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Using Sleep Cycles to Boost Productivity

You are either one of two kinds of people in this world. You wake with enthusiasm and greet each day with a fresh start and a good attitude. Or…the alarms sounds in the morning and you begin the daily ritual of bargaining with the snooze alarm.


It’s no secret that sleep is essential to our wellbeing. Speak to any parents of new babies and you’ll see, firsthand, the ravages of sleep deprivation. It’s obvious how disorganized we become when we are exhausted—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It becomes nearly impossible to execute the day effectively and productively.



Some of the many benefits of regular, high-quality sleep include:

  1. Regulates blood pressure and reduces risk of heart attack.
  2. Boosts immune system.
  3. Reduces stress.
  4. Improves sex life.
  5. Sharpens memory and thought process.
  6. Supports weight management.
  7. Decreases risk of accidents.
  8. Stabilizes mood.
  9. Increases pain tolerance.
  10. Enhances the quality of exercise.


Here’s the thing. Even though we know it’s in our best interest, many of us are challenged to get a good night’s sleep. And even more frustrating, many of us who manage to get enough sleep still wake-up feeling groggy and tired. If we are going to be the high-performing rock stars we are, we must find a way to start our day rested and refreshed.


Life Hack: Sleep Cycles


For human beings, sleep comes in these five stages:


  1. Stage One: Light sleep. Almost immediately upon nodding off, your brain produces alpha and theta waves. Eye movement slows. You are still easily woken during this stage. A typical catnap occurs in this stage.


  1. Stage Two: Fairly light sleep. Brain waves slow down and produce what is called sleep spindles. If you wake after this phase of sleep, it’s called a powernap.


  1. Stage Three: Deep sleep begins. The brain begins to generate delta waves.


  1. Stage Four: Very deep sleep. Delta waves continue. Very difficult to wake. Very little muscle or eye movement. During this phase, the body repairs and rebuilds muscle and tissue, restores energy, and stimulates growth and immunity.


  1. Stage Five: REM (Rapid-Eye Movement). Brain activity increases along with, as the name suggests, eye movement. Muscles relax, heart rate and breathing increases. This the phase in which we dream. During this phase our brains process and organize information from the day so that it can be stored in long-term memory.



The entire cycle of sleep stages lasts 90-100 minutes, and repeats 4-5 times per night. In our first cycle of the night, there is typically a shorter period of deep sleep. By the last cycle of the night, that stage has lengthened. The quality of our sleep depends on both the successful navigation of each sleep cycle as well as the overall length of sleep.


One of the ways we can best use this information is to plan, as best we can, to wake at the most opportune time during the cycle. It is hardest to wake from Stages 3 and 4, when we are in the deepest sleep. If our alarm goes off when we are in a deep sleep, we will likely feel groggy for some time. If we are awakened during Stages 1 or 2, or even 5, we will feel more immediately alert and restored.


The simple way wake at the most opportune time according to sleep cycles is to calculate how much sleep with will get in 90-minute increments. That means, if you have 7 hours until you need to wake, you are better off getting six hours because it is a total of four 90-minute segments. It may seem counterintuitive to opt for less sleep, but people who have tried it, swear by it.




Using this methodology, here are the optimal sleep lengths to consider when setting your alarm clock:

1.5 hrs, 3 hrs, 4.5 hrs, 6 hrs, 7.5 hrs, 9 hrs, 10.5 hrs, 12 hrs


Alternatively, there are apps you can download on your smart phone. Perhaps the most sophisticated is Sleep Cycle by Northcube AB. Using your phone’s microphone, Sleep Cycle analyzes your sleep stages by your breathing and movement, and calculates the best time (within a specified time period) for you to wake. It is equipped with a selection of peaceful but effective alarm sounds to aid in peaceful alertness on waking, as well as sleep aids like a variety of nature sounds and white noise should you choose to use them. For an additional subscription fee, you can upgrade for additional features like tracking various aspects of your sleep patterns according to several criteria.


Understanding the way our bodies and brains utilize slumber helps us help them rest, repair, and restore. In doing so, we increase our ability to function efficiently and productively. You know those days when life feels like it’s running you, instead of the other way around? Let’s do less of that.


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