Consider the case of Susan. She is a Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) in a large medical center. In the past six months, she’s been leading a major quality initiative in her organization in addition to her regular duties leading a large staff of nurses. Always a high achiever, Susan has prided herself on her impact and career advancement to CNO in spite of being relatively young in her career. Lately, she’s been working nearly 70 hours a week. Traditionally, Susan prided herself on being able to function with only six hours of sleep a night. However, recently she’s noticed a decline in her effectiveness and a non-stop sense of exhaustion. She becomes easily frustrated with her staff, made several poorly considered decisions in her professional role, and is distracted from her work tasks. Susan often wakes up at 3:30 am each night, worrying about potential mistakes she made and thinking about upcoming deadlines. She feels trapped in a pattern and is unsure of how to escape it.
Leaders and Self-care
Susan’s experience is typical of many leaders I have coached with that are effective but get trapped in the demands of their jobs and ultimately limits their success. If not successfully managed, it can lead to career derailment and setbacks. The demands placed on leaders and complexities they face in their roles, particularly in leading change, has increased the importance of resiliency to sustain their effectiveness. Resilient leaders proactively maintain their physical endurance by managing their diet and exercise as well as ensuring they get enough restful sleep.
In the past ten years, researchers have revealed some critical insights about the importance of adequate sleep and the consequences of not getting enough. The Centers for Disease Control published a study in 2014 that concluded one-third of Americans getting less than seven hours of sleep a night including accidents, human error, and loss of productivity - as well as increases in chronic diseases. In a 2015 issue of Scientific American, Robert Stickgold explored recent neuroscience research and argued that sleep is more critical than previously known for the functioning of three vital body systems: central nervous system, immune system, and the endocrine system. The lack of sleep has been shown to have negative consequences for the functioning of memory and our emotional functioning. Researchers found that when people are sleep-deprived, we are more likely to hold onto negative memories and potentially lead to depression. Researchers at Clemson University in a 2015 study found that a lack of adequate sleep also contributes to diminished self-control and poor decisions.
My Own Struggle with Sleep
While much has been written recently about how to improve ones’ quality of sleep, relatively few address what to do when anxious thoughts keep us awake. My experience with sleep has been challenging as I’ve aged. I recall the good ole days in my twenties when I could fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and stay asleep until morning. More recently, my frequent travel between the east and west coasts has led to an inability to get a full nights' sleep. The three hour time zone difference between the east and west coasts caused me to wake at 4 am in Southern California and begin ruminating about upcoming challenges. My anxiety prevented me from falling asleep and contributed to feeling exhausted in the afternoon.
Improving Sleep Quality with Muse
Rather than rely on sleep medication I decided to explore more sustainable ways to address this issue. In researching effective sleep habits, I discovered a tool to help me develop the skills to manage my racing thoughts. Muse is a tool for helping promote relaxation and mindfulness by sensing brain activity. I purchased it online (www.choosemuse.com) for $249. Muse consists of a band I wear on my forehead and an app installed on my computer. Each morning, I wear the Muse
headband, insert earbuds to my iPhone and start the session. The Muse band measures my brain activity and plays audio that simulates the level of this activity. If my mind is racing, I will hear large waves crashing. With this awareness, I can focus on my breathing, and as I do so, my brain activity slows and birds begin to chirp. Gradually, I have increased the length of each session from 3 to 7 minutes. In essence, the Muse application teaches me to calm my mind through conscious breathing.
The iPhone app collects data to show the progress I am making associated with the level of brain activity, consistent with other measurement tools such as a FitBit or a Fuelband. For example, the following image summarizes my overall progress in using Muse including the following elements:
Relative amount of calm time in each Muse session for the past two weeks
Total amount of time using Muse in all of my sessions
Progress toward this weeks goal
Current streak of Muse sessions
Key milestones in my usage (e.g., 50 calm sessions)
The skills I’ve learned using Muse have improved my quality of sleep as well my overall ability to use conscious breathing throughout the day to center and focus and navigate emotional or stressful situations. Over time I will increase the duration of each Muse session, enabling me to enhance my skills at managing anxious thoughts. While I have used other mindfulness tools with some success, Muse is unique in its ability to measure brain activity and provide feedback. Like any self-improvement tool, it is important to use Muse on a regular basis to build skills in mindfulness.
Maintaining your resiliency is critical to your ability to sustain your performance as a leader in the face of greater organizational demands and complexity. A key strategy for maintaining your resiliency is self-care, and sleep is a key component. Improving your ability to navigate anxious thoughts can be just the ticket to enhancing your effectiveness. Tools such as Muse can help you build self-awareness, practice mindfulness, and thereby improve the quality of your sleep.
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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 20 years of experience developing resilient leaders and is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies. Together with Dr. Lynn Schmidt, he wrote Shift Into Thrive: Six Strategies for Women to Unlock the Power of Resiliency. Kevin resides in Palm Springs, California, and Washington, DC.
(c) 2017 Kevin Nourse