Why sleep is not your enemy to success (and what is)

I’m a sleeper.

There, I said it. It sounds like a guilty pleasure, I know. Like some kind of a closet hedonism I like indulging into. I even feel a bit embarrassed as I write this so openly.
But, hey, despite the risk of being annoying, I think it’s worth repeating it again— I like sleep.

Not as in partying all night and dozing off all day. Not this kind.
I’m just the type who can’t function properly without 8 hours of my “beauty” rest. Ok, maybe 7 – but that’s the bear minimum to be able to still be “me”—to think and perform using close to 100% of my normal brain cells.

And before you are ready to lynch me, or label me a lazy gal with no ambition or motivation to better herself, please hold off your judgement until you reach the end of this piece. Then decide.

I didn’t feel overly proud of my sleep-affection. How can I?

After all, almost every article online giving us tips on how to get to the top of our game, or divulging us into the daily habits of the ultra-successful, prescribes some variation of lack of sleep, such as “get up at 5am” for the larks, or “stay up and work ‘till mid-night” for the owl type of fellas.

This kind of advice never seizes to amaze me.

Why do we advise each other to go against what our bodies try to tell us – “go to bed, your brain needs to rest, your cells need to regenerate.” Instead, we keep feeding ourselves on the “urban legends” of the self-made millionaires, feeling deep reverence and a bit of envy perhaps about how they “made it.”  “If only I can make myself sleep less and do 20-hour days,” we tell ourselves. “I can move higher and higher on the ladder too.”

Of course, no one speaks openly about the toll stress and the “white” nights have taken on their health. We only see the flashy side of the coin and we instantly become transfixed on the idea of overworking ourselves to the top. But do you honestly expect that your body and mind will always run perfectly with less fuel, by robbing them of the chance to rest?

Overworking isn’t a badge of honor. There is nothing glamourous about exhaustion. Nothing sexy about tired raccoon eyes. Nothing respectful about a brain that can’t function properly.

When did our definition of success become trying to stretch 24 hours into 30, and pushing 2-days’ work into one? Does accomplishment really mean eating lunch every day in your cube while catching up on emails or listening in on a conference call? 

We pride ourselves to be an intelligent and advanced human race. After all, we’ve achieved so much in the past few hundred years—we now have smart phones, smart watches, robots to clean our houses, electric cars, we’ve been to the Moon and other planets. We have so much more than our parents did in terms of comfort, gadgets, time-savers (think even of dishwashers and washing machines).

And yet—we keep failing miserably to take care of ourselves and our health. We talk about it, we write about it, we dream about it (“When I retire or win the lottery”), but we don’t do much beyond this.

Why can’t we, as a society, come up with a better advice to teach ourselves and our children than to sleep less and to let work balloon out of proportion—to the point where our phones become an extension of our hands, and we can’t fight the addiction to check emails all the time—on the weekends, before bed, even when on vacation?

I know why. Because we are consistently reminded—day in and day out—that success needs sacrifices. Success is pushing ourselves hard to the limit of our abilities, and then—a bit further.

There is simply not enough time.

I get it. Oh, don’t I get it. With a full-time job, a 2-year old toddler, an aspiration to finish my book and to keep honing my writing skills, I barely have much down time. Or had, I should say.

When I read Arianna Huffington’s “The Sleep Revolution,” I knew that what I’ve sensed all along was true.  In the book, she quotes some pretty scary numbers. 40% of American adults are sleep-deprived (less than 7 hours of sleep). Similar numbers are reported for the UK- 60%, Germany -30%, and Kapan – 65%. The most chilling part is that sleep deprivation is linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart decease.

And, ironically, the longer hours we put towards “success” result in less productivity—eleven days per year per worker, or $2,280, to be precise. This should hardly be a surprise—if you feel tired, you can’t focus well, you can’t think well, you fall behind on creativity, efficiency and so many other “success-bound” behaviors.

Simply put, getting up at 5 am when our bodies still crave the warmth of our beds is not laziness. It’s not time away from doing something productive. Rather, it’s time “wasted” on the self, self-care. Such acts of self-attentiveness shouldn’t come as peripheral or second-hand for when and if we, by chance, get a free minute.

So, then why taking care of ourselves is somehow equivalent to indifference to our careers and personal progress?

                                        . . .

The answer to finding more time is so simple that it hurts when we realize it: you’ll never find time to do the things you really want. It’s not just sitting somewhere for the grabs. You make the time yourself. It’s all about the good old compromising and prioritising.

So here are some ways of how to make some more of this precious resource: 

  • Take a day off to catch up on “things.” A colleague of mine used to take a “mental health day” once a month to devote to his hobbies and “extracurriculars” that made him happy.
  • If a day isn’t enough and you need more time on a daily basis, then you can ask for help—for instance, negotiate with your spouse to mind the kids every other night, so that you can work on your project. If possible, hire a babysitter for few hours on the weekend (this is what we do)- it won’t break the bank, but it safeguards you some time for personal development.
  • You can also set some of your aims as goals—such as, go to the gym or read more—and build them into habits. For instance, I block an hour of my time at lunch to go to the gym or for a walk. I refuse to accept calls or meetings at this time. And guess what—the world is still spinning when I return to work after my daily retreat. But I am better—much happier, relaxed, clear-minded. I also have a goal of reading 20 pages every day—small step, I know, but this is why it actually works.


You make yourself care for yourself.

So, if refusing to get up at 5 am, or working 12 hours a day means that, by the modern definition, I’m a lazy or unmotivated procrastinator, so be it.

The piles of emails, the calls, the “tons” of work we still leave behind every day—the bulk of these, realistically, can be done in day. Heck, a week even.

But this moment, right now, can’t be paused or set aside for later. It’s so ephemeral, that it vanishes quietly in a puff of a second. And if we don’t stop and purposely make ourselves be present and alive in it, it will be lost forever.

My son won’t be 2 forever, I’ll have one chance to see his “firsts.” And if I’m not there to catch all of this, to live it with the people that give meaning to everything, then what’s the point in all of it?

Who cares if my inbox is empty, all my calls answered, and I got praised by my boss? It matters on some level, of course, but so do my other priorities in life.

And don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that our jobs are insignificant, and we should all go on a riot tomorrow against our employers for trying to squeeze every drop of energy out of us. Sometimes we do it to ourselves too, driven by an insatiable ambition.

All I’m saying is that we have to strike some balance. Self-inflict some boundaries. Protect ourselves from our ego— the one that only cares about brownie points, kudos and applause.

Everyone should ask themselves this—what’s the legacy I want to leave to the world one day? Sleepless nights, raccoon eyes, endless cups of coffee, anxiety, exhaustion, not truly present in our personal lives. Is this what success is like?

For me, I think not.

~Evelyn xoxo

*This piece was originally posted in ThriveGlobal in July 2018.

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