The Stupidity of Cutting Sleep

Last week I did a live workshop for the students in Learning on Steroids. One of the listeners asked me whether I knew a way to reduce sleep to 5-6 hours and not feel tired. No, I don’t. And you shouldn’t try.

Similarly, when I was in university, I knew people who often bragged about how little sleep they got. To them, it was proof that your studies were impressively difficult and that you weren’t a slacker. To me, it’s proof you’re an idiot.

My goal is to get 8 hours of sleep every night. When I was doing the MIT Challenge, I usually got 9 hours, if you include brief naps during the day. I can’t imagine having done it on less.

Why You Need Sleep to Learn

The true function of sleep isn’t perfectly understood. What is known, however, is the effects of not getting enough of it.

Participants in one study were separated into three groups, getting eight, six and four hours of sleep, respectively. Only the eight-hour group did not see a steady decline in cognitive performance during the study. Sleeping just six hours quickly resulted in a decline in performance equal to being legally drunk.

Sleep is particularly important for learning because it is associated with memory consolidation. Since learning involves storing and organizing new memories, it’s not a process you can omit and still learn well.

Why You’re Not the Exception

Some people can function on less sleep, and there appears to be a genetic basis behind this. But I caution generalizing that result to yourself for an important reason. The participants who underwent sleep deprivation saw a continuous decline in their cognitive performance. However, they stopped feeling more tired after a certain point. That means that the true cost of their fatigue was being masked.

If you regularly sleep less than eight hours, you may have settled onto the plateau of fatigue. You feel tired, but you’ve stopped feeling more tired each day. The evidence shows, however, that your performance has probably continued falling without you noticing.

Manage Energy, Not Time

Cutting sleep is popular because of the myth that you’ll be more productive if you have more hours each day. If you sleep eight hours, you only have sixteen waking hours to do everything. If you sleep six, you now have eighteen. That’s an entire month of waking time added to each year.

The problem is that time is rarely the bottleneck in getting things done. It should only take brief introspection to realize that this is true. Nobody can sustain sixteen hour workdays perpetually, even if such a day would be possible, hypothetically, under time management.

If you’re like the majority of people, even putting in eight hours of focused work is enormously difficult. If you actually do a timelog, you’ll realize that even getting in four is difficult.

So if doing focused work for only a quarter of your waking hours is difficult, it’s clear that number of waking hours aren’t the limited resource. Something else is. And that something else is your level of energy which you can apply to tasks.

Sleep isn’t the only factor for how much energy you have, but it’s one of the foundational components. Cutting sleep isn’t giving you extra working hours to use. It’s eroding the very foundation for doing any real work. I’d rather work atop the energy that comes from being fully rested than trying to shave off work for more time.

How Do You Get Enough Sleep?

Simple: treat it with the importance it deserves. Treat it as the foundation of your productivity, not an unfortunate maintenance task you have to do once a day.

It’s not possible to sleep perfectly all the time. Life will intervene in ways that make it difficult to maintain an impeccable sleep schedule. But there are some steps you can take to do better:

  1. Make eight hours your default. Having unexpected life events force you temporarily into less sleep is inevitable. However most sleep deprivation isn’t this—it’s poor planning resulting in consistently getting too little sleep. Set up your normal schedule so that getting eight hours is a priority for you.
  2. Stop drinking morning coffee. If you need your cup of coffee to stay alive in the morning, you’re not getting enough sleep. Don’t mask the real problem.
  3. Exams are not an excuse for poor sleep. You knew about the exam months in advance, so your studying should be spread evenly to study for it. Sleeping little before an exam to cram not only makes long-term retention of the material incredibly unlikely, but it reduces your cognitive performance making it harder to take the test.
  4. Set a bed time. Figure out when you’re going to wake up. Subtract eight hours. That’s when you should be going to bed. Aim to sleep then, even if you don’t feel especially tired. If you get into a habit of this you will return to normal sleeping habits.
  5. Wake up at the same time, every day. The more consistent you can make your sleep habits, in waking and sleeping, the easier it will be to fall asleep immediately and wake up without agony.
  6. Reduce illumination an hour before sleeping. Light cues are important for the production of melatonin, a trigger for sleep. But if you have screens and lights shining at you until the moment before bed, you’ll have to struggle more to get to sleep.
  7. Stop planning to repay sleep debt on weekends. Yes, weekends can be great for catching up on sleep, but they usually aren’t enough. If you slept five hours for the entire week, getting a normal sleep for two nights won’t recover you fully.

