Sleep: Are You Doing It Right?

Dispelling the common myths behind your approach to sleep, and some recommendations on how to achieve that sweet forty winks.
Published: 22 October 2023

In the fast-paced, first-world professional world, the employee who’s most on the ball, responding to emails past midnight and in the office before nine, is glorified. It has almost become a boast to say that you’ve been too busy to sleep. We all know someone who mentions his or her lack of sleep with pride. Along with ‘sleep is for the weak’, there persists a stubborn yet baseless business culture that adheres to the futility of sleep.

The phenomenon of encouraging insufficient sleep is strange, given how much attention corporations pay towards other areas of employee health, safety and conduct. Somehow we’re stuck on the notion that time spent on task equates to efficiency of task. Regrettably, this is not just a misguided blunder, but a costly one too.

The price of bad sleep

A net annual capital loss of SGD18 million, a result of collective declined productivity rate, is found in companies where employees don’t get enough sleep. These employees are not just less productive, they are also less creative, less motivated and prone to making unethical decisions. On a managerial level, this makes them less charismatic and more abusive. On a national scale, inadequate sleep robs countries of more than two percent of their GDP—roughly the entire cost of its military and almost as much as its investment in education. Just let that sink in.

Sure, there exists a sleep elite, a group that is adept at getting six hours of sleep with minimal impairment. Members of this group carry a sub-variant of the BHLHE41 or Dec2 gene that allows them to sleep no longer than this duration even in the absence of alarms. Don’t be deluded into thinking you could be one of them because this anomaly is so rare that you stand a higher chance of being struck by lightning. Expressed as a percentage of the population, the rounded whole number would be zero.

So for the rest of us mortals, here are three things that could help improve sleep quality.

MYTH: Melatonin or alcohol can help me sleep

Want to actually sleep? Maybe skip the nightcap.
Maybe skip the nightcap. UNSPLASH

You probably know Melatonin as a hormone responsible for your dozing off, but sleep is not a block of time when you are knocked unconscious. Human beings, and all living things, live in constant oscillation. You have a circadian rhythm, an internal clock which coordinates according to external social and environmental factors (running at 24 hours and 11 minutes, according to an extensive cave adventure by the godfather of modern sleep medicine, Nathaniel Kleitman, and his science buddy Bruce Richardson). You are simultaneously on another beat working at 90-minute cycles. The ultradian rhythm is what maintains the equilibrium of rest and fatigue.


Besides melatonin, "quick fixes" like a nightcap may shorten the amount of time taken to fall asleep, but its presence in the bloodstream can disrupt the second half of the sleep cycle and the important information consolidation process that takes place during REM sleep. Meaning you get sleep, but not deep, restorative sleep. Alcohol also impairs breathing in sleep, affecting the brain’s breathing centre by masking the effect of low oxygen levels in the bloodstream, which leads to sleep apnoea. So while sleep is one way of energy renewal, the other essential things we do while awake also play a big role in the quality of our sleep. Nutrition, hydration, movement, relationships. Melatonin and the likes are merely the signal to sleep and not what effectualises it.

MYTH: I know when I'm sleep-deprived and can reset it

What you look like sleep-deprived, but less cute.
What you look like sleep-deprived, but less cute. UNSPLASH

The thing about chronic (yes, chronic) sleep deficiency over years, or simply months, is that deteriorated alertness, energy and general capacity become the norm to the individual. Even while reading this, you might feel perfectly all right. But what if we told you that based on epidemiological studies of average sleep time, you are living in a sublime compromise in your mental and physical states? If you were to compare it to alcohol, which we all know can severely impede our mind, being awake for 17 hours (usually between 7am and midnight), makes your cognitive impairment no different from one who is legally drunk.

This was proven by the School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, which took two groups of healthy adults, intoxicated the first bunch to the legal driving limit, and kept the other bunch awake. The results of the concentration test by the latter were equivalent or worse. And if you think you can take the weekend to pay off your sleep debt, dream on. Assuming you sleep much less than eight hours a day, Stanford University Sleep Research Center shows even after three nights of ‘recovery’ sleep, your performance will not return to the original baseline of those who sleep the regular eight.

RECOMMENDATION: Make it a habit

Not the sleeplessness, the positive wind-down rituals. You know them, the ones prescribed by Doctor Google. No heavy meals hours prior, switching off your phone, breathing exercises, etc. Setting an alarm to sleep is a good one. You have one to wake, so why not? It’s all about discipline. Even if they don’t show immediate results, practice them for at least 21 days (the average span for an action to become a habit). 

MYTH: The optimal sleep window is before midnight to 7AM

Yes, sleep chronotypes are a thing.
Yes, chronotypes are a thing. UNPLASH

This is true. But only for 40 percent of the population. In adults, our preference for sleeping and waking times are based on our chronotype, which is pretty much programmed into our DNA. Unfortunately for the 30 percent of ‘evening types’, common societal practice restricts them from performing to their potential (usually past work hours), and leave them prone to ill health as a result of a forced early waking time and an innate inability to sleep until far later.

The reason for this genetic inequality? In a time before warm, cosy homes came along, this variation would reduce the period of vulnerability in a community of species living together. So while everyone gets ideally eight hours of sleep, the collective group is only in danger for half that duration. If you believe you belong to a special nocturnal group... the remaining 30 percent are just chronotypes who function best between morning and evening.

RECOMMENDATION: Stop trying so hard

While it is good practice to stick to a sleep schedule, don’t lie in bed awake if you simply can’t fall asleep. Don’t allow yourself to be susceptible to attentional bias. Instead, go do something relaxing. Read (but not on devices because you know, blue light). Drink some milk. Daydream even. Picture yourself doing what you enjoy. It’s crucial to avoid exposure to information about sleep to take your focus off trying to sleep and unnecessarily scaring yourself with symptoms you believe you have that you actually don’t.

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