Why Better Sleep Hygiene Can Level Up Your Customer Support

Here I am, hunched over my laptop with the train blasting its horn on the route from Toronto to Montreal. It sure is the bumpiest ride I've had on tracks.

With just over six and half hours of sleep last night, it's tough on my body and mind to travel such long distances. Unsurprisingly, getting a good amount of sleep each night is crucial to having a good productive day.

Unfortunately, my sleep hygiene is poor.

So what is sleep hygiene? Well, sleep hygiene refers to the things you do to strive for better sleep. The American Sleep Association refers to it as:

behaviors that one can do to help promote good sleep using behavioral interventions.

After diving into the book How We Sleep recently (worth a read—I've dropped a link below), I realized I don't get a good quality, consistent amount of sleep and that I should do better 😬

Not only is it bad for my health, but it's also affecting my ability to provide excellent customer support.

Why We Sleep
Neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker provides a revolutionary exploration of sleep, examining how it affects every aspect of ou...

I'm not the only one not getting good quality sleep—so that's a plus I guess? 😅

Based on data from the app Sleep Cycle, Kiwis are getting around 7h 30m of sleep on average (good on you, New Zealanders 🇳🇿). You'll be surprised to learn they're at the top of the league regarding the total amount of sleep by country. With a recommended amount of 7-9 hours of sleep for an adult, it's pretty damning for the rest of the world 😧

A scatterdot graph showing average sleep by country vs. GDP per person. Japan is worst with just over 6 hours of sleep and New Zealand the best with over 7 and a half hours per night
Getting a good night's sleep varies a lot by country and culture. Image: Matt McLean / Sleep Cycle / IMF / The Economist

Getting a good night's kip is vital to creativity, productivity, and having a healthy life. Excellent sleep hygiene also applies to doing a great customer support job—whether you're writing a new Knowledge Base article or drafting your next reply to a customer email.

But why? What is it about sleep that helps activate our brain and make better decisions regarding customer support? 🤔

This blog post will dive into the three primary skills required to level up your customer support: memory, communication, and creativity.

Chasing After Better Sleep

I'm not judging you—I've had my fair share of inadequate sleep. I've struggled to get a solid 8 hours the last few nights.

Particularly on the road, it's tough to design a decent sleep environment with my calming dark green walls, ice-cold air conditioning, and Portuguese Percale sheets. And it has hurt my performance.

A graph showing the average amount of sleep with 7h 56m as the average
My average sleep duration the last month is pretty terrible 😬

But how much does it matter? Surely just half an hour more sleep can't make that much different, right? But, unfortunately for us mere humans, it does.

Generally, as an adult, less than seven hours a night prevents you from solidifying memories, retaining information, and curbs creativity. I'll explain this in more detail later on.

A chart showing age group, sleep requirment in hours, and deep sleep needed in hours.
As you get older, you need a little less sleep on average. Source: Casper

Before diving into my book, I assumed a lousy night's sleep wasn't good for me—I just didn't realize it'd affect my job as much as it does. Sure I couldn't concentrate quite as well, but I could still get through the tasks.

Since reading my book, I'm hyperaware of the effects of sleep deprivation and how they changed my approach to tasks.

Store Memories With a Full Night of Sleep

Ever go through customer support processes one day and then forget how to do it the next? It can be frustrating to spend the time learning something only to have to learn it again the following day.

Of course, documentation can help 😉

You don't want to document everything you do, especially if it's infrequent. One thing you can do to help solidify memories is to up your sleep duration and quality.

Sleep has two main stages—NREM (uncreatively named Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). NREM then splits into three phases. Stage 1, Stage 2, and—you guessed it—Stage 3 🛌

The different stages of sleep. Source: Halhousie University

Going through all these stages of sleep help solidify memories meaning you're more likely to remember processes—or better yet, think up sounder, creative solutions to do it faster.

But why does sleep help with solidifying memories? I won't go deep into the subject, but here's a quick rundown—after all, I'm no brain scientist 🧠

"If you don't sleep well that night—unfortunately, you can't catch up on sleep—you'll struggle to remember the things you learned that day"

Your brain has three types of memory stores. There's sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Short-term memories are stored in the hippocampus, and the number of memories held here is relatively small. According to a study in 2008, it's around four chunks or pieces of information at one time—not much.

An illustration of the brain with a cutout showing the Hippocampus. It looks like a string bean.
The hippocampus plays a significant role in storing short-term memories. Source: Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

These short-term memories can easily be overwritten, so it's essential to write things down if you don't have time to take action on them right away.

Because of this small capacity, it's important to get sleep. Sleep is the primary driver of getting those short-term memories—like how to refund a customer—into the long-term memory bank.

If you don't sleep well that night—unfortunately, you can't catch up on sleep—you'll struggle to remember the things you learned that day.

As I mentioned earlier, during sleep, your brain goes through various stages. Amazingly, during NREM Stage 2, your brain goes through a data transfer.

Like moving data from one folder to another, your brain transfers memories through electrical pulses (called sleep spindles) from the hippocampus through to the long-term storage site of the cortex.

NREM Stage 2 sleep happens throughout the night. So, as inconvenient as it is, you can see that getting a reasonable sleep duration means more memory storage.

NREM stage 2 is highlighted on a graph of sleep stages

And more memory storage means being able to repeat tasks effortlessly, which is pretty essential when it comes to customer support.

Communicating Clearly with Teammates

When you have a role in customer support, there's a stream of feedback, issues, and decisions. These tasks mean speaking with your team is critical to triaging these tasks.

