In his book, Internal Time*, Till Roenneberg discusses the research he's done into sleep patterns and the impact they have on personal performance.
It's fascinating to learn more about why individuals perform differently at various times of the day, and to try to understand the external rhythms that we are all subject to and, in many cases, are fighting against every day (and night).
There are some striking illustrations of how extreme sleep routines can impact on our professional life, for example, many late risers spend the first few hours of the working day fighting their natural internal rhythm to be asleep until 9, 10 or even 11am. Not because they're lazy, that's just how their body clock runs.
Similarly, naturally early birds may appear unwilling to work late on into the evening when in reality its their body clock that's causing an inability to perform to the best of their abilities at this time. They're better off taking a break and returning to the project early the next day if possible.
Social jet-lag as Roenneberg refers to it - when the body clock is out of synch with the rhythms we're being asked to comply, with whether they be family, school, office life etc - doesn't only make peak performance challenging, it can have a negative impact on how we eat, how we exercise and even how we are able to make changes in our lives - the ability to give up smoking is one surprising example he cites - so it's something we should all make an effort to take account of, both for ourselves and to help those we live and work with.
So what can you do if you're at risk from social jet-lag? Here are some tips that we've found can make a positive difference.
1) Work with what you've got In reality there are relatively few people who have an internal clock that fits in precisely with society's timetable, so the first thing to do is accept that you may have to get up a little earlier than would be ideal for you, or you may need to stay awake a little longer than you'd choose if left to your own devices, but do make a conscious effort to create a routine for yourself that allows you to sleep well while providing you with the time to do what you need to do when you're awake.
2) Stick to your routine Irregular sleeping hours exacerbate the effects of social jet lag so follow your chosen sleep routine 7-nights as week. It may feel great to 'catch up' on missed sleep at the weekends but if this leaves you wide awake on Sunday night there's a risk you won't feel great for the start of the working week. Shifting time like this every week will take a toll in the medium to long-term.
3) Think twice about your daily choices Ideally we'd all like to feel alert and engaged while we're awake and relaxed and refreshed after a good night's sleep. The key to both is to think about everything you do during the day in relation to how it could affect your sleep that night.
Caffeine can perk you up but it can also impact your sleep routine hours later. Sugary snacks can feel like the right thing in the day but can disturb blood sugar levels which can affect the quality of your sleep.
The same goes for too much stress throughout the day. It may feel as though a bit of stress is good to get you busy and get things done, and it can be as long as you have ways to balance your stress levels before you try to unwind and get a restful sleep, just always be mindful of the level of pressure that helps you and the tipping point beyond which you risk negative consequences.
4) Design your personal pre-sleep routine Identify the sequence of events that you know will result in you falling asleep quickly and having a quality sleep. You may need to experiment with a few different approaches but soon you'll have a strategy that tells you when you have your last meal or snack of the day, when you turn off the TV, when you put your phone / laptop / tablet away and what you do to tell your mind and body you're relaxed. This could be listening to calming music, meditating or reading.
If you are prone to waking in the night, decide in advance what you'll think and do if this happens. If you worry that when you wake it'll take ages to get back to sleep, chances are, that's exactly what will happen. If you plan an approach where you read, practice deep breathing or even write down anything that's on your mind or think about reasons why you might have awoken and what you can do to address these situations tomorrow, you can relax in the knowledge that as you work through this process you'll be preparing yourself to return to sleep very soon.
Above all, remember that you may not be able to follow your perfect sleep routine every night but you can take control to ensure that on balance and in the medium term you get sufficient sleep, and in the short term you do what you can to optimise the quality of every hour of sleep you do get.