Last June I bought a Garmin Vivosmart HR activity tracker, primarily for two reasons:
- My daily step count is visually present to me at all times, which makes me more likely to get those 10,000 steps.
- If I sit for longer than an hour, it vibrates and nags me to get up and move. Since sitting is the new smoking, I think moving regularly might be more important than moving a lot.
While I happily would’ve shelled out 125 € for just those two features alone, there are a few other perks to wearing one of these around the clock. One of them is sleep tracking.
What I’m about to say as a result of it is not going to be popular and it’s definitely not politically correct. At the very least though, it’s food for thought.
For the past five months, I’ve been sleeping less and I think it’s the right choice. Let’s put that into context.
The Willpower Scam: It’s Not Just Sugar & Slumber
One of the most compelling articles my friend Colin Robertson has written about willpower deals with the state of willpower research. In 2016, a meta-analysis study of over 20 laboratories, which had tried to replicate typical ego-depletion experiments, was conducted. The results were that this effect was close to zero – if it existed at all.
Another 2014 meta-study showed over 100 willpower studies of the past to be heavily biased. The ones proving willpower depletion ended up published, the ones disproving it (the majority) didn’t.
As it turns out, willpower depends a lot more on psychological factors than we make it out to be. They might be more important than biological factors, like your level of blood sugar, exercise and, yes, sleep.
If you’ve been working really hard on your productivity and discipline by focusing on health aspects, but don’t seem to get anywhere, it might be the wrong levers you’re pulling.
Psychological factors, which impact willpower, include:
- Doing your work with a sense of purpose.
- Keeping the right perspective.
- Breaking your tasks down into chunks your brain can manage.
- A feeling of autonomy.
- Believing you’re making progress.
If you’ve ever stayed up late into the night, because you were discussing a business idea with friends and you just couldn’t stop, or the words just flowed out of you, or setting up the website felt like the only sensible thing to do, you’ve witnessed the power of a psychological willpower boost.
Why Sleeping Less Might Make Sense For You
Sleep is good for you. No doubt about it. Especially if your work requires extremely intense thought or physical exercise. However, for 99% of the population, it doesn’t.
LeBron might need 12 hours of sleep to compensate for the other 12 hours of insane basketball training, and Stephen Hawking may benefit from some extra hibernation to figure out, you know, everything. But you’re neither LeBron nor Hawking.
Our everyday tasks are mundane. As a friend of mine recently put it when talking about studying for exams: “The extra two hours of sleep never make up for the loss of hours worked.”
As long as you’re spending the extra time actually working and not procrastinating, it’s hard to believe that an extra hour of sleep or two per day drive up the quality of your work so much to justify working 120 minutes less – especially if you’re just starting out.
Imagine going from 8 hours of work down to 6: what you create in those 6 hours must be 33% better to match the work of 8 hours. Of course quality doesn’t translate to time 1:1, but you get the gist.
An example: If you can write 500 publishable words in an hour, and your posts are usually ~1,000 words long, you could publish an extra blog post in those 2 hours. Every day.
I see the blog posts that get pulled from publications like Better Humans on to Quartz and co. There’s a gap between those and mine – but it’s not huge. It’s just a matter of time or rather, writing more. There’s nothing to indicate if only I slept more, I’d be able to think of better stuff to write.
So until I’m published in a few major outlets, clearly it’s better for me to write more, rather than think harder.
Of course this not only depends on where you are in your career, but also on how much leisure you want. Would you trade an hour of sleep a day for three more years of time to spend with your kids? Because that’s how much extra you’d get over an 80-year lifespan.
A Caveat: Not All Time Is Created Equal
To this day, the most logical explanation of why time seems to fly by faster every year I’ve come across is that each passing year becomes a smaller proportion of your life as a whole:
Recently, I’ve noticed the same cycle repeats itself within any given day: the longer I stay up, the shorter each additional hour of the day feels. When I get home at 9 PM it’s 10 PM in the blink of an eye. The hour from 3 PM to 4 PM feels a lot longer.
This is subjective, but it’s worth keeping in mind: another hour of family time at 8 PM might not be as valuable as another hour of work, because it passes faster.
If you notice you feel the same way about this, you can try to plan experiences you want to savor (like a date or hiking) early in your day and stuff you want to go by fast later (like administrative work tasks).