If there's an issue with the software, you'll likely speak with an engineer. Feedback about a new product you just shipped? You'll want to talk to R&D. Require a new subscription? You'll need to get that approved by management before moving ahead.

These things require finesse whether you're communicating asynchronously or in person. Communication seems simple, but the brain requires multiple areas to work in tandem.

"Even if you tend to be empathetic, you're more likely to overpromise to the customer for a selfish reward and underestimate the timeline to get the bug fixed because you didn't sleep well the night before"

Let's look at an example. A customer has given you a heads up that a specific part of the software isn't working correctly. Pretty standard if you work in software, right?

Your job is to get the bug fixed. After checking it out yourself, you'll probably want to ask engineering to take a look. This requires empathy because, well, you'll likely set a deadline so short the engineer can't meet expectations without it.

Empathy requires intense emotional processing. The part of the brain that processes empathy is the right supramarginal gyrus.

An image showing a small central part of the brain highlighted in red. It's shaped like the letter A.
The right supramarginal gyrus shown above controls empathy. Source: PsyPost

Without sleep, this area of the brain struggles with output and there's a detrimental effect to the point where you're more likely to make selfish rather than empathetic decisions.

Even if you tend to be empathetic, you're more likely to overpromise to the customer for a selfish reward and underestimate the timeline to get the bug fixed because you didn't sleep well the night before.

So getting more sleep means you'll get better at being transparent, empathetic, and rational with teammates. It also means less awkward team retreats 😮‍💨

Sleep and Creativity

If your job includes customer support, you'll know it's a fundamentally creative role. Though often an underrated skill, you have to develop solutions to unique problems you've never heard of.

Something as simple as a customer not being able to log into their account is a creative process. You have to figure out:

  • when the issue started happening
  • any special features of the account that might prevent a login
  • if any parts of the infrastructure are degraded
  • and give the customer a friendly and concise reply to make them feel at ease

Similarly, if you're writing a new Knowledge Base article you have to:

  • think about the topic you're writing about
  • figure out where to place it that's logical
  • go through the process of what you're trying to explain in your head
  • document the process in a clear and precise way that's easy to follow
  • and proof-read before publishing

These actions all involve being super creative. The interesting thing about creativity is that it's heavily influenced by REM stage sleep.  This is the stage in which you dream.

Without this type of sleep, you'll struggle with tasks like replying to customer support tickets and writing a Knowledge Base article. Have you ever heard the term "sleep on it"? This is why.

The high excitation, plasticity, and connectivity of REM sleep provide an ideal setting for the formation of novel, unexpected, connections within existing cortically coded knowledge.

— Penelope A. Lewis et al.

The interesting thing about REM stage sleep is that it occurs mainly at the end of your sleep cycle. So to get creative the next day, you'd ideally want to get a total of 7 or 8 hours to level up your customer support or Knowledge Base article.

There aren't any sleep shortcuts when it comes to creativity 😐

But where does creativity get uh, created in the brain? It's the same place as your memories—the hippocampus. So it seems to be responsible for both remembering the past and imagining the future.

A seahorse-shaped region embedded in the temporal lobe of the brain, the hippocampus plays an important role in piecing together details of experiences—people, places, objects, actions—both to accurately re-construct past events and to vividly construct possible future events.

— Roger E. Beaty, Ph.D., Dana Foundation

And just like memory, the hippocampus requires good quality sleep to kick into full gear and allow creative freedom. Without it, you'll struggle to develop new and innovative ideas for your team and customers.

How I (Attempt) to Level Up My Sleep Hygiene

Ok, so you've heard about the importance of sleep and why it matters to your customer support role. But what can you do about your sleep hygiene? 🤷

Fast forward a week and I'm well on my way to improving my sleep hygiene. It isn't easy but I'm striving for a healthier approach to sleep.

I found the best start to clean it up initially was to track it. Without data how could I know where I was going wrong and improve?

I use an app called Pillow but there's a variety of apps on different stores that can help with slumber tracking. You can check out some of them from this New York Times list.

Two charts showing sleep quality and sleep duration. The former shows 89% sleep quality and the latter 8h 42m or sleep on average over the last 3 days.
Tracking my sleep has been fundamental in improving my sleep hygiene. Here you can see my improved sleeping patterns over the last week.

Having the data there helps me keep on top of my sleep hygiene and shows a strong correlation between my mood throughout the day and the amount of sleep I got (spoiler—I'm grumpy when I sleep less than 7 hours 😒).

The second thing I did was improve my sleep environment. These steps included:

  • Purchasing some cooling but soft sheets 🥰
  • Cooling the room temperature. Since I live in Portugal, I have air conditioning, but turning down the heating before bed and leaving the window open should help cool it ❄️
  • I started wearing an eye mask to bed (this one if you're interested!). The blinds in my bedroom aren't blackout, and so light pours in during the morning
  • Buying a firm mattress to help support my back (and stop my partner from disturbing my sleep when they get out of bed 🤫)

The mileage of things you can do to improve your sleep environment probably varies. If you're looking for a longer list of things to do, I'd recommend checking out the handy YouTube video below.

More Mental Clarity, Improved Mood, and Success in Your Customer Support Role

Improving your sleep can seem impossible if you have certain habits.

By making minor adjustments like having a consistent schedule or changing your sleep environment, you can improve your life by having better relationships, leveling up at work (raise anyone? 🥂), and being happier.

I'm undoubtedly guilty of neglecting my sleep hygiene, but as I get older, I realize that maybe I should get a better night's rest—hopefully every night 😴