Combat Bias By… Sleeping?

How have you been sleeping this month? Do you wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the new day? Or is your day affected by challenging sleep?

With so many of us working from home over the last year, the lines between work and home life have blurred significantly. But even before that, the advent of smart phones meant that we were more accessible to others than ever; and, of course, the inverse was also true – the world is more accessible to us in every moment than at any point in history. All of which affects our sleep. And if it affects our sleep, it affects our days, which affects our work and our interactions with others. Inadequate sleep can lead to mood instability, memory problems, impairments to physical coordination, difficulty concentrating, and increased mistakes.

Most relevant to the work of building an inclusive workplace, troubled sleep also leads to an increased reliance on our brain’s shortcuts in decision making, which then results in greater expressions of internalized bias.

Did you know that in the United States, March is National Sleep Awareness Month? Dr. Shawn Healy, a Clinical Psychologist and a good friend of mine, has given a number of presentations recently for lawyers on “Improving Sleep: The Secret Sauce of Career Success for Lawyers.” Many of the tips he gives are applicable to us all, and can support us in building an inclusive environment for authentic community.

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Schedule your sleep like it’s the most important meeting of your day. We each have meetings and commitments that we make sure we don’t miss; treat sleep as the most important of these, not something that can be shortened to get ahead on projects we need to work on. Many of us like to ‘reclaim our time’ in the evening and stay up late to make up for having so much of our day accounted for. If you have a hard time reinforcing these boundaries for yourself, you might be helped by asking someone to help keep you accountable.
  2. Create a regular behavioral routine for evenings. If you’ve ever trained a dog, you know the importance of repetition and cues. If you have kids, you may have developed a bedtime routine for them; it’s a way for their brains to mentally prepare for sleep. The same is true for us as adults. The more relaxing your routine is for the 30-60 minutes before bed, the better that will help your brain to prepare for good sleep. This may include meditation, mindfulness, prayer, journaling or other techniques to help calm your body and mind.
  3. Create structures to brain dump. If anxiety is a factor for you and you replay thoughts in your mind at night, take time each evening before your bedtime routine to ‘brain dump’ – write down what’s on your mind (even if it’s just in bullet point shorthand form) to get it out of your head; this can be a list for you to return to the next morning and your brain can relax knowing that it’s there on paper and you don’t need to worry about forgetting it. For some items, you may find it helpful to symbolically crumple up the paper and throw it out. You may also find it helpful to have a notepad beside your bed; if something comes to mind in the night and you can’t stop thinking about it, sit up and jot it down. Again, doing so gets it out of your head for you to return to the next day.
  4. Reduce stimulation, and make a strong association between your bed and sleeping. If possible for you, spend the last hour or so before bed away from blue light screens (phones, computers, TVs), and do not keep them in your bedroom. Plug them in in a different room, and put them on airplane mode or turn them off altogether to avoid being woken up by notifications. You might also choose to turn your clock away from view so you don’t look at it each time you wake in the night (which leads to doing the mental math of “how much sleep can I still get?”).  
  5. Embrace the contradiction. Even with all the previous tips, Dr. Healy offers a somewhat contradictory tip: If you wake up in the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep, it’s common to worry about not being able to get back to sleep, but it may be more helpful to reassure yourself that things will be okay if you don’t fall back asleep.
  6. Set the boundaries that work for you. This is an add-on to Dr. Healy’s suggestions. A client’s CEO email signature makes note of his own work schedule, and the times when he’s not available in order to spend more time with his family. He notes that he may send a flurry of emails in the evening and that he does not expect others to work on a similar schedule, instead asking that they respond at a time that is convenient to them. If possible, set your own boundaries and communicate them to others to encourage a supportive and accountable community.

If you try this week’s tips, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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