Better sleeping for better farming

‘Sleep is perhaps the greatest legal performance-enhancing ‘drug’ that few people are taking advantage of’ Mathew Walker Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Hugh Norriss, Farmstrong wellbeing advisor, explores the three main problem areas of sleep and shares tips and advice on how to help with these.

In Farmstrong farmer wellbeing surveys, lack of sleep consistently comes up as one of the biggest concerns. There are three main problem areas behind not getting enough sleep.

1. Not feeling there is enough time for sleep because there’s so much to do.
2. Wanting to get enough sleep, but having trouble nodding off.
3. Waking during the night and worrying.

Let’s look at these three areas in more detail.

Not enough time for sleep

Everyone knows we have to sleep, but it’s tempting to try and take shortcuts. Every day on farm there is a list as long as your arm of things needing to be done. Particularly during the busy times it’s easy to see sleep as a drain on our time, so we start cutting back. It’s also easy to think that we might be being lazy or a wimp if we prioritize an extra hour of sleep or two at least a few times a week. We might’ve been told when we were little that we were lazy for sleeping too much, and internalized this belief.

I’m not here to tell you how much sleep you should have, but as Farmstrong says, the farmer is the most important asset on the farm, so it’s worth factoring sleep into the business plan. Consider the following.

  • According to sleep researchers nearly everyone needs between 7–9 hours sleep a night. Very few can get away with less over the long-term.
  • Getting enough sleep is like a performance wonder drug helping you make better decisions, feel great and be more psychologically and physically resilient. Jeff Bezos, The CEO of Amazon, the world’s highest financially valued company, says he makes an effort to get at least eight hours of sleep every night. To ensure he’s not ‘tired or grouchy’ when making important decisions[i].
  • Not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, accidents, depression, weight gain, reduce your immune function and decrease your ability to solve problems. These downsides will erode your business and family life.
  • Would you deny your stock their basic biological needs, or not properly maintain your farm machinery? No, and the same must surely follow for your own mental machinery.
  • Do you need something enjoyable to do each day to boost your mood to get through a stressful patch? A bit of extra sleep, or some strategic napping, could be perfect.
  • Where does sleep come in your farming and lifestyle priorities? Is it high enough up the list, or has it dropped off altogether?
Can’t get to sleep

If you‘re having trouble getting off to sleep, sleep experts recommend the following.

  • End screen time early in the evening if possible.
  • Cool your core body temperature down. Having a hot shower can do this as it draws heat from your core and actually cools you.
  • Dim the lights as you get close to bed time.
  • Avoid caffeine from the afternoon and keep alcohol intake moderate.
  • Keep going to bed and getting up times as regular as possible.
  • Write down what you’ve done well during the day and what you’re grateful for.

What a lot of this comes down to is good pre-bedtime habits. To make a habit stick, see our blog on good habits.

If it’s hard to sleep because you‘re going through a stressful patch in life or farming, it’s important not to be tough on yourself about it. That’s just one extra stressor that will work against you. Getting to sleep can’t happen by force of will, only by letting go.

I’ve found that in stressful life situations better sleep comes from focussing on wider approaches – including sharing your worries with someone you trust, asking for help, exercise habits, relaxation strategies and some healthy thinking to get things into perspective. There’s plenty of information on the Farmstrong website to help with these areas.

Waking and worrying

A very common reason for not being able to get back to sleep is lying awake worrying about things. Typical things farmers have told us trigger early morning worrying are; the weather, financial problems, the amount of work to do the next day and relationship problems with employees or family. Worrying can consistently keep you awake from the small hours until just before dawn, when you might snatch half an hour’s sleep before being cruelly awakened by the alarm clock. This can then create a further worry trigger about not getting enough sleep.

I used to have this affliction and I learnt that you have to be cunning and learn how to trick the worrying brain into calmness. Here are some strategies that worked for me.

  • Slowly count backwards from 30 in time with your breathing. Why backwards? Because you do have to concentrate a little bit to count this way it means the mind can’t think about other things. If your mind wanders from the counting start back at 30, this stops you cheating and slipping into worrying again. I doubt if you will be able to get past ten before you’re back asleep. Counting in time with you breathing relaxes your body.
  • Write a to-do list late in the day and make an agreement with yourself that you will tackle these tasks in the morning. This tells your worrying brain that you have things under control and it can stand down for the night.
  • If you’re feeling riled up and tense, with a racing mind, get up and do some stretching. It’s worth learning proper techniques in advance, e.g.  from the gym or a yoga course. When stretching, imagine you are squeezing the tension out of your body like toothpaste.
  • Don’t turn the light on if possible, as this disrupts the sleep cycle. If you decide to get up have a small torch on hand to avoid tripping over things.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques like meditation, a body scan, visualisation or breathing techniques. Then if you wake and can’t get back to sleep use this time to practice them in bed. It’s likely it won’t be long before you’re sleeping again.

The benefit of using these types of strategies is that your mind will not get overactive during the night. Things that we worry about can be important problems that need to be solved, but it’s more productive to focus on them during the day when you are fresh rather than in the middle of the night.

Some further suggestions

If you are still struggling with sleep, think about seeing a sleep specialist. An investment in this type of expertise could pay big dividends in terms of better health and productivity.

This short article gives some good information on sleep challenges with a young family.

Any technique you can learn that helps you healthily ‘self soothe’ will likely make it easier to sleep. This includes exercise, relaxation techniques, positive visualisation and dairies to write to do lists and things you are grateful for in.

Keeping an overall healthy lifestyle, including healthy thinking, will put you in a better place to cope with the times when it’s inevitable you will lose a bit of sleep.

A good resource for more information about sleep can be found at this website which is associated with Harvard Medical School.

Always remember sleep is about looking after the most important asset on the farm – you.

Thanks for these great tips Hugh. For more great advice on wellbeing have a look around the Farmstrong website. Make sure you take the Farmstrong wellbeing checklist too.

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