Animation by Justin Tran

Virtual First

How to build our sleeping lives around our working ones

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Published on October 15, 2021

Animation by Justin Tran

Our modern approach to sleep shifted a century ago. What would it take to shift it again?

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Awhile back, I learned that I’m a Night Owl. Not just that I’ve never been one for set bedtimes, but that my circadian rhythm naturally tilts towards only really getting tired around one or two in the morning; my body is just built that way. Once I started to connect the dots, my entire history with sleep made way more sense, from my preference to working late-night jobs as a teen to my complete uselessness in early-morning meetings to this day. I had valuable, provable information about myself...but I couldn’t do anything with it.

Sadly, the dream of Sleep Equity, where we’re all allowed the freedom and flexibility to build our best waking lives around our natural sleep schedules, is far from a reality in our workspaces today. This isn’t a change that can be achieved overnight, but we can start taking our first steps today. The hard rules and boundaries that have defined working life have never been softer, and the science has never been more clear.

We’re not all built for 9-to-5 workdays, and probably never have been. In fact, most people fall within four different sleep “chronotypes.” Learning which you are, as a number of scientifically validated tests can clarify, is a fantastic starting point. But getting to a place of closer sleep equity at work requires more than personal evaluation. It requires rethinking some pretty fundamental truths about how we work. Consider these tips and truths a starting point towards a world where our work lives are built alongside our unique sleep needs, instead of in rigid opposition to them.

Our sleep cycles changed 100 years ago and can change again

In the 1920s, two simultaneous changes would transform North American life; the popularization of the 9-to-5 working day via Henry Ford’s adoption of the schedule in his factories, and the adoption of indoor electrical lighting in the majority of American homes. 

These two forces worked in tandem to change a lot of how people would sleep and wake. An increasingly universal work start time meant that people would wake up around the same time to avoid being late, but the ability to easily light your home well after dusk meant that our bed times were all over the place.

No matter when you went to bed, you would be more or less forced to wake up at the same time. And as our nocturnal distractions only increased over the following decades, the rigidity of when our work days “start” has only come into more conflict with when our personal days “end.”

This is important to keep in mind, because the first argument against meaningful change is the idea that something has “always been this way.” It hasn’t. For people who do shift work, it has never been this way. And millions of entrepreneurs have found ways to work their own schedule without falling behind. Think of it this way: Do you live like a 1920s assembly line worker? No? Then why do you sleep like one?

And more importantly: Did anyone ever sleep like this before they had to?

Your body may be built to sleep in segments

Science journalist Jessa Gamble has a lot to say about circadian rhythms, or our “body clocks,” as she calls them. And her findings echo a sentiment you may have heard before: We used to sleep differently. Medieval European farmers, 20th-century First Nations groups in Arctic Canada, and many other people throughout history have veered from the 8-hours-nightly situation.

Do you live like a 1920s assembly line worker? No? Then why do you sleep like one?

Their approach was closer to what’s today called Segmented Sleep, and experts like Gamble believe it represents the “natural rhythm” of our resting hours. The idea is that, instead of sleeping in one unbroken session, humans of a cross-section of cultures would instead doze off in smaller segmented bursts. Unlike the “monophasic” approach of the modern 9-to-5, some cultures broke their sleep into 4-6 smaller sessions. 

Others adopted a simpler “biphasic” approach, dividing their sleep across two stretches of time—a method Gamble put to the test in a study. People spent days without exposure to any artificial light. They slept at 8PM once all natural light was gone and they woke up around midnight for a two-hour “anti-nap”, where they broke up their sleep with a brief bout of wakefulness, before returning to bed from 2am until sunrise.

“The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the daytime, that they realize they're experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives,” she says. The key factor seems to be that anti-nap; historical records show that people use this break between sleep segments for everything from quiet meditation and chores to some more, um, obvious after-midnight activities. But there’s another factor: prolactin, a hormone released during REM sleep that Gamble says is the kind of condensed hormone release “the modern day never sees.”

Right now, the idea of going to bed during prime time and waking up for midnight meditation will either sound like torture or your ideal Tuesday night. Both answers are possible and valid, and that’s the whole point. Our sleep styles are personal, the very foundations of how we greet each day.

