Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Science tells us rest is vital. So why do we glorify sleep deprivation in our careers?


Published on February 19, 2019

In December 2018, I stumbled across a video that inspired an abrupt change in my lifestyle.

Filed under

I found it thanks to an algorithm designed by a group of humans that know far more than I care to admit about my interests. I like to think I believe in free will, but the truth is I’m a sucker for trending content as much as the next person, so I clicked on a headline titled “Navy Seal Commander explains why wake up at 4:00 am.”

Like many creatives, I’ve been a night owl for most of my life. But as I transitioned from a “Maker” to a “Manager,” to borrow from Paul Graham’s famous essay, I learned that in order to maximize my time in “deep work” mode, I’d need to start waking up earlier. Over the last three years, I slowly went from waking up at 10:00 am to 9:00 am to 8:00 am. Of course, the intense cultural pressure to be a morning person was a significant factor as well.

Nowhere is this “hustle culture” more celebrated than social media’s 4:00 am club, a place where celebrities post pictures of empty gyms and alarm clocks set to ungodly hours of the morning. The club originally gained notoriety when an article about a certain famous actor’s morning routine went viral. 

But our culture’s celebration of early birds is far from novel. For years, Business Insider has published a slightly different version of the same story in which they profile a successful person that wakes up and conquers the world before many of us have eaten breakfast. The message of these stories is clear: if you want to succeed, you need to wake up earlier.

When I watched the video about the Navy Seal Commander's morning routine, something else stood out to me, though. The video’s host gave a compelling pitch for non-believers and described his early hours like this: “No phone calls. No text messages. Nothing’s happening on social media. Everyone else is asleep. It’s just total focus.”

The Maker in me, that longs to be in flow state, couldn’t resist. After I watched the video, I set my alarm for 5:00 am the next day and began my experiment.

It wasn’t until my sleep debt compounded that I began to understand the real cost of joining the cult of hustle.

In the days that followed, I felt as though my productivity soared. I wrote and published a story that earned nearly 100,000 views, landed new deals, and even found time to go skiing on a Tuesday in between. But in order to wake up earlier, I had to sacrifice my long cherished 8 hours of sleep. And it wasn’t until my sleep debt compounded that I began to understand the real cost of joining the cult of hustle.

Before starting my experiment, I accepted that I would feel sleepy at times. But I didn’t anticipate the other emotions that would overwhelm me. For example, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d snap at a colleague and make them feel bad for nothing at all. I didn’t know that I’d begin to experience anxiety or make silly mistakes like sending an invoice to a customer for half the correct amount. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. What cult would tell you about the skeletons in their closet?

Shortly after I started waking up at 5:00 am, the algorithm took me to another corner of the internet: a story about a pilot who had overshot his landing strip by 46 kilometers due to sleep deprivation. Whereas Neistat’s video urged me to join the cult of hustle and sleep deprivation, this story cautioned me against it.  

The pilot said of the incident, “No aircraft in the history of aviation has crashed because a pilot has gone to sleep at the controls… It’s never happened. On the other hand, crashes that have resulted from fatigue? There are many, many, many of those.”

Christopher Barnes, a University of Washington business professor, has dedicated a large portion of his working life to investigating the lost productivity caused by poor sleep. In one of his his most influential studies, Barnes investigated Sleepy Monday, the first work day after setting the clocks forward in the Spring. On Sleepy Monday, people sleep, on average, forty minutes less than they do on a regular night. While forty minutes might seem like an insignificant amount of time, the effects are anything but.

On Sleepy Monday, mildly sleep deprived judges hand out harsher sentences than any other Monday in the year. Sentences tend to be about five percent longer than the average. Sleep deprived people are more likely to interpret stimuli in a negative manner, and less able to regulate their negative emotions, both of which compromise their decision making and judgment.

But our society isn’t just sleep deprived for one Monday out of the year. Over the past sixty or seventy years, the average sleep a person gets has decreased dramatically. In 1942, people slept around seven hours and 54 minutes per night. Nowadays, however, Americans manage just six hours and 18 minutes a night. Only the Japanese are worse, sleeping for just six hours and 12 minutes each night. The negative effects are staggering: economists estimate that absenteeism caused by sleep deprivation costs the Japanese economy $138 billion annually.

Late last year, the Japanese Government launched Shining Mondays, its latest strategy in its battle against karoshi — literally “death by overwork”. Shining Mondays encourage employers to give their staff one Monday morning off per month. Uptake, however, has been poor.

