Project Description

Sleep as a Competitive Advantage

At 6 p.m. last Friday, I boarded a plane for Bangalore, India. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, I arrived back in New York after two days of meetings and traveling 34 hours across nine time zones. As you can imagine, I didn’t see much of Bangalore.

I’m not suggesting this model of travel for anyone, including me. The saving grace was that I experienced little jet lag in either direction. By contrast, many of the executives with whom I spent time in India were visibly exhausted when they arrived after their long flights, and probably even more so by the time they got home.

The paradox is that I seem to need more sleep than most people. But because I so deeply value sleep, I’ve systematically taught myself to do it nearly anywhere at any time, and I get a lot. The consequence is that I rarely feel exhausted or run down, despite a demanding travel life.

For example, I slept five hours on the first leg of my flight to India, four on the second leg — nine in all — and just as much on my return home. The two techniques that most help me to fall asleep when I’m under pressure are to write down what’s on my mind (to get it off my mind) and to breathe deeply if I’m still staying awake — in to a count of three, out to a count of six.

My body’s circadian rhythms were obviously challenged by the travel to India. But when I felt myself fading during the two days I was there, I simply went up to my room and took a short nap. When I landed in New York at midday on Tuesday, I felt fine and went to work for the rest of the day.

The vast majority of leaders I meet don’t get enough sleep to be fully rested. Worse than that, many consider their ability to get by on not much sleep a competitive advantage and a measure of their toughness. Remember how Bon Jovi put it? “Gonna live while I’m alive, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Here’s my version: “Gonna thrive while I’m alive, I’ll sleep so I’m ahead.”

Too many of us continue to live by the durable myth that one less hour of sleep gives us one more hour of productivity. In reality, each hour less of sleep not only leaves us feeling more fatigued, but also takes a pernicious toll on our cognitive capacity. The more consecutive hours we are awake and the fewer we sleep at night, the less alert, focused and efficient we become, and the lower the quality of our work.

The research is overwhelming that the vast majority of us require seven to eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested, and only a small percentage require less than seven. The problem is that we kid ourselves. “Like a drunk,” the Harvard sleep expert Charles A. Czeisler wrote, “a person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is. Most of us have forgotten what it really feels like to be awake.”

The most powerful short-term solution for insufficient sleep isn’t caffeine or sugar. It’s a brief nap. Sara C. Mednick, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, has found, for example, that subjects given a visual task to practice at four intervals deteriorated in performance over the course of the day. Those permitted a half-hour nap after the second session kept up their performance through the third and fourth sessions. In another study that involved a memory challenge, Professor Mednick and other researchers found that a 60- to 90-minute nap led to just as much increased retention afterward as did eight full hours of sleep.

In the two days after my arrival home this week, I felt a drop in my energy in the early afternoon that was greater than usual. On both occasions, I took a short nap and awoke feeling refreshed and able to work with high focus for the rest of the afternoon. More than ever, I’m convinced that sufficient sleep is a uniquely powerful fuel for sustainable performance. Among all the behavioral changes we help our clients make in their lives, none have a greater impact on how they feel and perform than getting more sleep. It’s also true that the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for rest and renewal. Instead, most of us do just the opposite: as demand increases, we simply hunker down, push harder, for longer.

Cheri D. Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, tested this assumption by having members of the Stanford basketball team sleep 10 hours a night for six to seven weeks. Almost immediately, they reported not just higher energy and improved mood, but faster sprint times and improved free-throw and three-point shooting accuracy. Ms. Mah and her colleagues have seen comparable gains among athletes on Stanford’s swimming, football, tennis, golf and track teams.

For most of my life, I got eight hours of sleep almost every night. It was after I became familiar with this sort of research — and simultaneously realized that I was facing higher work demands than ever — that I increased to eight and a half or nine hours most nights.

One consequence is that I’m awake fewer hours than most people I know. But when I am awake, I’m really awake, and it serves me well in every dimension of my life. What I know for sure is that it makes me feel immeasurably better.

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Tony Schwartz

Founder & CEO

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