now, have you ever heard of “muscle memory”? Well, it’s a misnomer. There’s no such a thing as a memory of the muscle.

Muscle memory is in fact brain memory. Strong and well-trained muscles can help you execute the skill better, but it’s the brain that memorizes all the movements you need to make.

What’s amazing is that sleep after practice will transfer the new memories not to the long-term memory we saw before, but to certain brain circuits that allow you to automate the movements you practiced during the day, making them more and more second-nature.

If you’re a pianist, for example, you must have experienced the magic of sleeping and, after waking up, being able to play a certain part of a piece you just couldn’t play correctly the previous day.

Remember the sleep spindles we talk about earlier? Well, they influence all parts of the brain, but they apparently put a lot of emphasis on those parts that have been trained the most during the day.

So yeah, if you’ve been learning tennis, piano, dancing, etc. for a while, and you haven’t seen any meaningful progress, maybe it’s because you are not getting enough sleep (and sleep spindles).

Why Do We Dream? Does Dreaming Have Any Benefits?

For a long time, scientists haven’t been able to give a unanimous explanation of why we dream, but now… they still don’t.

Though, one thing is sure: Mother Nature doesn’t do things by chance. If we have been given the ability of dreaming, there must be a reason behind it.

There are actually some theories that show how dreams do have reasons to exist.

I find two of these extremely interesting and useful.

Time (Spent In REM Sleep) Heals All Wounds

Dreams are a good way to heal our emotional wounds.

How?

First of all, REM sleep gives you an optimal environment for relaxing, by shutting off all concentrations of a stress-related chemical, called noradrenaline.

During this period of time, our brain is completely anxiety-free. In fact, REM sleep might be the only time of the day during which we can have such an experience.

This way, dreaming allows you to relive a certain memory without having to experience all the emotions you felt at the time it happened.

This helps you deal with your emotional wounds in a safe, stress-free, and anxiety-free environment, and overcome them.

You might not remember dreaming about it, but you probably went through this process without realizing.

Think about when you were “friendzoned” or brutally rejected by someone you liked. I bet that for the first few days you felt… not exactly happy. But now, if enough time has passed, you wouldn’t feel anything close to what you felt at the time. Apparently you have REM sleep to thank for this.

Dreams Make You More Creative

Light bulb on wooden table

Another benefit of REM sleep is that it processes information intelligently, and allows you to improve your creativity and problem-solving skills.

Countless musicians, painters, scientists, writers, etc. have credited their dreams for their most creative and unique work.

When we start dreaming, we are set free from the chains of the obvious, and our brain starts searching for non-obvious connections between different memories and information.

By doing so, it allows us to come up with incredible ideas and intelligent solutions to problems.

Ever heard anyone telling you to “sleep on something”? Well, it’s great advice.

Do Not Neglect Sleep Anymore

Sleep is the most important habit ever.

Sorry, just wanted to make sure you won’t forget it.

I mean, have you ever had difficulties with:

  • Being productive?
  • Focusing and concentrating?
  • Feeling more energetic?
  • Sticking to a healthy diet?
  • Memorizing new information?
  • Learning skills?
  • Feeling happier and not often in a bad mood?

Hm? Well, sleep can help you solve these problems.

Honestly, what is actually difficult is trying to understand why anyone would decide to willingly deprive themselves of sleep.

There are individuals that unfortunately are unable to sleep normally and would give all the money they have in exchange for the ability of sleeping normally.

Look, evolution spent millions of years perfecting sleep, making it the most effective and efficient possible, and then humans decided that “No, thanks. I have more important stuff to do.”

Isn’t that crazy?

Don’t make the same mistake other people make. Prioritize sleep. You won’t regret it.

If you were to trade your sleep hours for something else, there wouldn’t be anything that’s even remotely as valuable as sleep.

By putting good sleep at the top of your priorities, you will become more productive, more focused, more energetic, more capable of learning, more happy (I just wanted to spam the word more, more), and many other invaluable benefits.

In short: you will live a better life.

There’s nothing else that needs to be said, except for one last thing:

Make good sleep a priority, NOW.

But remember: don’t overdo it, this is not an invitation to become a sloth 😉

Want to know some effective ways to get better sleep? Read the next post: How to Sleep Better.

 

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a scientist, I’m not a sleep expert, and I’m not a doctor. I am just a blogger and writer that likes researching, reading, and studying anything that can improve a person’s life. The only reason I’m talking about sleep is to show you how sleep and personal improvement are strictly related, and how good sleep will be of great help on your road to achieving a successful life. I’ve consulted sources that are considered reliable, but since I am not an expert, I can’t say I made zero errors, so please let me know if I wrote something that is not true,

Sources consulted: SleepFoundation.orgHealthline.com, Sleep.org, Why We Sleep

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