The problem with sleep is that our culture glorifies sleep deprivation. Being sleep deprived is a badge of honor that you’re busy and important. Only the slothful and mediocre sleep well.

Whenever I’ve mentioned getting enough sleep, I see this cultural bias flare up. People respond with how others may be able to sleep eight hours, but for them it is truly impossible. They’re just too busy and important to get it all done and still sleep.

I can’t imagine those same people declaring, with pride, that they don’t have enough time to bathe.

Yes, getting enough sleep is hard. Just like exercising regularly, eating healthy and, of course, personal hygiene. No, you can’t do it perfectly all the time. But you can recognize its role in making you more productive and strive to make good sleep the default, not the exception.

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Here’s some other good links on sleep and energy:

  • Ben

    Scott, I’m unconvinced that if I stop drinking morning coffee that my sleep is going to improve. I enjoy that coffee!

  • Adhithya

    Your article is correct on many levels but having been a proponent of the 8 hour sleep theory for a long time and having recently gotten used to a lesser number of sleep hours, I see a marked improvement in my productivity.

    When I had a fixed sleeping time, my thought used to wander continuously towards the fact that sleep-time was approaching soon. Often, a task would be left unfinished not because I didn’t have enough time before sleep but because I FELT that there wasn’t enough time. Sleep wasn’t as satisfying either.

    On the contrary, if I set my sleep time as the time I finish a deadline, I get my work done AND sleep is a much better experience.

    This is just my opinion because I have tried the 8 hour theory for TOO long and it didn’t work that well.

  • Remlin

    Scott, what do you think about polyphasic sleep? Some people as http://www.puredoxyk.com/ have claimed that such method of sleep can reduce the amount of sleep hours without damage to health.

  • Maribel

    I completely agree. When I sleep too little I’m extremely unproductive, specially if I have to do creative tasks, so instead of earning a few hours I end up losing 24.

  • Elfin

    Great post !

    Working more and working better are such different things. Not to mention the so many health problems that subtly that sneak in on us.
    After a year, I have finally gotten to where I can sleep 7 hours a night plus a power nap.
    It was no small feat, both emotionally and physically. But it shouldn’t be so hard to do something this elemental, this important. But once you get used to sleeping more and better, you feel, look and work better.

  • Mu

    Totally agree with cutting out coffee.
    When you feel tired, you should adjust your sleeping time.
    If you drink coffee to keep yourself artificially awake, you are harming your body, in the long term.

  • Charles

    I love this article.

    A few years ago, I thought that “I didn’t have enough time”, so I tried to reduce the amount of hours I was sleeping. I tried “polyphasic sleep”.
    It was a big big mistake. Even if that was eventually an interesting experience, I actually learned A LOT about sleep, that wasn’t the right way to “gain time”.

    The first thing one should try if one wants to “get more from life” is to have a good proper 8-hours sleep every day. This is the basic. Then you’ll want to implement meditation, exercise, or whatever. But the FIRST thing is to have a good sleep.

    Also, one thing I understood with your articles, Scott (in particular the “How to Finish Your Work, One Bite at a Time”), is that we have more time than energy. We don’t have enough energy to spend it during all the time we have. So before trying to have more time, we should try to have more energy (by sleeping well, eating better, exercising, …).

  • Katarina

    I thought 6 hours is enough. Only now I notice, when sleeping 7-8 hours,how sleep deprived I was. Tiredness seems to accumulate, with each skipped hour of sleep.

    I’m a bit confused about tip #6. Do I need to turn of all the lights for an hour before going to bed and if not, what kind of light is okay ? 🙂

    Thanks for writing great articles. 🙂

  • Marvin

    My spouse goes to sleep later than I do, so even if I get to bed at a decent hour, she wakes me up when she finally lays down, wanting to talk about important things like Kayne’s birthday gift to Kim. In all seriousness, I don’t lose sleep because I’m important. It’s because small insignificant things wake me up several times throughout the night. I’ll try to instill some of these habits regardless, but its tough. I can’t imagine having newborn children in the house.

  • Scott Young

    Katarina,

    The Wikipedia entry on it seems to indicate that the melatonin response is most closely linked with blue light, for which there isn’t as much with incandescent bulbs. For me, I’d avoid screens and read a book with normal reading light.

    -Scott

  • Marc-Antoine

    I agree with the importance of sleeping 8 hours a day. In fact, I agree so much that I am more stressed out the night before an exam than the day of the exam. As you can already guess this is problematic. Exams are not a problem since I have good study habits.

    In my case, the problem with giving a lot of importance to sleep is that I have now very little sleep before important events. Indeed I can feel a little adrenaline rush when I go to bed.

    I’ll give a try to the idea of building a morning ritual. I guess that having some good sleeping habits might help to fix this problem.

    By the way, I am glad that I have found your blog. Your critical analysis of learning and studying are very interesting.

  • Wilfred Ruck

    From what I’ve learned, it’s just as important WHEN you go to sleep as how long you sleep. Earlier ( 9pm-10pm) is way better than 11pm- midnight. Forget after midnight.

  • Lecter

    I totally agree with the 8 hour sleep.
    When I was in highschool I usually slept 5-6 hours and I thought it was fine, but I remember myself always taking naps in the bus, the entire 40 minutes of the ride going out and 40 mints comming back.
    I really need the 8 hours, otherwise, I would be taking naps all day long.

  • Melissa Sandfort

    Sleep is where it’s at! Two years ago I started using a very simple sleep tracking app on my iPod–I touch the “go to bed” button ” when I sleep and “wake up” button when I wake. SEEING my sleep bars– blue for good (8 hours), red for bad (under 6) — has been a total revolution.

    It’s “game-ified” my sleep– I really want to get a blue bar and I really hate getting a red bar. As a result of this immediate, daily sleep feedback, over the course of the two years I’ve been tracking myself, I’ve gained one solid hour of sleep, going from an average of 7 hours a night to an average of 8 hours a night. I feel phenomenally better!!

    Nothing is more important to me than sleep, including exercising, which I will sacrifice to get that solid eight hours. Before I started tracking, I really believed that I only needed 7 hours of sleep. Now, I’m shocked and terrified to realize that I lived on too little sleep for decades. I’m sorry I did that to myself but glad I wised up.

    Thanks for proclaiming loud and clear the importance of sleep, Scott! The world needs sleep champions!

  • Angela

    does anyone know approximately how long before bedtime one needs to avoid lights/computer screen?

  • Fei

    What you said is totally right. But what do you think about late sleep. I think I sleep for more than eight hours each day. But I always fall into sleep after 2 or 3 pm. Do you have any remedies to solve this problem? Thanks!!

  • Rebecca

    Hi Scott! Thanks for your post! I think I read it just in the nick of time. My studies are really picking up and I’ve been taken away from them by my jobs and family, so I’ve been contemplating going to bed later and later. I’ve always been a fan of 8 hours of sleep, but I’m absolutely convinced that I should stick to my bed time now!

  • Stanisław

    Yes and no. Yes, when you are young and under the stress of daily routine in a rigid system. No, if you are older and working as a freelancer (sometime under pressure of time too). When I was young, working student, I really needed 8 hours of sleep, absolutely needed 6, and could not sleep more than 10. Now being 74 and working as translator, I do not need more than 6 and I usually have the privilege to nap when I need it. There is justice in it: less time before me – and I need less sleep, I have more 2 hours for conscious activity. But who knows? Calderon said “La vida es sueño”

  • Mike G

    I think that the consideration of necessary sleep length needs to be interfaced with meditation practice. I have found that meditating for 20 minutes twice a day means that my natural length of nightly sleep has declined by a bit more than an hour. “Natural” as in, I have no morning time constraints and I am a ‘lark’ (“morning person”) who awakes spontaneously and fully refreshed around 5am when it is (currently) still dark. So, I get the health benefits of meditative practice ‘for free’ time-wise and in fact I get a bonus half-hour a day out of it!

  • Randall

    Just came off a month long sabbatical from my intense job of crazy long hours. Part of my focus on my time off was getting 8 hours of sleep a night. It made a huge difference. After a couple of weeks the dark circles under my eyes were gone and it became clear that I actually don’t have to be the always impatient, crazed, emotional idiot I become living with intense sleep deprivation. It was illuminating.

