Sunday, October 18, 2015

How much sleep do you need?

Many people are surprised to learn that I almost never use an alarm clock. I don’t use them because I cherish the feeling of being fully awake before I get out of bed. When I wake up and am ready to get out of bed, I can be sure that I have gotten a good night’s sleep and thus am ready to be at my best for the day.

Sleeping fennec fox

I know many academics are not getting enough sleep. I also know many academics believe in research. Thus, I am writing this post to share with you some of the abundant research that I hope will convince you to get the sleep you need. If it’s 10pm and you are tired, it is a much better use of your time to go to sleep than to try and stay up all night in a fruitless attempt to catch up with your tasks. Once you have slept enough, you will be performing at a much higher cognitive level and will be more capable of accomplishing those tasks.

As I was perusing the Internet for research on the effects of sleeping habits, I came across this gem from the American Psychological Association.

“Many people are surprised to learn that researchers have discovered a single treatment that improves memory, increases people's ability to concentrate, strengthens the immune system and decreases people's risk of being killed in accidents. Sound too be good to be true? It gets even better. The treatment is completely free and has no side effects. Finally, most people consider the treatment highly enjoyable. Would you try it?”

The treatment the APA is suggesting is: getting an additional 60 to 90 minutes of sleep. Insofar as many people have a serious sleep debt – meaning they don’t get the requisite hours of sleep – spending additional time in the bed could be highly beneficial. The APA further reports that people who do not get enough sleep experience “pronounced cognitive and physiological deficits, including memory impairments, a reduced ability to make decisions and dramatic lapses in attention.”

Sleep experts generally believe that we need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to be at our best. This research is particularly important for academics, as our cognitive ability and memory retention are exceedingly important traits for us.

The research also reveals that there is no magic number of hours of sleep. For some people, it might be as low as 6 and a half hours. For others, it may be a bit over 8 hours. I did not come across any studies that showed less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours to be effective. So, how do you tell if you are getting enough sleep?

You can tell you are getting enough sleep when
  • You don’t need an alarm clock to wake up.
  •  You wake up feeling alert.
  •  It is not a struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
  •  You are not feeling the urge to fall asleep in afternoon meetings.
  • You are able to get through the afternoon without caffeinated beverages.
  • You feel refreshed and awake during the day.

People who get enough sleep have been found to have lower mortality rates, and higher cognitive performance. One study with a large sample based on self-reported sleep patterns found that people who slept an average of 7 hours a night had the highest cognitive performance. Another study found that insufficient sleep is associated with higher risk for diabetes, stress, and cancer.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following ways to ensure you get a better night’s sleep:

  • Going to bed around the same time every evening
  •  Practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual such as meditating or stretching.
  • Exercising daily.
  • Avoid caffeine – especially in the latter part of the day.
  • Turn off your electronics well before bedtime.
  • Keep your electronic devices (laptop, ipad, iphone) out of the bedroom.
This webpage also has a comprehensive list of suggestions for getting your zzz's in.

You will know that you are getting enough sleep when you don’t feel tired or exhausted every day and when it is easy to get out of bed. You also should notice improved cognitive ability and memory retention once you begin to get enough sleep.

Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Develop a Daily Meditation Practice

If you want to become more creative, focused, and productive, meditation can be a great tool. Meditation will help you with focus, which will make you a more efficient writer. It will also help you to quiet your mind, which can help you access your creative potential.

There are many benefits to meditation, and no downsides I can think of, so I highly recommend you try it. This article, for example, tells us that meditation can make you happier, strengthen your brain, improve your focus, relieve stress, and make you more compassionate. And, this website says meditation helps with creativity, focus, and stress-reduction. For this reason, I incorporate meditation into every Creative Connections Retreat.

time to meditate

During the Creative Connections Retreat, we meditate together for ten to fifteen minutes each morning, just before writing. I love doing this, as it sets the intention for the day and allows us to check in with our mental state before we begin our writing.

