“Life is too exciting to sleep” – that is what Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, recently told The Guardian. And indeed it seems many successful people seem to boast in their statements about sleep deprivation. Is it really true though? If you want to be successful, if you want to be the next Thomas Edison, Warren Buffet, or Donald Trump, must you give up the “luxury” of a good night’s rest forever?
Perhaps you have begun to envy your business buddy who boasts that he can work twelve hours a day and get just four hours of sleep a night. It does seem as if Americans are a bit obsessed with the idea that reducing sleep will make you a superhuman. Indeed Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Jack Dorsey and many other successful Americans boast about their ability to get by with 3-6 hours of sleep a night. It is hard not to glorify the idea of pulling ahead while the rest of the world is snoring.
The problem with this type of attitude is that it ignores the fact that while you sleep your brain is anything but inactive. In fact, some fascinating and extremely important things are going on. For one thing, our brain consolidates memories, turning short-term memories into long-term memories. This means that sleeping is an essential part of learning. Not only can sleep help you to confirm things that you are learning, but while you sleep your brain is strengthening and connecting memories in interesting ways. New studies link this process to better day-time problem-solving skills. So deciding to “sleep on a problem,” may be a very good idea after all.
As you slumber on, you are releasing toxins. Which means that a good night’s sleep can lead to better immunity and less chance of wasting time getting sick. Your brain also processes emotional memories while you sleep, so sleep can lead to better overall emotional health and help you to cope with hard situations.
So you see, nap time is not wasted time at all. In fact, your brain is doing amazing things while you sleep. On the flip side, sleep deprivation can lead to all sorts of problems.
- Sleep time is the only time that that your body stops producing noradrenaline, a hormone linked to stress. Lack of sleep is directly related to stress.
- Research is also beginning to show a strong link between sleep deprivation and anxiety.
- Lack of sleep could be weakening your ability to think creatively and innovate.
- Sleep deprivation has also been linked to poor decision-making and problem-solving.
- Sleep deprivation is linked to poor social skills, as it affects your ability to think about how we affect others and how others affect us.
So how is it that some people can survive (and thrive) for long periods of time with little sleep? Well, in some cases, their boasts could be deceptive. For example, Thomas Edison claimed that he slept only 3-4 hours a night. He called sleep “a heritage from our cave days.” In a recent blog post, I wrote about Edison and noted that what he didn’t openly confess was that he had a curious ability to take power naps anywhere and everywhere, from inside the lab, to outside on the ground. He positioned napping cots throughout his property. A colleague of his once said that “his genius for sleeping equaled his genius for invention.”
I am not saying that every successful person who boasts about little sleep is lying or takes three naps a day. There is such a thing as the sleepless elite. New research indicates that 1-3 percent of people really can function normally with just a few hours of sleep a night. The problem is that way more people think they are part of this special group than really are. Psychiatrist Daniel J. Buysse told The Wall Street Journal that out of 100 people who think they need only six hours of sleep every night, only about five really can get by. The rest end up chronically sleep deprived. It is a dangerous assumption.
In the end, making sure you get adequate sleep every day is not over-indulgent. An estimated one-third of Americans get less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep may be the very thing you need to set yourself apart from the pack and pull ahead.