Personal Development

The No. 1 Thing You Can Do To Improve Everything in Your Life (Bonus: It’s Ridiculously Easy!)

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The BiggerPockets forums contain an almost endless number of questions about how to become a better real estate investor and an almost equal number of answers. And the advice contained in those forums (and this blog of course) offers a wealth of great advice.

But one thing we can all do to improve our skills—whether in real estate investing, property management, accounting, or even relationships—is the one thing we all seem to almost intentionally and quite pointlessly deprive ourselves of.

And that thing is better sleep.

The Closest Thing To a Cure-All

If you want to become a better real estate investor (or better anything, for that matter), my first piece of advice would be to make sleep a number one priority. This became all too obvious to me after reading the great book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It was (and please excuse the pun) quite a wake-up call.

While the book is mostly scientific in nature, I found it so enlightening as to be worth including on my list of best personal development books. From the opening pages, you get the idea as to why this is so important:

“Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep.

“I doubt you are surprised by this fact, but you may be surprised by the consequences. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë’s prophetic wisdom that ‘a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,’ sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety and suicidality.”

But I mean, other than that stuff, sleep isn’t particularly important.

Woman patient having consultation with doctor (gynecologist or psychiatrist) and examining health in medical gynecological clinic or hospital mental health service center

What Sleep Does for You

So let’s say you just read one of my riveting articles and wanted to make sure you remembered its ageless and thought-provoking wisdom. The best way to do so is to make sure you get a good night’s sleep afterward.

To give an example of how this works, Walker describes the time a professional pianist told him that oftentimes, he would struggle to learn a particular part, but after a good night’s sleep, the following morning, “I can just play.”

Indeed, both REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep appear to reinforce memories (in different ways) throughout the night. For example, a study that looked at neuroimaging of rats who had just learned mazes before going to sleep was quite illustrative.

“The first striking result was that the signature pattern of brain-cell firing that occurred as the rats were learning the maze subsequently reappeared during sleep, over and over again. That is, memories were being ‘replayed’ at the level of brain-cell activity as the rats snoozed. The second, more striking finding was the speed of replay. During REM sleep, the memories were being replayed far more slowly.”

Not only do you “replay” those memories, they also get moved from short-term storage into long-term storage,

“Using MRI scans, we have since looked deep into the brains of participants to see where those memories are being retrieved from before sleep relative to after sleep. It turns out that those memories are being retrieved from before sleep relative to after sleep. It turns out that those information packets were being recalled from very different geographical locations within the brain at the two different times. Before having slept, participants were fetching memories from the short-term storage site of the hippocampus … But things looked very different by the next morning. The memories had moved. After the full night of sleep, participants were now retrieving that same information from the neocortex, which sits at the top of the brain—a region that serves as the long-term storage site for fact-based memories, where they can live safely, perhaps in perpetuity.”

This is why students who cram for a test the night before end up forgetting just about everything after they take the test (if not during the test). That information simply never got passed into long-term memory.

It also means that we might want to start referring to so-called "muscle memory" as "sleep memory." Those things that start becoming so natural we don't even need to think about them (riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, or putting together a Comparative Market Analysis) are established and reinforced during sleep.

And unfortunately, a lack of sleep, lack of sufficient sleep, or a lack of quality sleep wreaks havoc on your memory and ability to learn.

In one study, people were told to memorize some facts. Then they either stayed awake or took a nap.

“Those who were awake throughout the day became progressively worse at learning, even though their ability to concentrate remained stable (determined by separate attention and response tests). In contrast, those who napped did markedly better, and actually improved their capacity to memorize facts. The difference between the two groups at 6 p.m. was not small: a 20% learning advantage for those who slept.”

And these results have been remarkably consistent—”a memory retention benefit of between 20% and 40% being offered by sleep, compared to the same amount of time awake,” Walker states.

Related: Stop Telling Me I Need to Wake Up Early to Be Successful

And of course, the flip side is true too. It’s not just that good sleep allows you to retain information better, it’s that a lack of sleep makes it worse. And unfortunately, you can’t just make up for a short night’s sleep with a long night of sleep the next day. Our bodies just don’t work that way. Sleep needs to be consistent.