When I get back home from the retreat, however, I often struggle with maintaining a daily meditation practice. One reason for this is that I am rarely in the house alone, and it is hard to find a good time to meditate when I won’t be interrupted. The main reason, nonetheless, is that I never made meditation a priority and thus never really figured out how to make it happen.

However, for the last two months, I have finally been able to maintain my daily meditation practice.

I think there are three reasons for this:
  1. My daughter expressed interest in meditating and we have been doing it together;
  2. I found an app I really like; and
  3. I started small, with just ten minutes a day.
Meditating alongside my 11-year-old daughter has been fantastic. Just like writing, there is the accountability factor. We agreed to meditate each evening at 8pm, and if I forget, she reminds me, and vice-versa. Also, it is much easier for me to say to everyone else in the household: “We are going to meditate for 10 minutes” than “I am going to meditate alone.” I am sure they would leave me alone anyway, but I feel more comfortable making this request on behalf of both of us. Finally, I meditate not just because it is good for me but because I know it is good for my daughter as well. So, if you have been thinking about meditating but have not yet made it a daily practice, think about getting someone else in your house to do it with you.

The other factor that has made meditating become more of a habit for me is the headspace app. Some people like Zen meditation, which is silent, but I prefer guided meditation, where someone tells you what to do. I have been using headspace, an app that comes in a sequence, and each meditation gets a little harder, a little less guided, and focuses on different aspects of meditation. I like the fact that it seems to progress in a logical fashion. The app also gives you stats, telling you how many days in a row you have meditated, what your average meditation time is, and your total time meditating. I find these numbers motivating. There are many free apps on the Internet, and I encourage you to find one that works for you. There are also YouTube videos and audio recordings that could work for you.

The final factor is starting small. There is a fantastic free online course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I have started the course several times but never finished, in part because it requires a significant amount of time. I highly recommend you try this research-based, free course to get started with meditation. However, if you have trouble completing the course, I also recommend you try something a bit less intensive to start with.

I look forward to hearing how and why you incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your life.

If you would like to receive these posts in your inbox, you can Subscribe to Get a Life, PhD by Email.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

How to Develop a Daily Writing Habit

You have seen research that confirms that writing every day is the best way to become a productive academic. And, you want to be a productive academic, right? But, are you writing every day? Do you want to learn how to write every day? If so, this post is for you.

The basic trick to writing every day is to develop a writing habit. New habits take a long time to form. However, if you make yourself write every day, eventually it will become a habit. Once writing is a habit, it will become second nature to get up and write every day.

Developing this habit requires writing consistently. How do you do that?

Emma Reh (1896-1982)

During the Creative Connections Writing and Meditation Retreat, everyone writes for two and a half hours each morning together. Although the writing session starts early, everyone participates for several reasons. First of all, we are on a writing retreat, so everyone knows that writing is expected of them. Secondly, we write because everyone else is writing so that creates a bit of peer pressure. Thirdly, we write because we know we will have to share our work during the retreat, thus giving us an important deadline to meet.

You don’t have to be at a retreat, however, to incorporate these strategies into your life. Here are a few suggestions to get you on track to making writing a daily habit.
  • Write at the same time every day. If you have your pick of times, choose the early morning. When you do something at the same time every day, you are more likely to form a habit. If you do it in the morning, you are less likely to let everything else you need to do get in the way.
  • Treat your writing as you would any other appointment. Make an appointment with yourself every day to write. Show up to your appointment with yourself and decline any other invitations to do other things during that time.
  • Incorporate some accountability. This can be to yourself, where you keep track of your writing on a spreadsheet. But, it is better if you are accountable to someone else, as a bit of peer pressure goes a long way.
  • Write towards deadlines. If you don’t have any external deadlines, set deadlines for yourself. Aim to get your article finished by the end of the month. Or, set a deadline for a draft of each book chapter you are writing.
  • Develop an expectation for yourself that you will write every day. If you want to become a writer, if you want to publish, if you want to finish your dissertation, you have to write. So, expect yourself to write.
I hope these strategies help you become a daily writer if you are not already. Let me know of any challenges you face to becoming a daily writer in the comments section. Also, let me know what strategies are working for you.