If there was one thing I would do differently, one thing I would tell you to do differently this fall — it’s to sleep.
It sounds obvious, right? Everyone knows on a basic level that sleep is important. But until I took an actual course at Stanford called “Sleep and Dreams” with Drs. William C. Dement and Rafael Pelayo, it was too easy to pass up on sleep when things got busy.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about why sleep should be a little higher on your list:
There’s this thing called sleep debt. That means that for every hour of sleep you lose, your brain keeps track of it like a credit card balance. Why does this matter? The larger sleep debt you have, the less functional you are, the less alert you are, and the lower your quality of life falls. Sleep deprivation can lead to a loss in motivation, cognitive function and self-control and make you more depressed or impulsive. Get rid of your sleep debt and you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel and function. Plus, no more dark circles!
Not sleeping enough can be fatal if you’re driving. I can’t recall how many stories I’ve heard in class about people who’ve fallen asleep at the wheel, if only for a second. It only takes a moment of drowsiness for a fatal or near-fatal collision. It’s always better to pull to the side and take a short nap than to risk anyone’s life.
So how do you get more sleep? Practice something called sleep hygiene — which basically means developing healthy sleep habits.
n Create an optimal environment for sleeping. Your bedroom can be the worst place for sleeping if it’s not quiet, dark and secure, and especially if it becomes a place where you do your work. When possible, the bedroom should be used only for sleeping. The more it’s used for other things, the weaker the association you’ll feel between your bedroom and sleep. That may allow distracting thoughts and activities to invade your “sleepy” phase, keeping you awake longer.
n Be predictable. Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Pretend you’re a little kid and you have the same bedtime every night. That means allowing yourself adequate time to unwind before going to bed and maintaining a regular bedtime even on the weekends. Do this and you won’t even need an alarm clock to wake up.
n Avoid all substances that adversely affect the sleep-wake cycle. I’m talking about alcohol and caffeine. But you’re in high school — you’re not drinking anyway, right?
n Be healthy overall. Exercise, a proper diet and meals at regular times of the day promote optimal sleep and alertness. Exercise daily, preferably in the morning or afternoon and about three to five hours before bedtime. Avoid spicy foods and heavy eating in the evening, but don’t go to bed with hunger pangs.
I know, I know, it’s difficult to maintain sleep as a priority. Even for me as a college student taking this course and constantly being told how important sleep was, it was still incredibly elusive when life or school or even trying to have a social life got in the way. What I’m hoping to impart to you is that sleep should be a priority. It should be right up there on your list with academics, exercise and getting into college. It should be one of the most important things on your list, because it really does affect everything else you do.
Do you want to be a better person? More efficient and capable? Happier, better-looking, and more at peace?
Go to sleep.
• Kim Huynh graduated from West High School and earned her degree in English literature with a creative-writing emphasis at Stanford University. This month, she starts work as a paralegal clerk at Baker Botts LLP in Palo Alto.