Have you ever pulled an all-nighter and found yourself struggling to concentrate on tasks the next day? Or have you noticed that you make poor decisions after a sleepless night?
If you have, then you’ve experienced how sleep affects executive function.
Executive function is a collection of cognitive skills required for planning, decision-making, self-control, attention, and working memory.
In this blog post, we will explore how a good night’s sleep can improve your executive function – and give you some tips to help you sleep soundly tonight, and every night.
Let’s get started!
How Does Sleep Affect Executive Function?
When you don’t sleep well, it affects the functioning of the brain. Sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for executive function. Insufficient sleep leads to poor decision-making, decreased attention span, and poor impulse control.
Sleep plays a vital role in memory consolidation. It helps to store new information into long-term memory, which helps in decision-making and problem-solving. During sleep, the brain strengthens the connections between brain cells that encode information. This regeneration process is essential for your brain’s ability to recall information and make better decisions.
It’s not just about the number of sleep hours, either, but the quality of sleep. That’s because the brain goes through different sleep stages that are essential for executive function.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is important for creativity, while non-REM sleep is essential for basic brain functions such as memory consolidation and brain repair.
Therefore, the amount of restful sleep you get can affect how well your executive function processes function.
The list of effects doesn’t end there. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation affects how well your brain processes information, making it more challenging to think creatively, problem-solve or stay focused during mentally demanding tasks.
Getting enough sleep can improve your problem-solving ability, which is an essential component of executive function.
For more detailed information on sleep cycles and how it impacts neurodivergent individuals, check out our LSA blog article: A Neurodivergent Guide to Sleep.
Tips for Improving Sleep Habits to Boost Your Executive Functioning Skills
When was the last time you got a good night’s sleep? If you’re like most American adults, the answer is probably “not recently.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of us aren’t getting enough sleep, leading us to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning and struggle with daily tasks – including those that require executive functioning skills.
This chronic sleepiness doesn’t just make us feel groggy and irritable – it can also have a major impact on our executive function (EF) skills, as you now know.
So how do we improve this? Let’s take a look at some strategies you can incorporate to help yourself get more restful…well, rest!
1. Incorporate a Consistent Bedtime Routine
One of the best ways to ensure quality sleep is to establish a consistent sleep routine. The body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) works by regulating sleep and wake cycles. By establishing a consistent routine, it signals the body to fall asleep and wake up at a particular time.
To establish a routine, set a regular bedtime and take time every night to perform quiet and relaxing activities such as reading a book or taking a bath.
2. Know How Much Sleep You Need
The amount of sleep you need varies based on age, lifestyle, and other individual factors. Generally, adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per day to function correctly. Understand your body’s sleep needs and make sure you are allowing enough time each night for quality sleep.
Another key aspect of improving your sleep habits is establishing a regular sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day – even on weekends. By doing this, you’ll help regulate your body’s internal clock, which will make it easier to fall asleep and wake up naturally.
Plus, sticking to a regular sleep schedule will help you avoid the “sleep debt” that can build up when you don’t get enough rest during the week. By prioritizing your sleep, you’ll be giving your brain the chance to recharge and build strong EF skills.
3. Incorporate Your Senses to Calm Your Systems
Sensory activities can help calm your nervous system and promote relaxation. Try incorporating activities that appeal to your senses, such as listening to calming music, taking a warm bath, lighting a scented candle, or using a relaxation technique like deep breathing or meditation.
4. Avoid Caffeine, Screens, and Alcohol
Stimulants such as caffeine, screens, and alcohol can interfere with your sleep quality and disrupt your sleep patterns. It is best to avoid consuming caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime or limit them to early parts of the day.
You should also try to avoid using electronic screens such as phones, laptops, and TVs at least one hour before bedtime.
5. Make Sure the Room is Quiet and Dimly Lit
One of the best ways to improve your sleep habits is to create a comfortable, quiet, and dark sleep environment. This means investing in a comfortable mattress and pillows, using blackout curtains or eye masks to block out light, and investing in a white noise machine or earplugs to muffle sounds.
You can also optimize your sleep temperature by keeping your bedroom cool and using breathable sheets and blankets. By creating an environment that’s conducive to sleep, you’ll be more likely to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.
6. Use Naps Wisely
Napping can be a great way to recharge your batteries and improve your cognitive function, but it’s important to use naps wisely. Avoid long naps during the day, as they can interfere with your nighttime sleep.
Instead, try taking shorter power naps of 20-30 minutes. These can help improve your alertness, attention, and memory, without interfering with your sleep.
7. Exercise Often
Exercise is essential for overall health, but did you know that it can also improve your sleep and EF skills? Regular exercise helps reduce stress, improve mood, and promote better sleep.
To get the most benefit, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, but avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as it can interfere with your sleep.
8. Avoid Large Meals Before Bed
Eating a large meal right before bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep and can interfere with the quality of your sleep. To avoid this, try to eat your last meal of the day at least 2-3 hours before bedtime.
If you get hungry close to bedtime, try a small snack that’s high in protein or complex carbohydrates, such as a banana, almond butter, or a small serving of yogurt.
9. Use Your Bed for Sleep – and Sleep Only
It’s important to use your bed for sleep and sleep only to improve your sleep habits and EF skills.
Avoid using your bed for other activities, such as watching TV or working. By using your bed only for sleep, you’ll help create a mental association between your bed and sleep, which can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
10. Try Relaxation Techniques
If you struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep, practicing relaxation techniques can be a game-changer. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can help calm your mind and reduce anxiety or stress that may be keeping you awake.
You can also try incorporating mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga into your daily routine to help promote restful sleep.
11. Declutter the Bedroom
Did you know that the clutter in your bedroom can affect the quality of your sleep? It’s true! When your bedroom is cluttered, it can be harder to relax and fall asleep.
To improve your sleep environment and enhance your EF skills, take some time to declutter your bedroom. Keep your bedroom organized and tidy, and you’ll find it easier to relax and get a good night’s sleep.
12. Expose Yourself to Natural Light During the Day
Getting exposure to natural light during the day can help regulate your sleep-wake cycle and improve your EF skills. In fact, research suggests that natural light can improve your mood, enhance your cognitive function, and boost your productivity.
To get more natural light during the day, try taking a walk outside, or go for a morning jog. If you work indoors, try to sit near a window, or take a break and go for a quick walk outside.
13. Read a Bedtime Story
Reading a bedtime story can be a great way to wind down and relax before going to bed.
Not only can it help you fall asleep faster, but it can also help improve your EF skills. When you read a book or a story, you engage your brain and stimulate your imagination. This can help improve your creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills – and also fall asleep a bit more easily.
14. Keep a Sleep Journal
Keeping a sleep journal can be a great way to track your sleeping patterns and improve your sleep habits.
By keeping track of your sleep schedule, you can identify patterns and make adjustments as needed. Try to record the time you go to bed and wake up, as well as how long it takes you to fall asleep, and how many times you wake up during the night.
To start logging your sleep habits and making incremental changes to your sleep, download our free .pdf “Sleep Study” exercise from The Real-Life Executive Functioning Workbook.
Getting enough sleep may seem like a no-brainer, but many of us still struggle to prioritize our rest.
By understanding the link between sleep and EF skills, and implementing these tips for improving your sleep habits, you can boost your brainpower and achieve your personal and professional goals with ease.
So put down those screens, create a cozy sleep environment, and prioritize your rest – it’s time to snooze.
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