FounderFuel: Can you sleep yourself to being a better startup leader?


Yes, absolutely critical. I just have to finish this first… “

Sound familiar?

We all know that sleep is important, but as founders in the startup world, there is always more to do. We may think we’re making a strategic decision when we work just that little bit longer, but the likelihood is that most sleep procrastination is driven by stress; stress which is fuelled by sleep deprivation.

Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I was working as the UK Innovation Lead at Big Health, a digital health startup. I had spent 5 years working on Sleepio, a sleep improvement programme. I researched sleep. I talked about sleep. I was effectively working as a salesperson for better sleep… while all the time neglecting my own.

I had this constant feeling that if I could just do that little bit more, I’d get work under control, and I’d be able to relax. But it felt as though the more I worked, the more there was to do. The later I was up working, the more stressed I would feel the following day.

I was heading towards burnout, but before I could get there, I went climbing in Dorset. A delayed overnight flight was not enough to stop me, and I set off early in the morning after about 4 hours sleep, on the back of several months of accumulated sleep debt.

Thirty feet up in the air, hanging on by my fingertips, I told myself I’d be OK with just one more clip… I slipped, and was catapulted, by an inexperienced partner, ankle first into jagged limestone cliff.

I made some truly unwise decisions that day that I believe I would never have made had I not been sleep deprived.

As I was whisked away in a coastguard helicopter, I knew I had only myself to blame. After a week in hospital, having my ankle re-constructed with titanium screws, I had plenty of time to reflect. It took me a good six months to walk again. I promised myself to change my approach to work, rest and recovery.

I was lucky; I escaped without clinical depression, crashing a car, breaking up a marriage, reckless investment decisions… all of which can be side effects of sleep neglect.

I realise that many of us don’t choose to sleep poorly – sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, mind racing… I’d say this is the single most common complaint I hear from founders.

I think if you’re truly honest with yourself you have a good idea of some of the things you could do to improve your sleep quality…

  • Spend time outside every day
  • Exercise regularly
  • Switch off from work earlier on in the evening
  • Have a familiar wind down routine
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom

None of these are rocket science. None of these will surprise you as pro-sleep habits… but yes, they really can make a difference. The challenge is doing them… so let’s look at the Why.

The business case for sleep

Sleep loss doesn’t just impact our energy and concentration, it affects our decision making, emotions and leadership ability too.

In a rather sneaky study in a manufacturing firm, 300 workers were asked to record their sleep time over 90 days. Unbeknownst to them, their managers counted the number of deviant behaviours they observed – turning up late, taking credit for someone else’s work, being rude, shirking their responsibilities. They found a direct correlation: the fewer hours of sleep workers got, the more likely they were to engage in unethical behaviour over a 3 month period.

Another study followed line reports and their managers every day for 10 days. On the days after leaders rated their sleep at night as poor, there was a spike in the number of negative or abusive behaviours reported by their teams.

The same leaders could be perceived as inspiring and fair most of the time, but were more likely to be perceived as bullies after a bad night of sleep. This bullying behaviour was accompanied by a corresponding decrease in the work engagement of those teams on the poor sleep days.

So the chances are, your sleep has an impact on your team too

One of the curve balls of sleep deprivation is that when sleep deprived, you’re less likely to notice the impact on other people – because when we’re short of sleep we become less sensitive to others facial cues, and less able to empathise.

It’s interesting to think about why we’re designed this way, from an evolutionary perspective.

Much of the human brain evolved around 200,000 years ago, when our ancestors were living as hunter gatherers on the savannah. There were no sales targets, board meetings or social media to distract us. The only things keeping us awake, were in fact, dangerous – predators, storms, hunger.

So, when we deliberately compress our sleep, whether it’s to hit a deadline, or catch another episode on Netflix, we’re sending a message to our brains that we’re under threat.

This triggers the emotional centres in our brain to go onto high alert – they get hypersensitive. In particular, the amygdala, which controls our fight or flight stress response, gets hyper-aroused. We kickstart our evolutionary self defence mechanism, preparing us to stand and fight or run away. We release adrenaline and cortisol, the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, making it harder to get to sleep.

This exaggerated amygdala response is why we get very emotional. As we put more energy into our survival responses, we funnel glucose away from areas of the brain which are perceived to be less important in a crisis; we reduce the activity in our pre-frontal cortex, the area responsible for forward planning, rational thought, and self-control.

This means we are more susceptible to quick fix-temptations. We are less able to concentrate and to evaluate long-term strategic gains. We are more impulsive, and less likely to stick to our goals. None of which are ideal for strategically making decisions for our business or leading our startup teams.

So, what can you do to get your sleep back on track, and switch off the stress response?

Prioritise R.E.S.T.

 Most of us need between 7 and 9 hours sleep each night for optimal health and functioning.

To optimise the quality of your sleep, support the 3 systems that control your sleep: sleep pressure which builds up gradually the longer you’ve been awake, your body clock or circadian rhythms, which thrive on routine, and the stress system, which needs to be switched off for a restful sleep.

1. Routine:  Stick to routine wake times, as often as you can

Every cell in the body has its own molecular clock, which is programmed to operate on a 24 hour ‘circadian’ rhythm. When we stick to the same wake up time and bedtime, our body clocks can hum along in synchrony. Haphazard routines put more pressure on bodily functions, and mean the brain is less prepared for sleep. Aim to wake up at the same time within an hour, 7 days a week. Get ready for bed at a similar time if you can, but only turn off the light when you’re sleepy.  

2. Energise strategically with light, exercise and healthy food

A good blast of bright light in the morning helps us feel alert, whereas dimming the lights after sunset triggers the release of the hormone melatonin, which signals the brain that it’s time for sleep. Exercise helps pep us up, and has the added benefit of aiding deep sleep at night. Food also sends a wake-up signal, so avoid large meals two hours before bed. Caffeine temporarily masks sleep pressure. Too much caffeine and we can develop tolerance and dependence. If you’re struggling with sleep, experiment with switching to decaf, especially in the afternoon.

3. Switch off from stress: wind down before bed 

Parents know that a consistent bedtime routine is essential for their hyperactive toddlers, but it’s good news for adults too. Give yourself an hour to unwind – that means no more work, no phone and no bright lights. If your mind won’t stop racing, put a piece of paper and a pencil by your bed. An hour or two before bed, spend 10 minutes writing down what’s on your mind, and what you need to remember tomorrow. If those thoughts pop up, tell yourself they’re on the page, and let them go. 

4. Temperature: keep it cool

Your sleep environment? Think luxury cave. Dark, quiet and cool – about 18C. A drop in body temperature is a cue for sleep. Taking a warm bath 1-2 hours before bed aided restful sleep – not only does warm water help your muscles to relax, the cooling that takes place as you exit the bath could help to induce a restful slumber.

When you get sleep right, it’s a catalyst for high performance. When you wake up refreshed, you’re more optimistic, focused, and better able to stick to your goals.

Up for a challenge? Why not prioritise better quality sleep for two weeks and see what difference it makes?

You can also access a simple breathing technique for combatting that 2am wake up so many founders get when the brain kicks into middle-of-the-night overdrive here.

FounderCircle members can access the full Scaleup Session Conversation that we did with Dr Sophie here.

Written by Dr Sophie Bostock, The Sleep Scientist

Sophie completed a PhD in Health Psychology and her research pointed to sleep as the unsung hero of mental and physical resilience. She then spent 5 years working on Sleepio, Big Health’s award-winning digital sleep improvement programme and now supports high performers achieve more with better sleep. 

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