Are Traditional Sleep Patterns Bogus?

Recently, there has been a flood of articles highlighting and pushing back against many people’s relationship (or lack thereof) with sleep. The most notable champion of this movement is Arianna Huffington, with her Sleep Revolution. Ms. Huffington and others make arguments that can be boiled down to a handful of key points:

  1. Our society values the “always-on” mentality, which forces people to spread themselves thin over work / school, social life, personal projects, dating, etc.
  2. People value quantity over quality in their endeavors.
  3. A problem arises when people define themselves and their peers not by “who they are,” but rather by “what they do.”
  4. Many people in elite careers sleep less than the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7–9 hours.
Asleep at the wheel

I intend to respond to these points in order to show why the current sleep culture is not necessarily a bad thing. Before I begin, I’d like to point out a truth about elite careers: people choose them for a reason. Whether attracted by high pay, ultra-intelligent colleagues, or fringe benefits, we consciously choose to sign up for 80+ hour workweeks. We all know how demanding banking, consulting, law, medicine, tech, and other such fields can be. If you go into a situation aware of its downsides, you don’t really have a right complain about them. With that in mind, I’d like to address the arguments at hand.

Sleep advocates posit that when social worth is defined by what people do, rather than who they are, there is incentive to over-commit. They say the positive returns of doing things start to decline when you exert yourself physically and mentally in numerous different projects. For example, consider a consultant who spends her free time writing books and programming while also using weekends to renovate her home. They argue that such a person would burn out quite quickly.

I’d instead argue that the returns actually increase as people commit to more activities, up to a certain point that is different for every individual. For one person, a single project might be enough, but another might crave serious involvement in eight. These cases are likely quite different, dictated by each individual’s personality, physical wellbeing, and time management skills. Some people actually thrive when given more stress and responsibility. Neuroscientists have pointed out that this flourishing might be due to the actual anatomy of the brain in so-called resilient individuals. For these people, more stress is better.

Regarding the second point, quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be synergistic, up to a certain limit. According to Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, the most successful people have deep experience across varying disciplines. This allows them to see more across fields and use interdisciplinary knowledge to solve virtually intractable problems. It turns out doing more stuff can actually make you better overall. Many successful people combine quality and quantity. For example, Orit Gadiesh, the chairwoman of Bain & Company, reads over 100 books a year while leading a global management consulting firm. Elon Musk simultaneously manages 3 multi-billion dollar companies; he previously founded PayPal which sold for over $1B. Bill Clinton kept 4500 books in the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, and installed additional bookshelves in the White House when he became President.

To challenge the third point, I’d like you to imagine something: someone you love dearly has been arrested on false accusations and he or she might serve a decade in prison. While you’re anxiously waiting, a woman pats you on the back and starts chatting confidently with the cops about the evidence. You ask, “Are you our lawyer?” She responds, “No, but I’m a good person.” You’d go ballistic, screaming and cursing that you need a real lawyer to help your best friend/ spouse/ whatever. You might recognize a different version of this scenario from David Wong’s famous essay “6 Harsh Truths”; if so, you know where this is going. In that moment at the police station, you’re seeing the world through the prism of your need. You don’t care whether that lady is a “good” person or not, you need her to be a great lawyer.

This is how most social interactions, aside from those with family and friends, work. You can’t pay for groceries with goodwill. You can’t be a brain surgeon unless you have the med school background. You can’t ace a class and gain the respect of a professor unless you do the work well. We are very much what we do because that is what society (21st century Western capitalist society, at least) expects from us: productivity based on our skill-sets.

There’s a reason that we introduce ourselves as product managers or doctors: it creates social cachet. It makes society see that we have value and, in turn, allows us to capture some of the value we create, monetary or otherwise. For example, being a “nice guy” won’t get me much. It won’t get me a job or a girlfriend or a puppy. Being a nice guy is the bare minimum. For those things, I need to bring value to the table: I need relevant skills and charm and proof that I can raise a dog. Even in non-monetary contexts, I’d be judged on my ability to do things: can I cook a good meal or be a good father or offering meaningful aid to the needy? I am very much defined, in our society’s eyes, not by what I am but what I do. To be better at what I do, sometimes I might have to give up sleep and that’s ok.

Fourth, the fundamental flaw with generalized, prescriptive advice like that from the National Sleep Foundation is that blanket statements tend to group things that should be kept discrete. Just because the average optimal sleep cycle comes out to 7–9 hours doesn’t mean that it works for everyone. More often than not, the average doesn’t even exist. It’s simply the product of statistical reductionism. In fact, some of the most (traditionally) successful people in the world deviate from recommended sleep patterns.

The amount of sleep that some successful people get nightly
The amount of sleep that some successful people get nightly (Business Insider)

There’s no doubt that sleep is crucial to living a healthy life. Adequate sleep helps boost cognitive function and keeps the body in equilibrium. But “adequate” can be defined in many ways. Perhaps, we’ve adopted polyphasic sleep schedules in which we break down the same total amount of sleep into multiple periods. In fact, according to Eliasson and Lettieri (2010), “napping tended to be more common among high performers. Of importance, there were no significant differences in total sleep time with or without naps.”

Types of different, effective sleep cycles
Types of different, effective sleep cycles (Business Insider)

Many of us make a conscious choice not to sleep because there’s so much to be experienced in life, so many tough problems to solve, challenging work to do, fascinating books to read, and amazing people to meet. Sleep can wait, because life can’t; our finite amount of time is slowly ticking away. At the end of the day, elite knowledge workers are atypical people. Maybe they’ve found atypical ways to fulfill their needs.

Originally published at Thought Distiller.

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