There is also something called “microsleeps” where you fall asleep for just a second or two. Which, as you might expect, is extremely dangerous while driving and leads to an awful lot of accidents. Indeed, drowsy driving is about as dangerous as drunk driving.

One study that compared how many microsleeps people had after certain levels of sleep deprivation showed that 1) a lack of sleep is really bad and 2) a lack of sleep is cumulative.

“After the first night of no sleep at all, their lapses in concentration (missed responses) increased by over 400%. The surprise was that these impairments continued to escalate at the same ballistic rate after a second and third night of total sleep deprivation, as if they would continue to escalate in severity if more nights of sleep were lost, showing no signs of flattening out.

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“But it was the partial sleep deprivation groups that brought the most concerning message of all. After four hours of sleep for six nights, participants’ performance was just as bad as those who had not slept for twenty-four hours straight—that is, a 400% increase in the number of microsleeps…

“…Most worrying from a societal perspective were the individuals in the group who obtained six hours of sleep a night … Ten days of six hours of sleep a night was all it took to become as impaired in performance as going without sleep for twenty-four hours straight.”

Yeah, six hours of sleep per night is not enough.

And the problems with a lack of sleep just go on and on. Are you trying to lose weight? Well, “Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that make you feel hungry [ghrelin]while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction [leptin].”

Indeed, you can even die from a lack of sleep as those unfortunate individuals with Fatal Familial Insomnia (an inability to sleep at all) have suffered.

How to Sleep Better

So what should you do?

First and foremost is simply to make sleep an absolute priority. For so many people (including myself at times), sleep is an afterthought or a waste of time, or the idea is “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” (Of course, death comes sooner if you don’t get sufficient sleep.) We have to see sleep as a priority, perhaps the priority.

Walker used to think of sleep as one of the three pillars of good health along with exercise and nutrition. He now simply considers it the foundation. Not getting adequate sleep can screw up everything else you do in life, business, and real estate.

We tend to think that working more necessarily increases productivity. But studies have shown that working more than 40 hours increases productivity little if at all because we’re less efficient if we use more time to work. The same goes for sleep. Yes, you get 18 hours awake instead of 16 if you only get six hours of sleep instead of eight. But those 18 hours will be substantially less productive (and enjoyable) than the 16.

Next, the author notes that sleeping pills are not ideal by a long shot, “The electrical type of ‘sleep’ these drugs produce is lacking in the largest, deepest brainwaves.” In other words, they don’t provide natural sleep.

Related: 13 Habits the Vast Majority of Successful Leaders Share

If you have serious trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should consider seeing a sleep doctor to see if you have insomnia or another ailment. And if you snore really badly, you may want to see a doctor regarding possible sleep apnea. There are treatments for both.

For those without sleep disorders, some ideas to improve your sleep that Walker gives include:

  • Limit caffeine, especially after noon and definitely after 5:00 pm. Remember decaffeinated coffee still has caffeine, as do teas (other than herbal) and chocolate.
  • Exercise, but try not to work out late at night.
  • Don’t go to bed overly hungry or overly full. And eat healthy, of course.
  • Keep your bedroom on the cooler side (under 70 degrees; he recommends 65 but that’s tough for me to accept). Presumably, this makes it easier to sleep because our ancestors used to sleep outside.
  • Take a hot bath or shower before bed; counterintuitively, it causes blood to rush to the surface of the skin and dump heat to cool you down.
  • Stay away from screens (computer, TV, cell phone) as much as possible in the evening.
  • Install blue light filters on your computer and cell phone if you have to look at them at night.
  • Turn down the lights in the evening a few hours before bed. If you have a “smart house” setup, you can automatically set the lights, and temperature, to go down in the evening.
  • Make sure your bedroom is as dark and quiet as possible. (Or consider using a sleep mask.)
  • Try to make your sleep schedule as consistent as possible. Get to bed at about the same time and try to wake up at about the same time every day, including the weekends.

