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Unpopular opinion: sleep deprivation is NOT the key to succeed

Jun 10, 2019 | Posted by Cristina in Newsletters

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The text below is an excerpt from our weekly newsletter. If you enjoy it, please subscribe here.

Today’s society celebrates sleepless nights and bragging about how we trade sleep for midnight workathons.

We feel superior when we tell others how busy we are and how important our job is, like we’re some kind of heroes for staying up late at night, sacrificing ourselves and our health.

We tell ourselves that we only need a few hours of sleep per night to function. It even became embarrassing to admit to your colleagues that you got sufficient amount of zzz hours, cause we associate sleep with a sloth label (btw, the sloths called, they ask for their branding back).

And I should know best. I’ve been there. I spent most of my 20s going to bed at sunrise, sleeping only for a few hours, waking up several times to check my phone, and sometimes even to reply to emails or messages – yes, mid-sleep!

I was working in the music industry during those days (or nights, to be more precise), a toxic environment by default. You can’t really NOT work at night in such an industry, cause that’s when most events happen. I didn’t run marathons back then, instead I had long weeks spent driving hundreds of kms between cities, rushing to get in time for the sound check, staying up until the event ended and everyone else went home, sleeping for a couple of hours, and then starting from 0, to get to the next scheduled concert.

When I wasn’t traveling across the country for national tours, my preparations to go to sleep were in sync with my parents morning coffee ritual. My dad, who used to work the night shift many years before, warned me about the dangers I’m exposing myself to, but I was too young to listen to him. I felt invincible.

But, what I’m most ashamed of now, is that I used to post all about it on social media. The message was usually along the lines of: “I’ve been working all night long, while you lazy heads slept!“.

Pff. How much arrogance. Somebody slap my younger self in the face or throw a glass of ice water, please!

A great night sleep enhances every hour we spend awake. It boosts our productivity, our creativity, our memory, capability to learn, and many others.

Have you heard about the principle of diminishing returns? Here’s how it applies to work productivity: in theory, the longer you work, the more you get done. Real life practice shows us that there’s a relationship between working hours and the outcome (productivity and health). Once you reach the point of diminishing returns – somewhere at 35-40 hours of work per week – the quality of work goes down. The benefits in output of long working hours are reduced in importance by the consequences of our health and quality of life.

Yes, I now sleep full eight hours per night. If I’m not in bed by midnight, I become cranky and you don’t want to interact with me. I wake up always at the same hour, without an alarm (the hour I wake up changes slightly throughout the year: it’s earlier in summer, and I’ll sleep longer during long winter nights).

If the quality of those sleep hours gets disturbed by frequent toilet visits (half kilo of cherries before sleep? def’ not my brightest idea) or neighbors above throwing parties, the next day I won’t be my best self. But, generally, I’m way more productive and healthier than ever.

I can’t say for sure how I switched to the current mindset, but I can tell you it took me several years, so it wasn’t an overnight change – no pun intended. 😛

One of the books I now urge everyone to read – and that might have saved my sleep-deprived younger self – is Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker.

He is a world-renowned neuroscientist, director of Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley, a research institute with the goal of understanding everything about sleep’s impact on us. To use simpler words, he is a sleep expert 🙂

Walker explains our need for sleep and how it changes in various stages of life, how other factors affect it, and what sleep deprivation or poor quality do to us: increased risk of Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, autism, depression, ADHD, among many others.

And if those don’t scare you enough, there are also those effects with an immediately visible impact: your productivity, creativity and learning capability drop severely when you’re sleep deprived, together with the ability to make good decisions.

Sure, sometimes it’s ok to do extra push and work late through the night. What’s not ok is when this becomes the norm and it happens over and over again. And it’s a slippery slope.

The most popular counter-arguments can be found in China’s work culture, where this mindset is very different. Because of the huge level of competition, the rule there is to try to outwork everyone, spend all time working harder and longer than anyone else.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, would probably read and laugh at the western books on time management and productivity (if he had time to read them).

Jack Ma’s in favor of the 996 – a hardcore schedule of working 9 AM to 9 PM, 6 days per week. He argues that working long hours is what made Chinese tech giants differentiate themselves from their competition:

The 996 schedule is a huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to have […] If you do not do 996 when you are young, when will you? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about? […] If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We do not need those who comfortably work 8 hours.

So, can you be a high performer and live a balanced life at the same time? Can you learn how to work smart if you don’t work hard, and for stupid amount of hours, at first, when you’re young?

I don’t know. Everyone’s context is different, with different priorities and needs. All I know is what I’ve learned from my own experience, and that is: if I don’t sleep all the hours I need, my brain will get foggy and will release sh*tty work. When I’m tired, it takes me at least twice as much to fulfill the same task – and the quality drops as well. I now know my priorities – but only after I’ve experienced the opposite lifestyle.


Articles (text) with tips from Matthew Walker’s book:

If you’d rather listen to audio, here are two life-changing podcasts with Matthew Walker, where he goes deep into the subject of sleep:

Complementary to what I wrote about work productivity and the Chinese vs Western work culture:

And, finally, here’s a link that will take you straight to Matthew Walker’s book.

The text above is an excerpt from our weekly newsletter. If you enjoy it, please subscribe here.

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