“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” This seems to be a popular mantra amongst the go-getters of the world. In fact, I’d be willing to wager you’ve heard of at least one highly successful person who prides themselves on their ability to consistently crush goals with as little as three or four hours of sleep per night.
You might have made a similar statement yourself at times when life feels too chaotic or exhilarating to even think of cutting into productive wakeful hours to catch up on some Zzzzs. If others are succeeding with minimal sleep, then perhaps you can, too. Yet, you may continue to wonder, “how much sleep do I need to maintain high-achiever status without snoozing my life away?”
The key to answering this question is to find your own personal sweet spot that factors in your optimal restorative sleep duration, current lifestyle, and sustainable level of daily function.
In this article, I’ll discuss a simple 3-step process to explore and discover how much sleep you need to achieve the deceptively elusive trifecta of high performance, happiness, and health.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Step 1: Determine Your Target
Sleep health resources, including the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and SleepFoundation.org, lay out basic tables of how much sleep you need with recommended hours by age.
The information varies ever so slightly from site to site, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ve decided to present it as follows:
- Ages 18 to 64: seven to nine hours per night
- Ages 65+: seven to eight hours per night
These ranges may seem straightforward at first glance. However, when we attempt to integrate them into real life, they can end up feeling vague, which is less than helpful.
For example, let’s say you are an adult in the 18 to 64 age range. Your circumstances require that you get out of bed by 6 am each morning, so, according to these recommendations, you need to be asleep anywhere between 9 pm and 11 pm every night. Two hours difference might appear insignificant on paper, but when we are using this guideline to establish a sleep schedule, there’s actually quite a bit of wiggle room for personalized adjustment.
But how do you know what is the right bedtime for you?
When you are ready to be more deliberate and strategic with your sleep habits, there are some important questions to consider regarding your current bedtime. Do you choose according to a preconceived notion of what your bedtime should be? Do you decide based on how many tasks you could potentially complete during those two hours? Do you take a passive approach and just keep plugging away at to-dos until you start to doze off each night?
Next, ask yourself how well your existing routine (or lack thereof) has been working for you. Addressing this is the first step toward effective change. The following steps will help you to pinpoint your ideal number of sleep hours even further.
Step 2: Narrow Down Your Needs
Adding to the ambiguity of these sleep recommendation charts are the broad age ranges listed.
Like many people, I am more in-tune with my sleep needs now than when I was younger. In my 20s, life was all about making rent, partying with friends, and clambering to figure out my place and purpose in an adult world that I felt ill-equipped to navigate. Now, in my 40s, my lifestyle revolves around homeschooling a teen and tween, cultivating my gifts and skills to enhance my career, strengthening the bonds of a two-decade relationship with my partner, and learning how to master the advanced adulting skills I used to think were for “old people.”
Although I probably did need more sleep than I was getting in early adulthood, the stresses and responsibilities of my present lifestyle require even more intentional rest and recovery to thrive in all I do. If you take a moment to reflect, you might just find that the same rings true for you.
Consider all of the elements involved in your current stage of life. Do you still have children at home? Are they younger (and, therefore, highly demanding of your time and energy), or more self-sufficient?
Maybe your own kids are grown and now you’re a caregiver for your grandchildren. Perhaps you don’t have kids at all. You’re a caretaker for your aging parents, or you are one of the more than 10 percent of multigenerational caregiving adults in America who are responsible for the simultaneous care of your kids and your parents. Interestingly, this particular segment of the population is known to sleep almost a half-hour less each night than others in the same age group.
Whatever’s left of your attention is probably scattered between personal and professional growth endeavors, working to create security for your family’s future, and deepening the relationships that matter most to you.
It may be tempting to look at all of these duties collectively as a valid reason to opt for less sleep. After all, it is often our busiest seasons that preclude us from having space in our schedules for rest, right? I invite you to look at this from a different angle. Getting adequate restorative sleep supports your physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being.
But you are not only responsible for that. Your well-being is paramount to sustaining the daily energy, performance, and patience required for showing up as your best self in every aspect of your life. When you consider the consequences of not getting sufficient sleep and assess honestly, it is easier to determine which end of the sleep range to aim for.
Step 3: Expose Sneaky Sleep Deprivation Symptoms
As you can see, guidelines are not always the rigid cookie-cutter rules we sometimes perceive or expect them to be. Instead, it can be beneficial to think of them as reference points that assist in creating your personal baseline.
With this in mind, how can you finetune even further? This is where a solid practice of self-awareness makes all the difference. Understanding how much sleep you need requires the ability to pay attention to your brain and body cues. These are sometimes extremely subtle. They can also be seemingly unrelated to sleep, so it takes commitment and a bit of patient curiosity to master.
Here are some signs that your current sleep regimen is not aligned with your needs:
- Cravings for caffeine and/or carb-heavy foods (bread, cake, cookies, crackers, potatoes)
- Increased appetite
- Feeling cranky (either for no apparent reason, or more than seems rational)
- Grogginess or feeling unrested upon waking
- Forgetfulness or distractibility
- Decreased inspiration or motivation
- Lowered endurance during workouts or routine tasks
- Daytime drowsiness
If you struggle with any of these symptoms, this is a clear indication that your sleep needs are not being met. After taking the first two steps toward finding your ideal amount of sleep, it’s time to practice maintaining your decided bedtime and adjust as needed.
Keeping a sleep journal can help you to create clarity around any persistent symptoms. On a positive note, it can also spotlight improvements that are starting to develop. Either way, tracking is an important tool for dialing in your ideal amount of sleep.
It is estimated that sleep-related problems affect 50 to 70 million Americans of all ages and socioeconomic classes. These issues can range from major health disorders, like sleep apnea and chronic insomnia, to benign symptoms that we tend to accept as just a regular part of life as we age. However severe or mundane, these nuisances can negatively impact our productivity, mood, happiness, accomplishment, interpersonal skills, and overall quality of life.
By finetuning the professional guidelines in accordance with our own unique needs, we can ensure that we won’t succumb to the pitfalls associated with not getting as much sleep as we need.
Want to know one more perk to proactively crafting our optimal sleep routines? Adequate quality sleep supports our longevity. Thus, by releasing the misguided ideal of pushing off sleep for when we die, we can rest assured we’re helping to postpone that undesired state of eternal slumber for as long as possible.