The Productivity Giants Series with Michael Grandner, Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona


Sleep is something most of us don’t get enough of – as much as we might like to. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s reported that 30 percent or 40.6 million of American adults are sleeping six or fewer hours a day. Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, lead to heart disease, lead to metabolic disruption, in addition to the inability to focus.


A lot of these issues can be very subtle over time, according to Michael Grandner, who is a sleep expert himself. He’s Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona, the Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program, and works at the Behavioral Sleep Medicine clinic at the university, where he sees patients. His research is mostly focused on real-world connections between sleep and health, which includes recognizing the actual results of lack of sleep on the body and on the brain. He studies what the social-environmental factors that drive sleep in the real world are, and what can we do to come up with creative solutions to help people sleep better and more, improve their health, daytime function, and productivity.



We talked to Michael about the best advice he has for optimizing our sleep routines, as well as why investing time in your own recovery is essential. Read on:


What do the first 90 minutes of your day look like?


The first 90 minutes of my day usually involves making breakfast for the kids, getting them dressed and ready to go out of the door for school, getting myself ready, getting out the door, taking them to school, dropping them off and getting into work. And usually by within the first 20 minutes I’m at work and being able to have my first appointment, checking first emails in the morning, and see if there are any emergencies.


What’s your number one productivity tip that you could share?


I like to work topographically rather than chronologically. This means that I try and build momentum by doing projects in an order where I can have a large portion of them done before I get to the hardest parts, rather than tackle the hardest parts first. So for example, if I am working on a paper, I will not necessarily do it in a linear order, I’ll do it in an order where I can get as much done as quickly as possible to build up momentum toward the end.


What’s your definition of productivity?


My definition of productivity would be being efficient while working, so that I can feel like I’m getting enough done within the time we’ve got. So I see this as the ratio to the amount of time spent versus the amount of progress I’ve made.


What’s the core mission that you’re trying to achieve?


It’s focused on trying to improve real-world understanding of sleep and health and developing programs around that.


Do you have any pre-bed/nightly routines?


The best routine for nighttime is to spend the last hour before you’re going to bed making sure that what it is you’re doing is not too mentally engaging and the light’s not too bright. So turn off bright overhead lights, and if you’re in front of a screen, either use some sort of blue-blocking software or blue blocking glasses.


In my evening I usually stop working within about an hour of when I plan on going to sleep, or at least working on anything that requires any kind of mental effort. For that last hour, if I’m watching TV, it’s not something I’m going to be totally engrossed in. If I’m responding to email or checking emails, I’m mostly cleaning out my inbox, not necessarily writing anything important. I try and keep it as low key as possible so that my mind can have the space to wind down, and by the time I get into bed, I’m ready for sleep.


What’s the connection between sleep and productivity?


When we think about sleep and productivity, we often see sleep as unproductive time, but that’s very much not the case. Sleep is an investment in time. If you invest a little bit of time in sleep, you’ll be able to get rewards back, in terms of increased productivity during the day. Maybe part of the reason you don’t have time at night is because you’re too inefficient during the day.


When you lose focus, how do you regain it? And if helpful, what questions do you kind of have?


In terms of regaining focus, one thing I can do is shut out distractions. I do this by turning off email and phone notifications and listening to white noise. If I need to be able to regain focus, I need to cut myself off from environmental distractions and start moving.


Then I figure out what’s the task I can get the most movement on immediately. I do that and then I think, “Okay, what’s the next thing that I can get some movement on.” Even if it’s small, even if it’s not the most important thing, do that. Then, there’s buildup and some momentum to be able to really cover some ground and get up to speed kind of quickly and be able to immerse myself in the project pretty quickly.


What bad advice do you hear often?


One thing that hasn’t worked for me, but I don’t think is bad advice, is to be productive at night after the kids are in bed. Because usually at that point, you could be a little productive during that time but, you should be winding down. If you’re winding up at that time, sleep is going to a lot harder and you’re going to be more tired the next day.


Another bad piece of advice is to “tackle the big stuff first.” I believe in taking a couple of small pieces first, build some momentum, build some successes. Then, by the time you get to the big stuff, you’re far enough along that it’s less overwhelming and you’re able to attack it with inertia, rather than from a point of standing still. So, I never like writing from a blank piece of paper, I go ahead and write out a title, a section heading, and things like that. Even If I’m not writing anything complicated, at least by the time I do end up writing the real material, I’m not writing on a blank piece of paper, I already have stuff started.


Is there anything you can recommend that can essentially “hack sleep”?


Get out of bed if you’re not asleep. Do not get into bed until you’re ready to start trying to sleep. If you’re trying to fall asleep, whether it’s at the beginning of the night or the middle of the night and it’s taking you more than 15-20 minutes, get up, get out of bed, try again later. And if it’s in the morning, and you’re laying in bed before getting out of bed, get up, get bright light, get moving. Start your day! You’re not doing yourself any favors by staying in bed awake, you’re just making your sleep habits worse.


What’s your opinion on naps?


It’s all about strategic napping. There are two rules of thumb about making napping effective. Number one, don’t nap for too long and number two, don’t nap too late in the day. The later in the day that you take a nap, the more your brain might get confused to think you’re going into nighttime sleep. If you go into nighttime sleep, you’ll get into a deeper sleep. If you’ve ever woken up from a deep sleep, you know how it is, you feel like crap. You’re disoriented, you have no idea where you are or what’s going on, and it takes you awhile to get your wits about you and you can be very irritable.


If you follow these rules, napping is beneficial. You’re getting a little bit of time of light sleep, which can reduce fatigue, improve reaction time, and improve concentration and ability to focus.






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