I will admit it. I was one of those people who wore my lack of sleep as a badge of honour. I absolutely felt it was irrefutable proof that I was committed, determined, and SUCCESSFUL. I would repeatedly go with about 3 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period for weeks at a time, often interspersed with going 24 hrs + without any sleep at all. I did this for about 2 years, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, the more I was able to accomplish by dedicating ‘sleeping hours’ to work, the more I was incentivized to sleep less. I was essentially being rewarded for abusing my mind and body.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really feel the physical impact of it right away and for the most part I was flying high. I was accomplishing more than most of my peers, and each success fuelled me with the energy I needed for my next task. Sleep was for losers. I had no intention of altering the way I was living my life, until my husband involuntarily stepped in.
My husband has a sleep disorder. When he was finally diagnosed it had become common for him to fall asleep at the dinner table, and anywhere else that he sat still. It was incredibly difficult for me because I was on fire and ready to go, and he was doing the church nod every time he sat down. After enduring my pestering he finally saw a doctor who recommended he undergo a sleep study. Sure enough, he was quickly diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea, a disorder that causes breathing pauses during sleep, leads to sufferers being awoken so many times an hour that they aren’t able to stay in the restorative stage of sleep. Although they may not recall coming to full wakefulness, they hover in a light sleep and and wake still feeling tired. Fortunately this diagnoses came with a solution. He was hooked up with a home CPAP machine that gently forces the airway to stay open causing less wakeful episodes and therefore a more restful sleep. It also came with some unnerving warnings that had me looking at how I managed sleep in my own life.
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to some pretty serious risks such as high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attack, and overall can shorten the life span of an individual.
I so foolishly had zero idea that lack of sleep could have such devastating effects. Due to all the googling I had been doing regarding my husbands condition, my super clever (read: creepy) browser started feeding me more and more information through ads and social media. This TED ED video was one that really stuck out for me, partly because I believe pretty much everything I see in a TED ED video, but mostly because the section on waste product build up in the brain really made a whole lotta sense to me (and maybe also because the words toxic and brain in the same sentence is a little terrifying).
I started to feel a little trapped. I knew I needed to start getting more sleep, but I had NO idea how I would be able to continue to accomplish all the things and make the demanding deadlines that were constantly looming. I was fresh off a bit of a break from working and decided to give it a try. I started going to bed at 11PM, and honestly it was very strange. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a ‘bedtime’ and for awhile I really hated it, but I kept going, because a funny thing happened; I noticed a distinct increase in productivity during my daytime hours. I could hardly believe it. All the time I had been spending working around the clock I had been moving in much slower motion. My mental capacity had become sluggish and it was actually taking me longer to complete tasks than I realized. After just a week of getting 7 hours of sleep a night I was accomplishing more throughout my day than I ever had when I was sleep deprived. There were definitely times when I reverted to staying up for a night to complete a particularly challenging project, but I no longer defaulted to exchanging sleep for productivity, because I could clearly see, it wasn’t working.
After a year of maintaining a reasonable sleep schedule of 6-7 hours a night, and sleeping and waking at roughly the same times everyday I looked back to compare what I had accomplished. I was still truly surprised to see that I was performing better than I had over the 2 years previous to that.
That was 7 years ago, I still have an 11PM bedtime, and I can’t imagine going back to running on little or no sleep. I do have bouts of insomnia that leave me living in zombieland the following day, and these days are a stark reminder of how functioning without sleep is barely functioning at all. I didn’t escape without some damage, though. I have suffered some lower back issues from forcing myself to sit at a computer for literally hours on end without breaks, and I suppose I will never know if that behaviour cut any time from the length of my life, but I do know that I have a new respect for the balance required between sleep and wakefulness.
When I began writing this article I did a little bit of research to see how many others in the working world had the same feelings I did. I almost immediately came across this video clip from one of my favourite sources: TED TALKS.
I absolutely love this speech. I will admit that I do not have droves of information on Arianna Huffington, but she is dead on with this particular talk. She also lives this truth. If you’re interested check out her website or read her book ‘The Sleep Revolution’, I’ve got to get a copy of my own!
When I look around me it seems as though everyone else is still proudly exchanging sleep for the pursuit of success, and it’s still easy to get caught up in the idea. Its tempting to believe that these sleepless wonders really are accomplishing more than the rest of us, and that they will ultimately enjoy a more successful life. But my experience with both methods of living remind me that the body and mind just can’t continue to function in a constant state of sleep deprivation. How much of that toxic sludge builds up and clouds peoples judgement, problem solving or creativity? What kind of damage are we doing to our minds and bodies long term, in a panic to accomplish a short term goal? It might be impossible to gauge, but I can say I think that one of the essential ingredients to success has got to be a sharp mind. A sharp mind that has gotten all the sleep it needs.