Sleep, Success, Social Life: Can You Really Only Pick Two?

Ben Butler
May 9, 2016 · 5 min read

It’s somewhat fitting, and very much ironic, that I fell off the blogging wagon after my piece on habits. My “ideal morning”, espoused in my last post, has frequently been more of a fantasy in these past few weeks. But I actually think that’s ok. Sure, I’ve been getting up at random times; but I’ve also been living in two different timezones. And, yes, I’ve made little time for reading and exercise, but I’ve seen a lot more of my friends and girlfriend. So, can I really call these last few weeks a succession of ‘off’ days — or have I just switched ‘on’ a different side of me?

I’m writing this in May, which marks the first May in my existence that I’m not studying for or sitting exams. I had a day off work yesterday, so headed into town to meet a friend. As I strolled through Trinity College’s front gate, the usual nostalgic balm of my alma mater was tinged with the stress of students, panicking over finals. When we think back to our college days, we probably think of open squares (in Trinity’s case) or ‘quads’ (particularly you American readers); but I actually have a different shape in mind — a triangle.

That’s the archetypal — or, at least, the espoused — college experience. You can choose to get good grades and enough sleep (but miss out on a social life). You can have a social life and enough sleep, but all those lie ins and skipped lectures will affect your grades. Finally, you can have good grades and a social life, but all those all nighters (spent either studying or partying) will turn you into a zombie.

Ok, so the triangle is more of a meme than a creed, and I think it purports an American high school paradigm, whereby people identify — or are identified — as this steady state or defined type of person. I think, in reality, we oscillate between all three (and more) of these states: picking the two variables that we need at that current time, and parking the other.

It’s September, and you’ve just started (back) in college? Go out and sleep in, you can catch up later in the year. It’s approaching Christmas, and you’ve essay deadlines and festive catch ups? Do both, you’ll have a few weeks off to rest. When April/May rolls around, put the social life on hold for a month or two. You get the picture.

That being said, it’s sometimes not that easy. Sometimes, things don’t parse out as neatly as I described above. In those instances, your life might look a little bit more like this:

And that’s ok too! I’ve certainly had days like that, where things build up and you feel like you’re under this crushing pile of things to do. A coping strategy that I’ve come up with lately — which I can talk more about in a future post, if you’d like — is to list out and break down exactly what I have to do, into little tasks. For me, at least, things become a lot less scary and way more manageable when ‘Send email to X’ starts me on the journey of getting through stuff.

I appreciate that I’ve been heavy on the college example, but I actually think this idea applies more if you’re in the working world. When working, particularly in a role where the hours can add up, life can feel a little like the above triangle; with life seeming like this constant battle between working well vs. social life vs. sleep. Again, I think choosing two and oscillating between cycles is the way to go here. Just started a new job? I’d bias towards working well and sleeping. Going through a quiet period in work where you know you’re ahead? Have a few late nights, power through.

So, in classic college mode, here’s my hypothesis:

Not in college? Swap out ‘good grades’ for side projects, and ‘research’ with ‘reading’.

The tl;dr here is, I think, pick and mix the variables that you need for now, and live your life in cycles. It was the word cycles that really spun out this whole post, actually. To be quite honest, I’d done like three drafts of a post about SoulCycle — the spinning phenomenon that’s taking over in the US — and analysing that through the prism of Nir Eyal’s ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’, but the idea of life cycles interested me more than fancy indoor cycling.

It was that day in SF, where I’d planned on spending the day writing a blog post; and when I instead went to SoulCycle, had brunch, then a barbeque, then drinks and out with friends, that I realised different kind of days can make me happy in different ways. Sure, I was behind on my posts, but I was in San Francisco! Anyway, a rainy day in Dublin is much better for blogging.

Pictured: exercise, fun with friends. Not pictured: blogging, rain.

An ‘off’ day is only ‘off’ if you’re fixed to a certain cycle. Feel free to kick back a gear or two when you’re on a flat, you’ll need that energy when you get to your next hill.

If you enjoyed this post — and I hope you did — it’d mean a lot if you hit that ‘Like’ button below. Not only will it result in an instant squeal of delight from me, as I get a lovely notification; but it’ll also help spread this post to other people, which would be swell.

If you’d like to take a look at some other stuff that I’ve written, you can view it all on LinkedIn and Medium.

If you’d like to keep in touch, or if the blog isn’t enough for you, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Ben Butler

Written by

1999’s next big thing

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade