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Sleep is More Important Than Food
Let's cut to the chase.
Say you decide to go on a fast, and so you effectively starve yourself for a week. At the end of seven days, how would you be feeling? You'd probably be hungry, perhaps a little weak, and almost certainly somewhat thinner. But basically you'd be fine.
Now let's say you deprive yourself of sleep for a week. Not so good. After several days, you'd be almost completely unable to function. That's why Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
Here's what former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had to say in his memoir White Nights about the experience of being deprived of sleep in a KGB prison: "In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep ... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."
So why is sleep one of the first things we're willing to sacrifice as the demands in our lives keep rising? We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity and our productivity.
Many of the effects we suffer are invisible. Insufficient sleep, for example, deeply impairs our ability to consolidate and stabilize learning that occurs during the waking day. In other words, it wreaks havoc on our memory.
So how much sleep do you need? When researchers put test subjects in environments without clocks or windows and ask them to sleep any time they feel tired, 95 percent sleep between seven and eight hours out of every 24. Another 2.5 percent sleep more than eight hours. That means just 2.5 percent of us require less than 7 hours of night a sleep to feel fully rested. That's 1 out of every 40 people.
When I ask people in my talks how many had fewer than 7 hours of sleep several nights during the past week, the vast majority raise their hands. That's true whether it's an audience of corporate executives, teachers, cops or government workers. We've literally lost touch with what it feels like to be fully awake.
Great performers are an exception. Typically, they sleep significantly more than the rest of us. In Anders Ericcson's famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 ½ hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute midafternoon nap some 2 hours a day more than the average American.
The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists.
As I began to gather research about sleep, I felt increasingly compelled to give it higher priority in my own life. Today, I go to great lengths to assure that I get at least 8 hours every night, and ideally between 8 ½ and 9, even when I'm traveling.
I still take the overnight "redeye" from California to New York, but I'm asleep by takeoff — even if takes an Ambien. When I get home at 6 or 7 a.m., I go right to bed until I've had my 8 hours. What I've learned about those days is that I'd rather work at 100 percent for 5 or 6 hours, than at 60 percent for 8 or 9 hours.
With sufficient sleep, I feel better, I work with more focus, and I manage my emotions better, which is good for everyone around me. I dislike having even a single day where I haven't gotten enough sleep, because the impact is immediate and unavoidable. On the rare days that I don't get enough, I try hard to get at least a 20-30 minute nap in the afternoon. That's a big help.
Here are three tips to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep:
- Go to bed earlier — and at a set time. Sounds obvious right? The problem is there's no alternative. You're already waking up at the latest possible time you think is acceptable. If you don't ritualize a specific bedtime, you'll end up finding ways to stay up later, just the way you do now.
- Start winding down at least 45 minutes before you turn out the light. You won't fall asleep if you're all wound up from answering email, or doing other work. Create a ritual around drinking a cup of herbal tea, or listening to music that helps you relax, or reading a dull book.
- Write down what's on your mind — especially unfinished to-do's and unresolved issues — just before you go to bed. If you leave items in your working memory, they'll make it harder to fall asleep, and you'll end up ruminating about them if you should wake up during the night.
This blog was originally posted on HBR.org.
Leave a comment
I follow the steps to fall asleep and have beens successful, my problem is STAYING asleep. I usually have 2 solid hours of sleep when I first fall asleep then see every hour after midnight. Any suggestions???
by Judy Boulet
@ 2013/03/19 02:26:20 PM
Have you tried writing down what's on your mind each time you wake during the night? You may still be ruminating.
@ 2013/03/19 04:58:05 PM
Mr. Schwarz, I have already used your tips and they really works! Also this guidelines for sleeping are very useful. Thank you very much for them and please continue with your work!
@ 2013/03/06 05:06:39 AM
I happened upon this article and was intrigued by the comment, "That's why Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture." I completely agree with and appreciate the importance of sleep. As someone recently diagnosed with a neurological sleep disorder similar to the more popularly known narcolepsy, I can't stay awake and without the "aid" of medication - regardless of the quality or quantity of night time sleep, it is a challenge to remain wakeful and the presumption of cognizant consciousness, a heavy burden and a flawed belief ... The daily grind and reality of western civilization's 8-5 mentality challenges my ability to retain a healthy balance and remain gainfully employed. I am looking to achieve a more Zen balance of "When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep." and welcome helpful tips and resources to transform my life.
@ 2012/09/24 10:07:39 PM
Great post! I read this months ago on the BusinessWeek website. When I speak to groups about the importance of sleep, it seems everybody "knows" they need more and better sleep, but it just doesn't get priority for some reason. More posts like this, from more people like Tony (Arianna Huffington is also very outspoken about this issue), and maybe we will start to see a shift in thinking. Keep it up! Sean Folkson, Founder - NightFood, Inc. http://www.NightFood.com
by Sean Folkson
@ 2011/09/20 05:33:43 PM
We live in an age where competition in the work environment is so stiff that "if you snooze, you lose" applies also to our nightly quota of proper sleep. Among my work colleagues sleeping more than 7-8 hrs/night is frowned upon. It's thought of as weak and even lazy. It's common for me to hear : " Oh, I don't need more than 4-5 hours a night. " , as if anything more than that is an indulgence of the less ambitious.I bet there are many folk out there who experience this.
@ 2011/03/14 02:47:20 PM
Mr. Schwartz I manage a tech team comprised of full time staff and student "techs." Do you have any suggestions to convince my students of the need to get enough sleep ? They believe the myth ten fold..."sleep X" hrs less and they feel they feel invincible....Their work performance suffers when they have exams and they pull "all nighters"... I cannot seem to convince them of the need for 7-8 hrs of sleep. Maybe a stern email from you will convince them..??? Many thanks for the article. Don Barbacci. U of Michigan-Dearborn
@ 2011/03/11 08:45:56 PM
Spot-on! Priorities so lopsided noways.
by Benson Njiru
@ 2011/03/09 02:57:14 AM
I've struggled with this for a long time--I knew I needed to get to bed earlier, but I couldn't seem to make myself do it. I'd be working on something or watching TV with my husband or absorbed in a novel, and the next thing I knew it was midnight. The solution that finally worked was to put an alarm clock in the living room and set it for 10pm, the time that I needed to start getting ready for bed. :) Lynn The Kaizen Plan www.smallstepstobigchange.com
@ 2011/03/04 02:58:33 PM
I agree, the importance of sleep cannot be understated. I started a company with the sole purpose of educating people on the benefits of sleeping better. We're starting out simple with an iPhone app and hardware wristband (the sleep science of actigraphy). I'd love it if you could check it out at http://wakemate.com. Would really appreciate any feedback or comments!
by Arun Gupta
@ 2011/03/04 02:46:26 PM
A student once asked his teacher, "Master, what is enlightenment?" The master replied, "When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep." Thanks for reminding us of this age-old yet simple wisdom, Tony.
@ 2011/03/03 11:40:16 PM
Excellent advice, Tony! All best, Betty
by Betty Edwards
@ 2011/03/03 05:29:49 PM
Great post Tony. It's really hard to stick to this but when we do we fell much better for it...
by Matt (London)
@ 2011/03/03 02:03:34 PM
Tony: This article is spot on. In fact, I interviewed Joshua Bell about his thinking and attention giving habits and he cited sleep. My book, "Consider" that just came out is a 3 year look at the "reflective" habits of organizations in an age that only seems to value immediacy. My best Daniel
by Daniel Forrester
@ 2011/03/03 01:28:35 PM