This article was first published on January 28, 2013 and has been republished after the BBC reported that people sleeping two hours less than in 1960s risking serious health problems
Four years ago, I learnt the value of sleep – the hard way. I’d just returned home after a week of taking my daughter on a tour of colleges. The ground rule we had agreed to for the trip was no BlackBerry during the day, so each night I’d stayed up very late to catch up on work. The day after I got back, I suddenly found myself lying on the floor, surrounded by a pool of blood – my own, as it turned out. I had passed out from exhaustion and banged my head on the way down. The result was a broken cheekbone and five stitches under my eyebrow. It was also a wake-up call, leading me to renew my estranged relationship with sleep. And when it comes to wake-up calls, few are as effective as the spilling of your own blood – which, in the old days, was used to seal a contract.
In the years since that wake-up call, I’ve come to understand that it’s not enough to treat sleep – and especially lack of sleep – as a stand-alone issue. Sleep is something that encompasses many aspects of our lives, from technology and leadership to our relationships, careers, creativity and stress. Along the way, I’ve become a sleep evangelist, whether I’m gently chiding HuffPost reporters and editors who email me in the wee hours or sending my friends the same Christmas gift as I did last year – an old-fashioned Pottery Barn alarm clock, so they could stop using the excuse that they needed their tempting iPhone by their bed to wake them up in the morning.
Why do so many of us fail to make use of such a simple way to improve our lives? Indeed, why do we deliberately do just the opposite and make a fetish of not getting enough sleep, in the mistaken, and costly, belief that success results from the amount of time we put into work, instead of the kind of time we put into work – and the direct correlation between quality of time and time out? The truth is, lack of sleep has become a sort of virility symbol. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d only had four hours of sleep the previous night. I resisted the temptation to tell him that dinner might have been a lot more interesting if he’d had five.
Trying to make a breakfast appointment is now an exercise in sleep deprivation one-upmanship. “Oh, hi Arianna, yeah, eight is a bit late, but I guess it’s fine because that’ll give me time to have gone to a spinning class and get in a few conference calls first.”
There’s practically no aspect of life that’s not improved by sleep and, accordingly, diminished by lack of sleep. Within the past fortnight, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have revealed that couples who regularly get a full night’s sleep are more likely to have positive, successful relationships. Meanwhile, a skin care company reported that women who get a poor night’s sleep on a Monday (a third of women, according to the study), reach a low point by Wednesday when they will look their oldest, have the lowest energy levels and feel the most stressed. If we ever needed proof of the importance of a good night’s sleep, these statistics – merely the most recent in a growing dossier of similar evidence – are it. So how is this cult of no sleep affecting our bodies, minds, and souls? Let us count the ways.
Creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, decision-making; all of these can be enhanced simply by sleeping more. “Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions,” say Dr Stuart Quan and Dr Russell Sanna, from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. “The combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance.” They also point out that lack of sleep was a “significant factor” in the Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
Sleep deprivation can also be a factor in disasters you don’t read about in the news. We see an increase in heart attacks in the days after we shift the clocks forward in the spring at the beginning of Daylight Saving Time, says Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, an organisation based in Missouri, USA, dedicated to the science of sleep. The loss of just that one hour of sleep can also affect your likelihood of being in a car accident.
And lack of sleep can have a significant impact on our inner lives as well. As the Great British Sleep Survey found last year, poor sleepers are seven times more likely to feel helpless and five times more likely to feel alone – consequences that can affect everything from our relationships to our productivity. Even if we’re not getting the seven or eight hours a night that most of us need, researchers have found that short naps can help revive us. According to David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, a short nap “primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately.”
To put some flesh and blood on that principle, consider that Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Leonardo da Vinci were among history’s famous nappers. Here is Churchill, in an oratorical flourish, on the subject of napping: “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one – well, at least one and a half.”
While the Churchill nap routine may not be realistic for most of us, the sentiment behind it is perfect.
Of course there are many obstacles standing between us and sleep. This is especially true in a culture that’s wired and connected 24/7. And more and more science is proving the truth that screens and sleep are natural enemies. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York recently published a study showing that the light from computer screens obstructs the body’s production of melatonin, which helps govern our internal body clock and regulates our sleep cycle. Technology allows us to be so connected with the outside world that we lose connection to our inner world.
And sleep is linked to one of the most destructive forces in our lives: stress. In fact, work stress keeps 46 per cent of Americans up at night, according to one 2012 study, and stress in general causes 65 per cent of people to lose sleep. Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter put it this way in The Atlantic magazine: “The culture of ‘time macho’ – a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters and bill the extra hours that the international dateline affords you – remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.”
This is especially true for women. One recent study by professors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women in highly stressful jobs have a nearly 40 per cent increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks compared with their less-stressed colleagues.
Another study found that women with demanding jobs have a 60 per cent greater risk for type 2 diabetes than their less-stressed peers. And research has shown that stress and pressure from high-powered careers can be a factor in the resurgence of eating disorders in women aged 35 to 60.
At a time when public trust in our leaders and institutions is at an all-time low, we’d do well to consider how sleep-deprivation has been a factor. Bill Clinton, who used famously to get only five hours of sleep, once admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” And while I was at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last year, a well-sourced journalist told me that the senior adviser of then presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, was only sleeping three or four hours with his devices beside him, then waking, checking his email and sending replies before sleeping for another hour. Or not. If Fehrnstrom’s habits were at all indicative of the Romney campaign operation at large, it turns out a bit more sleep might have produced a better campaign, and a better result for the candidate.
This prevailing culture tells us that nothing succeeds like excess, and that working 70 hours a week is better than working 60. We’re told that being plugged in 24/7 is expected, and that sleeping less and multitasking more are an express elevator to the top.
So, to change that conventional wisdom, and prevent more bloody wake-up calls like the one I experienced, it’s going to take a movement. The good news is that what’s going to bring more joy, gratitude, and effectiveness to our lives and be the best for our own careers, is also what is best for the world. It’s time to shut our eyes and discover the great ideas that lie inside us, to shut our engines and discover the power of sleep. And to remember the words of John Steinbeck, who said, “A problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”