Productivity tools can be sleep machines

Whatever the path towards sleep equity looks like, it will have to include an honest interrogation of the tools teams use, which (luckily) have already begun to evolve. Imagine segmenting your daily bouts of sleep in the days before we had easy ways to collaborate on documents, share folders, or DM your co-workers throughout the day. It would have been nearly impossible, because in a world without asynchronous communication, you don’t exist if you don’t show up at the same time as everyone else. Our current system still isn’t perfect, but we’re slowly inching closer towards technology that allows us to work and sleep whenever we want.

Let’s say you do your best work at night; everyone in your world benefits from that. On a personal, professional, and productivity level, you’d be your best self; no more early-morning brain fog or mid-afternoon energy dips. That being said, you could also easily fall out of the loop in a world where so many key decisions are made in real time via email and instant messaging. But newer video messaging tools, which allow your to record yourself (and even your screen) as you would during a real-time meeting, could help you bridge the gap between teammate’s sleep habits the same they do for co-workers on different sides of the globe.

And these tools will only get better at handling such tasks as teams grow more and more distributed, and the likelihood of people sharing the same sleep schedule trends down. We’ll learn to be aligned, even when we’re not all awake. 

Along the way, workplaces can help support these kinds of interactions, too: By fully embracing policies that are flexible enough to our family needs, our personal lives, our time zones, and our sleep patterns.

Our current system is anything but restful

Some aspects of our modern sleep experience are out of our control. We can’t turn back the clock on light pollution, sound pollution, the effects of blue light, or the creeping effects of ever-lengthening work days on our ability to log off at a reasonable time. Ironically enough, the pandemic and a huge shift to remote work has made all of this worse for the people best-served by the 9-to-5 workweek in the first place.

Doomscrolling went from a cute online phrase to a concept so common and universal that it was the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2020 word of the year. It also serves as a triple-threat combo of factors that can wreck your sleep quality: anxiety, inconsistent sleep times, and bright light in a dark room. In many ways, Night Owls are the ones best suited for this period of late-night existential dread and zero-effort commuting times. But outside factors are a big factor in restless sleep, and once you identify them, you can manage them.

Alcohol and caffeine have a proven detrimental effect on sleep quality. To be safe, limit your intake to 4-6 hours (or more) before your bedtime. And also: Commit to a regular bedtime, keeping your chronotype and sleep cycles in mind. 

Create some intentional space in your day to let your mind wind down before bedtime; a regular routine of relaxation 30 minutes before you go to bed will further train your body to get ready for rest. During that time, any sort of anxiety-busting activities can help you get ahead of the thoughts that inspire doomscrolling—try journaling, or just writing out your anxieties so they have somewhere to live outside your brain. 

Commit to a regular bedtime, keeping your chronotype and sleep cycles in mind. 

Regular exercise (but not right before you sleep) will also prompt your body to require the restful slumber it needs to regenerate muscle tissue. 

Finally, once it’s time for lights out, take it as a literal challenge; everyone sleeps better in an environment as dark and quiet as possible. A huge enemy to both of these is, once again, your phone—setting some rigid notification settings can remove the unpredictable distraction of a DM or a push notification and allow you to truly focus on rest.

Making the dream a reality

Disruptive ideas, ones that challenge long-held beliefs and traditions in order to benefit an even greater number of people, are often dismissed because of the logistics required to pull them off. Make no mistake: achieving Sleep Equity—that is, adapting our work lives to be flexible enough for people to work whenever is biologically best for them—would require us to topple quite a few traditions. But failing to do so also comes with some costly risks as well.

As studies are finding, Night Owls underperform at work, and it’s not just that their output could be better. On a human level, the experience of doing work that’s not your best is unsatisfying; we feel our best when we’re doing our best. And for many of us, that’s out of reach on a daily basis, for many reasons, including sleep. 

For the first time in a long time, we have an opportunity to remedy that—to dream a bit about how we might work if we prioritized one of the most this pivotal aspects of individual wellness. Let’s all sleep on that.