Too Much Of A Good Thing
In 2015, I attended James Clear’s willpower seminar. The number one thing I took away from it was that sleeping 6 hours a night for two weeks straight puts you on the cognitive level of someone who’s been up for 24 hours. I don’t know about you, but working as if I’m legally drunk is the line for me.
Worse yet, performance issues from sleep deprivation are obvious to others, but not yourself. You’ll work like a chimpanzee on champagne, but feel like Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
Right then and there, I made it my new rule of thumb to never sleep less than 6 hours a night for more than five days in a row. That way I’d always give myself enough room to catch up on weekends and break the potentially vicious 6-hour cycle.
Using this as a lower boundary, let’s look at what’s to gain from sleeping less.
As you’ll see later, the following example comes close to what I’m practicing right now. It doesn’t even deviate much from the commonly recommended 8 hours a night.
If you slept 6 hours a night on weekdays and gave yourself a very gracious 10 hours on weekends, you’d total 50 hours of sleep per week. Compared to 8 hours every night, you’re saving 6 hours every seven days. Assuming you’ll live another 80 years (just an example), that’s almost three years of extra time.
What’s more, 50 hours a week equates to 7.14 hours a night – or 7 hrs and 9 minutes on average.
In statistics there is a principle called regression toward the mean, which says that over time, measurements of a variable tend to get closer to their average. If you keep up a pattern like this for a very long time, leaving weekday sleep fixed at 6 hours (thanks to an alarm, for example), you can expect your weekend sleep to come down further naturally, and potentially end up closer to 8 hours on weekends – and add another two years to your life.
How To Sleep Less Without Overdoing It
Okay, let’s get practical. Safety first. Don’t start at your lower limit. Find your upper limit first. Before I did this, I had tracked my sleep on and off for over two years to find out 7.5 hrs is my ideal duration of sleep. More doesn’t do me any good. I’m more tired and don’t feel I can focus better.
Once you know your upper productivity cut-off point for sleep, you can start working towards the lower limit we set above and see how far you can push it by drawing more willpower from psychological factors.
So two steps:
- Track your sleep to find out where more sleep makes you unproductive. Tech I’ve used to do this includes:
- (Slowly) bring your sleep closer to the lower limit we set above. Make use of psychological factors to boost your willpower, like:
- Working on something you see a lot of meaning in.
- Bringing more meaning to the work you’re already doing, by committing to doing the best job you can.
- Remembering that life is short, yet long enough, as long as you keep focusing on what really matters.
- Creating a list of baby steps to take next.
- Recording your progress to make it tangible.
Here’s where I’m at in this process.
What Am I Doing?
The commitment I made when I moved to Munich wasn’t a commitment to a certain average grade in school, a fixed dollar amount in my bank account or a specific, prestigious job title.
It was a commitment to work. I promised myself I’d wake up at 6 AM every weekday, work however long makes sense, whether that’s writing or for school and then sleep in on weekends.
Here’s the drop off in sleep time. There was a slight decline before, but it’s gotten a lot steeper in the first three months after the move:
I went home for two weeks around Christmas, where I slept in and recharged. You can see it declining again in January.
For the six months before October 2016, I slept 7 hrs 50 minutes, according to the Garmin Connect app. That’s gone down to 7 hrs 26 minutes from October to December.
Conservatively estimating, the app also adds at least 15 minutes before and after I’m asleep on average, as lying down is often considered as sleeping while I’m still (or already) awake.
That’d mean I went from 7 hrs 35 minutes to 7 hrs 10 minutes – or roughly the scenario described in the first example.
If I keep this up for 80 years, I’ll have three years more to actually be alive in 🙂
This isn’t a black and white issue. You don’t always have to sleep less and you don’t always need 8 hours a night. It’s about averages. About your whole life.
But most of all, it’s about timing. There’s a time to sleep in and a time to stay up late.
Like the weather, your life has seasons. There’s winter, spring, summer and fall. These play out not just on a macro, but also on a micro scale. Your retirement might feel like a long fall, but so might the 8 weeks of exams from early July to late August.
If you take away just one thing from this article, make it this: Don’t force your sleep to be static. Let it be liquid.
When you have a strong sense of why you want to wake up the next morning, how much you choose to sleep becomes a lot more debatable. Ferris Bueller said:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
But in order to look around, you first have to open your eyes. Sleep when you need to, but when you’re awake, be all there. Be present. Breathe. You get one life. Don’t miss it.