NASA is another organization that has experimented with encouraging better sleep. In the 1990s, scientists at the organization began to worry about the effects of sleep deprivation on astronauts and other high-pressure workers. Getting an invoice wrong is one thing. But the stakes are a bit higher when you're tasked with operating a rocket powered by 3.8 million pounds of explosive fuel.

In 1995, NASA began a power nap experiment. If an employee felt tired, managers encouraged them to leave their work and take a short 26-minute nap. The results were surprisingly effective. A short nap improved cognitive performance by 34 percent and alertness by 54 percent. Despite the positive results, NASA’s napping philosophy didn’t spread to other organizations, and only a handful of large companies openly recommend power naps to their employees.

We live under small artificial suns and stare at artificial screens that blast bright blue light into our eyes... With such a disconnect to the natural light cycles, it’s no surprise that we are staying up later.

We can only blame a work-focused culture so much. The average American in full-time employment works eight hours and 24 minutes, which leaves another 15 and a half hours every day open.

Why people choose not to sleep is a more complex issue. The modern world is full of things which reduce or inhibit sleep. Two of the most popular drinks in the world — tea and coffee — are primarily popular because they keep us awake. Then there’s alcohol, which fragments our sleep and suppresses dreaming.

Our smartphones are always connected and provide friends, family and colleagues a direct line to our attention at all times of the day and night. The apps on our smartphones are equally as troubling. They are specifically designed to distract us and dominate our attention.

With so many factors in play, it’s difficult to pick out which are most important. However, researchers from University of São Paulo Medical School believe they have done just that. For the past decade, the Brazilian researchers have been studying a small town in the southwest of Brazil called Baependi.

Although almost everyone in Baependi has access to electricity, television, and smartphones, their preferred bed and rise times are significantly earlier than those of people in large Brazilian metropoles like São Paulo—up to two hours, on average.

Since residents of Baependi and São Paulo share the same modern distractions, the researchers sought an explanation for the former’s sleeping habits. After much investigation, they concluded the most important factor was light exposure. Most Baependi residents work outside in natural light. They see the sun grow brighter towards midday then wane into dusk.

Paulistanos, on the other hand, mostly work indoors under consistent artificial light. The morning feels exactly like midday, and midday feels exactly like dusk. The same is true at home. We live under small artificial suns and stare at artificial screens that blast bright blue light into our eyes, telling our brains that it’s still morning or midday. With such a disconnect to the natural light cycles, it’s no surprise that we are staying up later.

About 30 days after I joined the 5:00 am club, I quit. I decided that I no longer wanted to drift off in conversations with friends or snap at my colleagues. Instead, I wanted to be more intentional and rational in my decision-making, something that science shows is incompatible with sleep deprivation.

After I concluded my sleep experiment, I talked to James Pollard, a financial consultant, whose career path was largely similar to mine. James had recently set up a consultancy helping financial advisors work more efficiently. In his first few months, James was pushing himself as hard as he could, relying on strict discipline and hard work to get things done. Late nights and early mornings were par for the course.

Like me, James realized something was wrong. He was getting work done but everything was a struggle. Every last project required brute force of willpower. Projects that would have ordinarily taken James weeks now took a month. Something had to change.

James eventually honed in on his problem: sleep. He wasn’t getting nearly enough and what little sleep he did get was poor quality and regularly interrupted. Last year, James set about overhauling his sleep routine.

“I took a look at every single part of my sleep and sought to improve it,” said James. “I lowered my thermostat to 68 degrees, the optimal temperature for sleeping. I purchased blackout curtains and a sleep tracker. I started eating healthier and completely got rid of caffeine.”

Before embarking on his experiment, James started closely tracking his time using Toggl. He analyzed his work and put tasks into two categories: high value (working on a new product for example) and low value (mindlessly checking email). A few weeks into his new sleep routine, James saw a huge change in how he spent his time.

“I noticed a 40 percent increase in my time spent on high-value tasks, which led to me nearly doubling my income,” said James. “Getting more and better sleep felt like switching from a four-cylinder hatchback to an eight-liter Mustang.”

On December 28th 2018, James set a goal for himself: launch a new project before the new year so he could target financial advisors with New Year’s resolutions. With his new found energy, drive and focus, James locked himself away for three days, tackling a project that would have taken him weeks if not months previously. After three days, he emerged with a market-ready product. It’s one of his best-selling products so far this year.

I asked James whether he regrets his earlier attitude towards sleep. He doesn’t. He says the lifestyle taught him the value of rest. It’s hard to imagine such a statement going viral. But then again, if there’s anything the last couple years have taught us, it is to question the algorithms that often lead us astray.