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Why quality sleep is non-negotiable, and how you can achieve it

Daniel Bil

Unfortunately, the VCE student lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to sleeping well. And when you need to fit an extra hour into your day, sleep can seem like an easy corner to cut.

You likely already know that sleep is important. But I want to tell you more about why exactly sleep is crucial, and what you could be costing yourself if you’re in the habit of not giving your body the rest it needs. We'll conclude by discussing ways even the busiest VCE student can experience a more restorative sleep and thus a more productive day.

Disclaimer: While we at Connect have a lot of personal experience balancing sleep and study, we’re not medical professionals. If you want more personalised help or if your sleep cycle is affecting your health, consider seeing a doctor.

Why skimping on sleep is not okay.

The unfortunate truth is that we don’t know precisely why we sleep. In fact, almost all of what we know about sleep comes from studying people who have been seriously deprived of it, and the research is pretty clear – without it, things go very wrong, very quickly.

Among other things, sleep-deprived people:

  • have poorer memory
  • have sub-par logical reasoning skills
  • have poorer attention, alertness and concentration.
  • make riskier decisions
  • have higher rates of anxiety and depression
  • are more irritable and prone to lashing out
  • get sick more often
  • are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular issues, stroke and diabetes

Consider this: If you heard of a new, free medication that made you smarter, gave you better memory, better concentration, reduced stress, made you happier, and reduced your risk of chronic disease, you would be lining up around the block to get your hands on it.

A good night’s sleep has the same effect. So why don’t we treat it with the same respect?

Less sleep = poorer learning.

Let’s briefly ignore the myriad of consequences poor sleep has on your body and mind, and focus directly on the way sleep affects your learning.

One of the leading theories behind why we sleep is the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis. It suggests that sleep is a time for your brain to ‘organise’ the events of the day, and decide whether they are worth committing to long-term memory. For example, a difficult concept from class is probably more worth remembering than what you had for lunch that day. Your brain does this by strengthening certain neural pathways and weakening others, kind of like a drive cleaner on your computer.

In one famous study that looked at the effects of sleep deprivation and learning, a group of mice were placed in a box. One half of the box was illuminated with a light, and the other half was not. The mice quickly learned that if they walked towards the light, they would hear a loud, startling noise, whereas if they went towards the dark, nothing would happen. That night, half the mice were then allowed to sleep, while the other half were kept awake. The next day, the same mice were placed back in the box.

Amazingly, the mice who didn’t sleep were almost four times as likely to head right back to the side with the light. Without a chance to consolidate their memory of this important event during sleep, they remembered nothing from the day before.

The takeaway here is that less sleep means less efficient information retention. The consequences this has on your studies is hopefully clear, especially during VCE where learning a lot in a short amount of time is a skill you need to master.

The VCE student’s guide to better sleep.

Current literature suggests somewhere between 7-8 hours of sleep a night is the minimum for most teenagers. Any less than that, and you’ll start to suffer from all those problems that come with sleep deprivation.

But even knowing the consequences of insufficient sleep, getting enough shut-eye each night is extremely challenging when we’re faced with SACs to study for, TV shows to watch and the night out here and there.

However, without extensively restating the obvious (such as limiting caffeine intake and exposure to blue-light coming from electronic screens), there are some guidelines that will help make sure that the sleep you do get is as restful and restorative as it can be. We’ve summed it up neatly into these three broad sections.

1. Get consistent.

If you think getting long, luxurious sleep-ins on weekends can compensate for sleepless weekdays, science is imploring for you to think again.

Like most mammals, humans have a sort of in-built ‘clock’ called the circadian rhythm, which is responsible for timing the release of melatonin, the hormone that lulls your body into sleep mode. Getting to bed at the same time every night and waking up around the same time every morning helps to reinforce that circadian rhythm. Studies have shown that people with a regular sleep schedule feel more rested than people who have erratic sleep schedules – even if they get the same amount of sleep overall.

So, instead of indulging in inconsistent sleep habits, attempt to get into bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. That’s not to say you can’t have the odd night out or have a lazy Saturday morning once in a while, but everything in moderation!

2. Ditch late nights for early mornings.

Late night study sessions make you feel like you’re doing yourself a favour, especially if you know that you won’t be able to get up early the next morning to finish the task. Besides, it feels satisfying to know that you completed a task you set for that specific day before you go to bed… even if your bedtime is the wee hours of the next day.

However, pulling late nights (and all-nighters) are far from the ideal means of absorbing information fast, something both extensive research and experience agree upon. David Earnest, a professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine, asserts that the tired brain is simply less equipped for learning than the alert, well-rested one. In addition, information acquired by a weary brain attempting to cram is more likely to end up in short-term memory rather than the ideal long-term memory bank, which means we are liable to forget it within a few minutes or hours.

Those among us who identify as ‘morning people’ are at an advantage here, in that they have the option to utilise the early mornings as their study hours. Completing important tasks on your to-do list before everyone else wakes up gives you the same peace and quiet you’re used to experiencing late at night. However, your freshly rested brain is able to tackle study with much more zest. Finally, starting your day by plowing through your tasks sets you up for a productive 24 hours that you can be proud of.

Therefore, even though it takes willpower to switch from a night owl to a morning person, doing so will probably make you feel like you have several more hours in your day with which you can get things done efficiently.

3. Cultivate a routine.

Routine creation is the ulterior motive behind a toddler’s bedtime stories and bath time rituals. By ensuring that young children do the same set of enjoyable activities every night before bed, parents are priming their developing brains to associate these activities with sleeping, thus calming them down and encouraging them to look forward to bedtime.

While your routine might look different from that of a young child, the science and reasoning behind this ‘sleep hygiene’ practice remains consistent. No matter your age, it’s important for your brain, worn out from a day of work and play, to settle into a predictable, consistent rhythm before bed. It’s boring, it’s calm, and thus it ‘implies safety’, says Dr. Rafael Pelayo of the Stanford Centre for Sleep Sciences and Medicine.

So try picking up the habit of reading a few pages of a book, doing a sketch or even planning out the next day’s to-do list before bed. As long as it doesn’t involve caffeine or screens (the blue light emanating from electronic screens interferes with our circadian rhythm), these bedtime routines should ensure that you fall asleep more easily and feel better the next morning.

In conclusion

The human mind is remarkable machine – it’s capable of integration by substitution, understanding cellular respiration and smashing out English essays in an hour. But like a car needs oil, the human body needs rest. And without the sleep we need, the detrimental effects on not only our learning, but also every aspect of our well-being, are profound.

While the changes we’ve suggested may be challenging to get used to initially, consider establishing them and getting an early night tonight. Your brain and body will thank you later.

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