Get this: the 8-hour-per-night sleep is a relatively modern phenomenon, only dating back to the 18th century. Not coincidently, it coincides with the invention of the light bulb. Prior to this, historians hold that people not only slept better than today, but practiced what they refer to as 'segmented sleep', meaning they first retired when darkness fell and then woke again in the middle of the night. At this time, they'd eat, drink, visit friends, read, pray, take a walk, have some fun between the sheets - whatever. After this they'd hit the hay again until morning.
Among these historians is Roger Ekirch, who believes that the advent of electricity resulted in a perversion of our natural sleep, including later bedtimes and less sleep in general. Ekirch reviewed hundreds of diaries and other literature to prove this convincingly. This means that if you find yourself waking up at 1 or 2am and don't know why, your body could just be more in-tune with its natural rhythms.
There are two important rhythms in particular that I want to talk about, since they affect how (and how well) we function. The first is our circadian rhythm and the second is our ultradian rhythm. Both rhythms follow a 24 hour cycle and drive of our waking and sleeping impulses. Our circadian rhythm responds mainly to light and darkness in our environment. Our ultradian rhythm, on the other hand, refers to the 90 minute peaks and valleys of activity and inactivity that we experience during the 24 hour circadian day. Following both of these rhythms means staying true to our body's natural urges. For example, that inclination many of us feel to sleep around 2pm? That's total natural, and all part of our body's circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, it is an impulse many of us deny - especially in Western cultures. Instead of resting, we’re slamming back coffees and energy drinks to muscle through these low-energy hours.
Other cultures, however, are more inclined to go with the flow, taking a 'siesta' (little nap) in the middle of the afternoon to refresh and reinvigorate their minds and bodies. According to studies, napping bolsters your memory, makes you more attentive and alert, helps prevent burnout, and boosts your creativity and your productivity. A “study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%”.
Staying true to our ultradian rhythms also includes taking breaks every 90 minutes. It means unplugging. As renowned digital strategist Tom Gibson writes, "We need to incorporate 'off time'—the outward breath, the ebb—into our working patterns. Not with simple lip-service like 'you need to sleep better,' but as an integral, affirmed part of the process of working. We need to understand that 'on' is impossible without 'off,' and that the distance between the two needs to be made closer: like the beats of a heart or the steps of a runner."
The Rhythms and Poker
All this is applicable to your time at the tables. Grinding is more about frequency than duration, so you don't need to binge play to refine your technique and improve your game. It's not a matter of dedication or willpower; your brain will simply stop running efficiently if it's tired.
Roy F Baumesiter, a well-known American social psychology professor, has conducted countless studies and has concluded that while people who regularly exercise their willpower are the happiest, willpower is like any muscle - you can actually burn it out if you use it too much.
In his experiments, Baumesiter found that people who were asked to accomplish a task that involved using restraint (like resisting sweets, not crying during a sad movie, etc.) experienced a decrease in their willpower when asked to perform other restraint-based activities immediately afterwards.
Says Baumesiter: "The immune system also dips into the same pot, which is big, but finite." He continues: “And, we are pretty sure, so does women's premenstrual syndrome. Having a cold tends to reduce your self-control, and PMS does the same. We get cranky and irritable, but it's not that we have nastier impulses – it's that our usual restraints have become weakened."
This means you're more likely to go on tilt and make bad calls that will eat away at your bankroll. To play optimally (and to live optimally) you have to let your body run on its own terms, as much as possible. This means unplugging regularly, taking breaks, sleeping well and really listening to your body. If you're tired, rest. If you're hungry, eat. If you feel like you have energy to burn, burn it. Simple stuff really, but implementing these changes is difficult for many of us who've been brought up in a culture of denying and denial. We push ourselves through our days at the expense of our own mental and physical health, and as a result, we're never really performing at peak potential. We're constantly exhausted. It doesn't have to be this way. Start small.
Here are some tips:
Implement breaks into your days as much as possible. I get that you won't always be able to grab a long nap, but even a 10 - 20 minute nap has been shown to increase productivity. If you can't nap, at least rest. If you can't take that break, focus on a less important task that doesn't require as much concentration.
Start listening to your body. ASK yourself how much energy you have and act based on that. You can even keep a journal and record your energy patterns. Schedule the most important tasks for times when you find you are most alert.
Disconnect. Make sure you have time when you're completely disconnected from work and work related activities.
Limit screen time, especially late at night. Too much screen time has been shown to cause stress, anxiety, depression, weight gain as well as poor quality sleep. I know it can be challenging to unplug in this digital age, but try. Don't make excuses. I don't care if you think you want to stay up to watch Inside Amy Shumer or Game of Thrones or Jimmy Falon or whatever the hell people watch these days; set the PVR and go to bed.
Be kind to yourself. Negative self-talk can really drown out your body's actual wants and needs. You tell yourself to suck it up and push on when you're totally spent. Life is hard enough. Don't make it harder on yourself. Practice self-compassion. Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to someone you love, like a family member or close friend. If they made a mistake, you wouldn’t tell them they are worthless or stupid, but you’d probably tell yourself that. Self-compassion can do wonders for your outlook on life, and your ability to truly learn from your mistakes.
If you think you need more help getting a handle on these principles, feel free to contact me for some life coaching (that will also translate to better performance at the tables) or just shoot me an email.