  • Andre

    Actually scott I don’t agree with you on this one (on just 1 point). there is a way to actually cut time from sleep with no repurcusions. I’m not going to explain but google monophasic biphasic and polyphasic sleep and you will see that you can. the best one is called everyman, easy to use… but searsh it up for the advantages and disavantages of each one 🙂

  • Patricia

    I agree! I’ve always needed a lot of sleep–9 to 10 hours is optimal for me. It’s hard to sleep that much on a routine basis, but I see a leap in motivation and productivity when I do. When I don’t, I find myself becoming less and less motivated, decisive, and physically active.

    On the other hand, I’ve also learned that if I sleep enough most of the time, I’ll be just fine on the occasional days that I have to go short. Is that generally true? If so, it might reassure those readers who get stressed out about sleeping enough before a big event.

  • Aryan

    This all is very good but it can’t work for me I usually have to wake up by 4 and sleep later than 10 and with school in the morning it hardly seems possible to follow your advice and yet set a good study time as I reach house by 6 in the evening and leave 7 in the morning
    How should I benefit from your advice in such circumstances?

  • Kent

    Scott,

    This is a VERY GOOD article. I’m going to use it as a extra credit assignment in my ESL classes. From the straw polls I have taken, I would say Koreans students get an average of 5 or 6 hours of sleep. And when they are up late, it is common for alcohol to be involved–a double whammy!

    This statement is brilliant: “…treat it [sleep] with the importance it deserves. Treat it as the foundation of your productivity, not an unfortunate maintenance task you have to do once a day.”

  • Eric-Wubbo

    Hi Scott,

    very nice article! And I fully agree that energy, not time is the important resource (and I may try the meditation practice of one of the commenters).

    And yes, I am fully opposed to sleep deprivation, especially if we force it/encourage it on people like medical interns, which endangers lives and likely also kills (patients, at least).

    What I would find even more interesting, though, would be your thoughts on the core problem: the problem that many people frantically try to sleep-deprive themselves because they want much more than they can possibly achieve (at least achieve at the same time with the methods they’re presently using). Even though getting enough sleep would be a great first step to get back to a situation of optimal mental health, shouldn’t one at one point at least try to address one’s own pathological hunger for more (more achievement! more social appreciation! more money! more whatever!) that seems to be a factor driving the sleeplessness?

  • yu wang

    Manage Energy, Not Time

    I totally agree with it. everyday you want do a bunch of things , and sleep at midnight ,and you will feel tired next day.you will do thing ineffectively and than do rest things until midnight. a bad loop.

    while(1){
    sleep late;
    ineffectively;
    }

  • ElGato

    Hi interesting article.

    I just wonder why we accept that every person is very different and individual in almost every respect (height, weight, character, intelligence, handy skills, you name it) yet we get told that everybody needs these dogmatic 8 hours of sleep.
    I for my part need less sleep in summer than in winter, which was confirmed by a number of articles I have read (and which seem logical) and probably 6 hours is not enough in the long term for me, but I think it is ether for everybody to find out how much they need. Some people may even need 9hours. Is that allowed? The 8 hour dogma has very deep roots in the American thinking (I am not American)

    Will try and get more sleep though…

  • Ken

    Good Article and subject…

    Sleep is so important to me. When I don’t get enough sleep I always feel like I am trying muscle more energy in my day.

    Great tips on how to set up a proper structure and routine around sleep.

    If we put sleep higher up on our value system our everyday energy levels will become much more consistent.

  • Jesse Bailey

    Scott,
    I was very interested to read about your push for 8 hours of sleep as a default for everyone to be more productive. Have you taken into account some of the issues with people who have sleep disorders and maybe it becomes the quality of sleep as opposed to the time? I have severe sleep apnea, something that I am working on to eliminate with diet and exercise so I always appreciate quality sleep as opposed to timed sleeping.
    I had a mentor who used to tell us about how they were taught in the special forces how to rest or sleep for a few hours and feel like they had slept for 8 hours or more. This, I guess was key in their performance when in the field. It was more of going into a meditative state of relaxation before sleep that created this.
    I know what you mean about performance issues due to lack of sleep, I suffer at times with my mind racing and continuing to process ideas at night when I was trying to sleep and at times during the day where I could sit for five minutes and my senses would be alert (I could hear what is going on and follow conversations) but I would be out completely.
    Programming my sleep to get 8 hours is a good start for me, let’s see how that improves my sleep disorder. Thanks a lot for the article!