While it’s not always doable, the goal should be to wake up without the use of an alarm clock. You know you’ve had a good night’s sleep when you wake up on your own before the alarm clock starts buzzing in your face.

And if you can’t get a good night’s sleep, naps can help. Indeed, naps may be a good idea regardless. As Walker notes, “All humans, irrespective of culture or geographical location, have a genetically hardwired dip in alertness that occurs in the midafternoon hours.”

Walker believes humans are naturally wired for biphasic sleep and are supposed to get seven to nine hours at night and about an hour during the midday. He even points to a study of Greeks who gave up a “siesta-like practice” and saw their health outcomes decrease dramatically. As he notes, “those that abandoned regular siestas went on to suffer a 37% increased risk of death from heart disease across a six-year period.”

Conclusion

The modern world—with its bright lights, loud noises, endless distractions, and early morning start times—is almost perfectly designed to screw up our sleep. Our ancestors didn’t have to worry about all of these things and sleep deprivation was, more or less, not a thing.

Now, it’s an epidemic. And as Why We Sleep makes perfectly clear, the costs of that epidemic are enormous.

If you want to be healthy, enjoy your life, have meaningful relationships, and (as you’re on this site) be a successful real estate investor, perhaps the single most important thing you can do is improve your sleep.

So don’t sleep on this one. Make it a priority now.

How much sleep do you get per night? 

Tell us how refreshed (or not) you’ve been feeling in the comments.

Andrew Syrios has been investing in real estate for over a decade and is a partner with Stewardship Investments, LLC along with his brother Phillip and father Bill. Stewardship Investments focuses on the BRRRR strategy—buying, rehabbing and renting out houses and apartments throughout the Kansas City area. Today, they have over 300 properties and just under 500 units. Stewardship Properties on the whole has just under 1,000 units in six states. Andrew received a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration from the University of Oregon with honors and his Masters in Entrepreneurial Real Estate from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He has also obtained his CCIM designation (Certified Commercial Investment Member). Andrew has been a writer for BiggerPockets on real estate and business management since 2015. He has also contributed to Think Realty Magazine, REI Club, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Data Driven Investor and Alley Watch.
    Kyle Spearin Investor from Boston, MA
    Replied 3 months ago
    Great article! It’s amazing what a huge difference sleep can make! I recommend getting an app that tracks it such as sleep cycle. Then you can see patterns overtime.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Yeah, I think I should try the sleeping apps as well, although I'm a bit nervous to find out what they show.
    Chris Irvin New to Real Estate from St. Louis, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Another great article from you sir! Thank you for posting it!
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Absolutely Chris, thank you!
    John Daley Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    So true!!
    A Schwartz Investor from Raleigh NC USA
    Replied 3 months ago
    Certain beverages right before can make a difference. And a vast array new sleep devices are coming on the market.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Do you have any recommendations on beverages or sleep devices by chance?
    Steve Vaughan Rental Property Investor from East Wenatchee, WA
    Replied 3 months ago
    Agree nothing beats a good night sleep. Glad to hear the positivity about naps, too👍 Thanks for another good article!
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Power naps can be essential!
    McKay Moore
    Replied 3 months ago
    Absolutely true. Now that I'm past the motherhood stage of waking in the middle of the night, SO much has improved! Memory, health, mental health. One of the main reasons "mom brain" is a thing is because of poor sleep!
    McKay Moore
    Replied 3 months ago
    Also - I just read your list of Top Personal Development Books and they are wonderful! How to Win Friends will be required reading for my kids (and a perfect re-read in the current political climate!).
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Thank you McKay and How to Win Friends and Influence People should definitely be at the top of the list. I somehow forgot it and had to ask Jessa to include it after it was published in the Honorable Mentions to at least get it in there.
    Robin Custodio New to Real Estate from Phoenix, AZ
    Replied 3 months ago
    Just got done reading this book and agree on all points! Sleep is something everyone knows is important, but is never prioritized. Knowing the benefits of sleep and the consequences of lack of it helps me stay disciplined on achieving 8 hours a night.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    Amen. I think knowing how crucial it is to everything else is essential because otherwise, as you said, we just don't prioritize it.