And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours. —Victor Frankl
Sleep is delicious. It’s restorative, like a great meal. We need it to survive. But for all adults there’s a line we must draw for where we spend our time. For writers, or anyone pursuing large goals over extended periods of time, sleep is often an area that can be sacrificed for significant productive gains.
Most people spend 8 or more hours sleeping every day. After 7 days that’s 56 hours a week. 224 hours a month. Roughly 2,912 hours a year. Just laying there unconscious.
Other people, especially the highly successful and motivated, forego sleep. When choosing to work or rest, many of the worlds leading people choose to work. But is it safe?
Science thinks so, and I mostly agree. According to a 1965 experiment, someone stayed awake for 11 days and survived, although an incident in China contradicts this, with a man dying after 11 days. Studies with rats showed consistent death after 2-3 weeks of sleep deprivation (reading the study may give you nightmares). When combining other activities with sleep deprivation, people are definitely dying. In cyber cafes, on highways, even in nuclear power plants. Evidently tanker spills and the Challenger disaster were linked to issues with lack of sleep.
So, what the hell are we all doing?
Sometimes there’s litterally no choice. Newborn babies, sleep disorders and insomnia, pressures to work multiple jobs to support a family, or military service force people to conduct their lives and work without sleep. For days on end. After 3 kids I can say for sure sleep gets a priority downgrade when it comes to keeping your children alive after birth. Those first 3 days in the hospital are spent feeding, cleaning, and monitoring life around the clock (can’t have that little one choking to death on vomited amniotic fluid while you snooze). To hell with sleep when survival is at stake.
But what about when there is a choice? Why would someone willingly choose to sacrifice sleep? Are they crazy, dumb, or on to something the rest of us are missing?
A few years ago I read something interesting in a book by Jack Hoban written in 1988:
Obviously, sleep is very important. The problem is that it is not always possible to maintain a perfect sleep regimen. If your schedule allows it, you should alter your sleeping patterns occasionally. Learn to sleep in the day, or stay up all night. There may be times when, in a critical situation, you may be required to stay up for long periods with very little sleep. Allow yourself to experience what that feels like. If you have to do it for real, the shock to your system will at least be a familiar one. If you travel often, as I do, you may become afflicted by jet lag Use this opportunity to allow your body to learn how to function in unfamiliar patterns.
This is good advice for expecting parents. But other noteworthy people have made habits of abandoning the recharge and using the time for other things.
In fact, here are a few well known modern figures who routinely give up time in bed to get work done:
- Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo (4-6 hours)
- Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square & Founder of Twitter (4-6 hours)
- Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo (4 hours)
- Dominic Orr, CEO of Aruba Networks (4 hours)
- Sergio Marchiane, CEO of Fiat (4 hours)
- Martha Stewart (4 hours)
- Donald Trump (3-4 hours)
- Barack Obama (6 hours)
- Bill Clinton (5-6 hours)
- Leonardo Da Vinci (20 minute naps every 4 hours)
- Mozart (5 hours)
- Voltaire (4 hours)
- Nikola Tesla (2 hours)
- Thomas Edison (3-4 hours)
- Benjamin Franklin (5 hours)
My own personal sleep dosage falls between 4-7 hours, depending on my kids, my writing, my day job, my coffee consumption, and the day of the week. On weekdays I goto bed between 930 and 11pm, and rise as early as 2, 3, or 4am depending on whether my screaming baby or alarm gets to me first. I grab coffee and get rolling. I regularly enter traffic tired, work a full day in the office, and grind back home to see my family before they goto bed. After they’re all unconscious, more work begins (like writing this article). Then I sleep, and do it over again until the weekend arrives and family schedules change.
Getting conditioned to sleep fasting
Every step of the way I’m tired. I want to rest, but don’t allow it. For me it’s similar to fasting from food. It’s fasting from sleep. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable takes time and exposure, much like Jack Hoban suggests. But after a while, you acclimate. You learn to push yourself to perform while wearing the fatigue until it becomes normal. I dare say it becomes easy (although it remains painful).
Victor Frankl discusses this degree of acclimation and the surprising levels of endurance he witnessed and experienced in Auschwitz where malnutrition was rampant, sleep scarce, and comfort non-existent:
If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”
As a medical doctor in the camp, he was surprised at how wrong medical textbooks were on the subject of required sleep. When in survival mode, people are capable of all kinds of freaking crazy things:
The medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong!
Modern medical men & women indeed have strong opinions on required sleep. Starting at age 18, the minimum recommended sleep amount is 7 hours. Under 18, and especially children, it makes sense to need more. For example, newborns require 14-17 hours per day (if only they would get those during the night…)
There’s no question that sleeping 7 hours is beneficial. Adequate sleep is necessary for optimum brain function; to talk, to walk, to see clearly (and not hallucinate). Being well rested and thoroughly slept is critical for many jobs. Truck driving, construction working, piloting aircraft, or operating machinery. Policing, medical service providers, politicians who shape public policy. And it’s not just the sleepers life at stake: in June 2014 a truck driver awake for 28 hours nearly killed Tracy Morgan. Paradoxically, our military puts our warrior champions into situations that demand extended periods of sleeplessness, even while facing the harshest, most dangerous conditions humans can experience. Going 5 days without sleep is exercise to Navy SEALs.
Is it worth it?
With all this said, I think anyone considering giving up sleep need to be careful. Foregoing sleep takes preparation, practice, and a serious reason. Leading the country or a multi-billion dollar company are good ones. Chasing your life’s dream is worth this cost (in my opinion). But beware of your limitations, maintain self-awareness, and tap out if you’re not capable of living or working safely.