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Snooze your way to a better career

Sleep helps you organize and clarify your thoughts. So when you're developing an important speech or presentation, get most of it done, then sleep on it. You'll achieve greater clarity and perspective in the morning.

Ever have a dream so vivid that, even after you wake up, you think you're still dreaming? Then you go back to sleep and, later in the day when you try to recall the dream, you can't remember a thing.

So you think you'll be smart and have a pad and pen ready by your bedside so you can write it all down right away. Real smart. I did that recently. You know what I found when I woke up in the morning? An illegible jumbled mess that looked like a four year-old had written it. It took a few minutes to decipher the jumble. Here's what I'd written on the pad in the middle of the night:

Soaring, flying high with Kim (that's my wife), dad watching, mom there too, I think. Ice cream cones and pogo sticks. Happy.

I actually had to Google pogo sticks to find out what they were. Any amateur or professional shrinks out there want to tell me what that dream means? Is it normal for a 50 year-old former executive to dream about flying high (does "high" refer to altitude or stoned?) with ice cream while his folks watch, never mind what his wife was doing? I don't even want to know what the pogo sticks were for.

And just so you don't think I'm some happy-go-lucky imbecile, I apparently had another dream that same night. The pad of paper had this written on it:

Guys knocked cliff down on top of back part of new house. Angry.

The meaning of that dazzling display of writing skill was a bit more transparent. We've been building a new house for what seems like forever and, now that it's almost done, I'm terrified that something bad is going to happen.

Okay, I thought, that sounds like the usual neurotic, obsessive me.

Some of my dreams have elaborate action/adventure plots, like a James Bond or an Indiana Jones movie. It's as if I've got a screenplay writer and a movie producer living somewhere in my head. And how do they get an entire production done overnight, with all the 3D graphics and everything, when it takes months to make an animated feature film?

Maybe they're working on it in the background for weeks in advance. Is that even possible? You could be in a business meeting, eating dinner, or watching TV, and all the while a bunch of virtual guys are inside your head making an animated feature for summer release?

I've always been fascinated by dreams. For centuries, scientists and enthusiasts have debated their meaning. Are they windows into the subconscious, a release of our deepest darkest fears and fantasies, a means to resolve conflicts; or just random flashes of memory and visual representation of ideas, joined together in some incomprehensible manner?

We think dreams keep us sane, but for all we know, we're all insane now and, if we stopped dreaming, this crazy world might suddenly make sense.

Okay, enough goofing around. There is a reason for this post. You see, sleep has played a critical role in my career, and I'm not talking about getting enough of it. I'm talking about ways that sleep can help you solve tough problems, organize your thoughts, and perform better under pressure. It took me years to figure this out, so pay attention.

When I'm working on an important presentation or speech, I always plan to have it done two nights before I have to deliver it, not the night before. Here's why. First, less pressure. That keeps the stress level down, which is always a good thing. But the second reason is the key. Here's what you do:

Get 90% of it done, then sleep on it. Sleep organizes your thoughts so, when you revisit it in the morning, you find that you've gained insight and perspective. Also, if there's a particularly challenging problem, sleeping on it not only resets your brain, but sometimes, when you're lying in bed half-asleep, answers come to you. Then you have the entire next day to finish the last 10%.

When the pitch is complete and you've rehearsed it, you still have another night's sleep to organize and clarify your thoughts. Sleep is great at that. I have no idea why or how, but it's true for me and I've heard of a recent study that seems to corroborate my admittedly non-scientific premise.

This method will help you to know your presentation material cold. With just the briefest glance at a slide or notes, you'll not only be able to communicate and explain the key message, but you'll also be able to recall subordinate points and backup material much easier than before. And that'll help you to think on your feet in front of a tough audience (is there any other kind?) firing questions at you.

Sometimes the simplest thing can help boost your career to the next level or help make your work life easier to swallow. Not only are communication and presentation skills critical for leadership positions, but confidence in your ability to deliver an effective pitch also helps to relieve stress and anxiety. And that's always a good thing.