Sleep Versus Success

Why the two are not mutually exclusive.

Photo by Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash

I struggle with sleep. Working a full time job, preparing to be a dad, maintaining a house, and finding time to write means that sleep often eludes me. Over the years I have convinced myself, even when evidence suggests otherwise, that I cannot be successful if I sleep 7 to 8 hours per night. While I’m sleeping, someone is grinding faster or hustling harder. I would tell myself to suck it up. Caffeine could cure my exhaustion. Unitil it couldn’t.

I previously wrote an article on turning off, tuning out, and dropping in. The only problem is that I do not always follow my own advice. I often stay up past 11 PM cruising Twitter, Reddit, or other social media, overdosing on oftentimes useless content. The fear of missing out is real. God forbid I fail to stay abreast of the latest trend or pop culture wave. Then I usually set my alarm for 5:30 AM amidst a delirious wave of ambition. I wake up in a foggy and groggy mess, running on less than 6 hours of sleep. I will sit there in bed trying to convince myself to stand up. My stomach is often in knots. I tell myself to exercise, write, or be productive. But my body tells me to stop being an idiot and shut my eyes.

Sleep and success have weighed heavily on my mind lately, especially as I expect to have less of the former once our son is born. I think about how time is fleeting. We live in a world that generally rewards productivity and efficiency. We will never be younger than we are now in the present. Which is why sleep has always seemed so unproductive to me. As if I am wasting my time. Yes, I know about the mountains of evidence that indicate otherwise, but in the moment, when I think about all of the activities I could do, it is difficult to turn off, tune out, and drop into my bed sans electronics.

Are the Biggest Sleep Advocates Even Following Their Own Advice?

People love broadcasting the benefits of sleep. I am guilty as charged. I always wonder though, how much sleep do these “sleep advocates” really get? Do they always follow their own advice?

Some of the biggest sleep advocates — like Ariana Huffington, who literally wrote the book on sleep revolution — was already “successful” when she became an advocate. I want to meet the sleep advocate who is trying to make it. The person who is trying to make ends meet. The person who chases their dream, pursues their passion, or attempts to perfect their craft. Show me the sleep junkies in those categories.

When Nas, for example, broke onto the scene with his debut album Illmatic, he coined the phrase, “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death.” He had no time for sleep. Neither did Ariana when she was breaking into her industry. She powered through the sleepless nights to build the empire she has today. It just seems all too convenient that her advocacy for sleep also coincides with her current state of comfort.

Another example is GQ, the men’s fashion magazine. Joe Holder is one of my favorite columnists of theirs. The man exudes “wellness.” He lives an enviable lifestyle, always on the go, always exercising, and always writing. He recently wrote a piece for GQ on “The Road To Better Sleep.” He gives useful guidance, tips for locking in those 8 hours, and all the benefits that come with it. Interestingly, he avoids revealing his own habits. Joe, do you always get 8 hours of sleep? Your Instagram feed suggests otherwise.

Other GQ pieces are a bit hypocritical on the point as well. Only a few issues after Holder’s article appeared, the magazine published a story on Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat basketball player (one of my favorite modern players). The article celebrates Jimmy’s story of success. How he grinds. How he made himself the superstar athlete he is today. You know when most days start for Jimmy? 4 AM. He credited this obscene routine to Mark Wahlberg who famously wakes up for workouts at even more absurd hours like 2:30 AM. The article didn’t focus on Jimmy or Mark’s sleep, despite publishing Joe’s piece a few issues prior to celebrating these vampires.

The prevailing advice does not often jive with practice in reality. Perhaps it is a case of — do as I say, not as I do — but the reality is that many of us do not have the luxury of eight hours of sleep (regularly). Whether it’s due to family or professional responsibilities, or the quest to turn dreams into reality, sleep gets in the way. It is deceptive when athletes or other celebrities give sleep advice or highlight their own practices because their lives are not equatable to the average person. They often have teams of people supporting their daily routine. They enjoy infrastructure that most people cannot even fathom. Although some, like the late, great Kobe Bryant, may just be vampires, even in retirement.

What You Can Do To Balance Sleep and Success

Sleep requirements vary by person. Do what is best for you. For many of us, quality sleep (of around 7 to 8 hours) is aspirational, but it does not need to be. With proper planning and implementation of sleep strategies, consistent quality rest can become a reality. Your health, mentality, and overall well-being will thank you. A strategic and balanced approach will set you up for success, regardless of endeavor, from being a good parent to writing the next great novel.

  1. Plan Your Sleep Schedule. If you make sleep a priority and build the rest of your schedule around it, you can reasonably ensure a decent night’s rest. Or at least attempt to. Take these athlete approaches with a grain of salt, but Stephen Curry and LeBron James prioritize sleep above almost everything. They even incorporate dedicated “nap time” into their afternoon routines. While this may be more possible in a work from home setting, finding nap time is difficult in any situation. We do not all enjoy the luxuries afforded to professional athletes. What you can generally control, however, is your bedtime. Setting a time to wind down in the evening and get ready for bed is key. It is even more crucial that you stay consistent with the approach. Life happens and plans change, so you may have to adjust when you wake up instead of when you go to sleep on some nights.
  2. Plan Your Day. Instead of organizing your day entirely around what needs to get done, force yourself to include some time for rest. If you had a bad night’s sleep, try to take a nap if possible, or hit the sack earlier than usual that evening. Planning your day with sleep in mind makes it more likely that you will accomplish your sleep goals.
  3. Wind Down Time. Imagine yourself as an airplane. In order to take off or land, there’s a standard process the pilot and crew have to follow. If they don’t, there’s a high risk something could go wrong. The same is true for sleep. If you fail to calm your mind and avoid electronics, alcohol, or other sleep disruptors immediately before shutting your eyes, you run the risk of poor sleep. While one night may not kill you, over the long run, poor sleep can be just as dangerous to your health as not following proper protocols for landing an airplane. Develop wind down time for sleep and execute it as best as possible (sans electronics).
  4. Record Your Sleep When You Wake Up. Many people track their sleep electronically. I use a FitBit as my alarm and sleep tracker. For the former, it’s nice waking up to a slight vibration as opposed to a blaring, obnoxious sound. My wife appreciates it too. The best part of the device though is its sleep tracking. I can understand my sleep — from light and deep sleep to REM. Each morning I check to see how I did. It helps to hold myself accountable. Alternatively, or in conjunction with automated sleep tracking, you can keep a sleep journal. This approach is best for recording dreams, diving deeper into your subconscious mind. It may even make you more aware of your dreams and what might be causing stress or anxiety. I have found that it can also help you dream more frequently. Sleep is not the inactive activity many once thought.

The bottom line is that sleep and success are not mutually exclusive. Some of us do not have the luxury of a full 8 hours per night despite what many sleep advocates may say. We can all work to build in more time for sleep though. With proper rest we can reach peak productivity and efficiency; mind and body states that are otherwise unattainable without a baseline level of sleep. Do not let the sleep advocates fool you, but trust their underlying message that we cannot be the most successful version of ourselves without sleep.

Originally published at https://polispandit.com on April 19, 2021. To sign up for my newsletter, check out my PolisPandit Substack here. Cheers!

Writer and philosopher on law, politics, and random social commentary. Check out my lifestyle blog at polispandit.com.

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