  • Jesse Bailey

    Scott,
    I was very interested to read about your push for 8 hours of sleep as a default for everyone to be more productive. Have you taken into account some of the issues with people who have sleep disorders and maybe it becomes the quality of sleep as opposed to the time? I have severe sleep apnea, something that I am working on to eliminate with diet and exercise so I always appreciate quality sleep as opposed to timed sleeping.
    I had a mentor who used to tell us about how they were taught in the special forces how to rest or sleep for a few hours and feel like they had slept for 8 hours or more. This, I guess was key in their performance when in the field. It was more of going into a meditative state of relaxation before sleep that created this.
    I know what you mean about performance issues due to lack of sleep, I suffer at times with my mind racing and continuing to process ideas at night when I was trying to sleep and at times during the day where I could sit for five minutes and my senses would be alert (I could hear what is going on and follow conversations) but I would be out completely.
    Programming my sleep to get 8 hours is a good start for me, let’s see how that improves my sleep disorder. Thanks a lot for the article!

  • Astrapto

    I’m surprised you don’t even mention polyphasic sleep. It involves training your mind to go into REM sleep quicker. After a couple-week adjustment period, it can work quite well.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/this-guy-has-only-slept-45-hours-per-day-for-two-years-2013-11

    I’m considering a simple siesta-sleep schedule, 6 hours at night and a half-hour nap in mid-day.

  • Astrapto

    I’m surprised you don’t even mention polyphasic sleep. It involves training your mind to go into REM sleep quicker. After a couple-week adjustment period, it can work quite well.

    http://www.businessinsider.com

    I’m considering a simple siesta-sleep schedule, 6 hours at night and a half-hour nap in mid-day.

  • Astrapto

    On coffee: quitting caffeinated drinks will make you more tired for a while, because your body’s addicted. If you push past the discomfort of the initial withdrawal period, your alertness will be restored.
    Don’t give up on liberation from chemical dependency!

  • Astrapto

    On coffee: quitting caffeinated drinks will make you more tired for a while, because your body’s addicted. If you push past the discomfort of the initial withdrawal period, your alertness will be restored.
    Don’t give up on liberation from chemical dependency!

  • TatterSalad

    The increasing occurrence of dementia (read: Alzheimer’s) has been causitively linked to inadequate sleep.

    The lack of deep sleep due to Sleep Apnia (which has a great number of origins), or other sleep-robbing behaviors, or negative impact to the brain-clearance system (eg. Lyme’ neuroborreliosis) which, as it turns out, physiologically facilitated by the ABC transporter superfamily at the brain’s barriers, plays a fundamental role in brain disease initiation and progression.

    (Just another ‘minor’ reason to sleep 8 hours -without snoring to the point of choking.)

    Any ‘symptoms’ of dementia show-up 20 years after the actual damage has begun, and thus far, any ‘cures’ are simply the ‘amping-up’ of existing nerves, not actual repair of damaged grey matter.

    Refs:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452214003066

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4694579/

  • TatterSalad

    The increasing occurrence of dementia (read: Alzheimer’s) has been causitively linked to inadequate sleep.

    The lack of deep sleep due to Sleep Apnia (which has a great number of origins), or other sleep-robbing behaviors, or negative impact to the brain-clearance system (eg. Lyme’ neuroborreliosis) which, as it turns out, physiologically facilitated by the ABC transporter superfamily at the brain’s barriers, plays a fundamental role in brain disease initiation and progression.

    (Just another ‘minor’ reason to sleep 8 hours -without snoring to the point of choking.)

    Any ‘symptoms’ of dementia show-up 20 years after the actual damage has begun, and thus far, any ‘cures’ are simply the ‘amping-up’ of existing nerves, not actual repair of damaged grey matter.

    Refs:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/s

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pm

  • Ryan Walker

    Dear Scott. Thanks for the informative post. I’d love to see more posts like this one on your website.

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