You snooze, you lose. It’s a saying that’s too often interpreted literally. We see the day as much too short and the competition as much too fierce to allow for the indulgence of a full night’s sleep.
But that’s the problem: Sleep is not an indulgence. It’s essential to our physical and mental health, and it’s crucial for performing our best. Even so, it’s easy to buy into the mindset that the true movers and shakers of the world are not the ones snoring in their beds, and that those who need their sleep are somehow the weak members of the herd.
We marvel at the “sleepless elite” – all those high-profile CEOs who routinely fit 20 hours of work into a day and historic super achievers such as Thomas Edison, who reportedly slept only 3-4 hours a night and considered sleep a “heritage from our cave days.” (Some see a direct link between Edison’s wakefulness to his legendary output. I say, what more might he have accomplished on a good night’s sleep?)
Of course, a lucky few are wired to get by on less sleep – researchers credit a gene mutation – but most of us can’t trim sleep from our lives without paying dearly for it. Sleep deprivation makes us sick, it makes us fat, it can lead us to use potentially dangerous drugs to stay alert, it increases accidents both on the road and in our judgment, and it takes years off our lives.
Still, we keep pretending sleep is optional. Experts say adults need 7-9 hours nightly but few of us hit that mark. If you’re missing out because you’re having trouble getting or staying asleep, don’t delay in seeking help from your doctor or a sleep specialist. But if you’re missing out on sleep because you assign it less importance than all the other things on your to-do list, it’s time to rethink your priorities, how you measure success, and your feelings about sleep.
Ask yourself: When you push yourself to keep going despite fatigue or when you see others doing so, do you view it as a sign of excellence? If you sleep in, do you feel guilty? Would admitting to your boss that you needed to carve out more time for sleep feel like career suicide?
If you need help making the case to yourself or others that sleep can’t be written off, here are a few things it might help to know:
Not all go-getters are short sleepers. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Matthew McConaughey are just a few of the high-profile people who make no apology for needing and getting a full night’s sleep. Others have come to value sleep the hard way. Arianna Huffington, for example, got a painful wakeup call that changed her life when she fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone. She now prioritizes rest and promotes a “Thrive” campaign that urges professionals to “sleep their way to the top.”
Or consider former President Bill Clinton. A college professor once told him that great men tend to need little rest. In response, Clinton promptly began burning the candle at both ends – until quadruple bypass surgery forced him to recognize his need for sleep and incorporate it into a healthier lifestyle.
We also work while we sleep. Our brains aren’t unplugged while we’re sleeping. They may, in fact, be doing some of their best work. Research suggests we learn as we sleep and that sleep reinforces what we’ve learned. Sleeping brains are also capable of creative leaps, as anyone who has awakened to a new idea or a sudden solution to a problem can attest. The late author, entertainer and songwriter Steve Allen considered himself as creative in his unconscious hours as he was awake – and that was fortunate because he found that his nature demanded huge blocks of sleep, up to 11 hours a night. His most famous song, This Could Be the Start of Something Big, was in fact the product of a dream, he said.
You’ll get more done in the long run. Sleep can feel like lost time, but it’s actually setting you up for success. It builds and repairs tissue, restores energy, consolidates memory, improves mood, keeps hormones regulated, and allows you to be physically and mentally engaged in all the activities of your waking hours. And according to new research, a good night’s sleep even keeps your stem cells young. In short, sleep isn’t something only the less ambitious can afford; it’s something all of us, including those reaching for the brass ring, should cultivate. You snooze, you win.