By Dave Nelsen, @DaveNelsen

Dave Nelsen

We live in a technological world where cognitive performance is increasingly important relative to muscle performance. In other words, brains beat brawn.

In the not-so-distant past, most jobs were based on muscle power. A daunting percentage of humans worked on farms or in mills, just two of countless types of past physical jobs. Today, most jobs are based on brain power. We’re working our spreadsheets and acting on our Google Analytics.

Unfortunately, a good chunk of our society has failed to make the transition. Trump successfully tapped into the pain of this segment of our population, but IMHO (in my humble opinion) he misled them about the cause. Immigration and global trade are obvious scapegoats, in part because it’s easy to envision another human being doing what we used to do, but for less money, here or in China.

The real problem is automation. Since 1990, U.S. production in “primary metals industries” has remained roughly constant as employment has fallen from 693,000 workers to 377,000 workers (as documented by This productivity gain and employment decline is happening across virtually all muscle-powered industries.

Since I write about technology rather than politics, I won’t spend much time analyzing why politicians point at immigration and trade rather than automation, other than to say that fixing the real problem will require a massive reworking of our education system. And there might be nothing we can do to address the current “stranded generation” of workers other than to offer them a universal basic income (UBI), an idea that is still too radical to get mainstream support (although I predict it will become mainstream in the next 20 years as cognitive machines obsolete a further 50% of human jobs).

So back to technology.

It turns out that most of us are doing the worst thing possible (to ourselves) for surviving and thriving in a technological world. The issue is becoming so bad that it’s showing up on the cover of magazines such as National Geographic (see the August 2018 issue). I’m talking about sleep, or lack thereof.

It probably won’t surprise you to discover that humans today are sleeping about two hours less per night (according to NatGeo) than humans of 100 years ago (when, presumably, we were all tired from a long day of physical work on the farm or at the mill). Two hours less! Humans have not changed biologically in that time, but our society has.

Here’s the problem. When we are sleep deprived, our cognitive performance goes south. Get this: according to a study by the U.S. military, one night of sleep deprivation results in a 20% decline in our brain’s speed and accuracy. But you don’t have to lose eight hours of sleep in a single night. You can do it cumulatively. The study shows that over 21 consecutive days, productivity declines continuously, day after day, when “normal” recruits get “only” seven hours of sleep. With six hours of nightly sleep (typical for humans today), productivity declines by an astounding 46%. With five hours of nightly sleep, productivity declines by 70%. You get the picture.

Here’s the next problem. Going to bed at 11 PM and getting up at 7 AM is eight hours in bed. It is not 8 hours of sleep. If you’re about my age (57), it would be within the normal range to be awake 20% of the time you’re in bed, not that your brain will notice or remember.

To get eight hours of sleep, you need to be in bed by 10 PM and “sleep” until 8 AM. See the problem? And no one actually knows how much they sleep unless they measure it.

So finally, the technology: There are now countless ways to measure sleep, but my favorite is the Fitbit Charge 2 (SRP recently reduced it to $119.95). Just put it on and each morning check your sleep stats. What gets measured gets done!

Not only will you discover how much you’re actually sleeping, you’ll see how much time you spend in each of four sleep states: Awake, light sleep, deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement, AKA dreaming). Click the “Benchmark” button and you’ll see how last night’s sleep compares to normal for your age and gender.

After I understood the science and started measuring my sleep, I completely changed my sleep behavior. I now average roughly 8 hours of sleep per night. Last night was 7:45 plus 1:14 (14%) awake. In other words, I went to bed at 10:24 PM and got up at 7:23 AM (~9 hours in bed) and still fell slightly short of target.

Peraps your notic my result cognative mpairment as you red this artical.

Here’s what I’ve learned during my 8-year-and-counting sleep improvement journey.

  1. It’s a scheduling and prioritization issue. You must make time for sufficient sleep.
  2. See #1.
  3. Be regular. Literally every cell in our bodies has a 24-hour circadian variability. Don’t mess with it. Establish and practice consistent sleep and wake times.
  4. Discover how caffeine, alcohol, and other consumables affect your sleep. In my case, I’ve found that virtually unlimited caffeine is fine until 2 PM. After that, it shows up in my sleep stats.
  5. Beware of your smartphone and tablet (AKA iPad) screens. They produce tremendous amounts of blue light which, like the blue sky during daytime, suppresses melatonin production. Did you know you can activate “Nightshift” mode to eliminate most of the blue light at night? Smart! By the way, most new energy-efficient LED lights also produce a huge amount of blue light. Use them everywhere but where you sleep.

Start your own sleep improvement journey by putting down this article and buying a sleep tracker. There’s no reason in an increasingly technological world not to give ourselves (and our employees, family members, etc.) every cognitive advantage. It starts with sleep.