Sleep: When to Get it and When to Skip it

Pop quiz time!

Don’t worry, there’s only one question:

What do all of these people have in common?

sleepless elite

Answer: 3-6 hours of sleep per night.

Are you surprised?

My guess is no. Because even with all of the research about the importance of sleep, it’s common knowledge that people at the very top do not make sleep a priority:

“How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?” – Donald Trump.

“Sleep is not the most important thing.” – Martha Stewart

“Sleep is a waste of time” – Thomas Edison

I’ve come across so many successful CEOs, celebrities, entrepreneurs and people throughout history who, in one way or another, allude to the fact that they wouldn’t have the success they have achieved with the recommended 8 hours.

sleep is for losers

Now I am well aware of how critical it is to our well-being, how sleep deprivation has some very serious health consequences, and how many Americans, adults and children alike, are getting well below a healthy amount. All I’ve been trying to understand this month is- what is the tradeoff?  Because here I am with my trippy playlists and my salt lamp and silly looking glasses trying to balance health with life and I can’t help but wonder: is Martha right? Is sleep really not the most important thing?

Or, are these people genetic freaks who can excel on very little sleep (where the rest of us are just sleep deprived). My guess is yes, these sleepless overachievers are part of the 1-3% of the population born with a gene variation, who also happen to have incredible drive and stamina.

There are equally successful people who have healthy sleeping habits: some who learned the hard way like Arianna Huffington, and others, like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who have long claimed that good consistent sleep makes them more alert, creative and think more clearly.

What does this mean for the rest of us?

Take me. I’m a busy girl. I’m sure you are too. Busy, that is, not a girl.

I have little kids. I am house CEO, COO and CFO. I freelance. I exercise. I have a life. And I have this blog which requires a significant amount of my time. So when it comes to sleep, do I either:

A. Get my recommended 8 hours, OR

B. Skip an hour or two and invest it in work?

I presented my conundrum to Matthew Buman, Ph.D. and assistant professor of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University who, coincidentally, had conducted a study on this very thing.

He wanted to explore the health effects of reallocating 30 minutes per day from one activity/behavior to another, finding that sacrificing 30 minutes of sleep for a sedentary behavior such as work or watching television increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. But allocating that 30 minute block of sleep towards exercise, even light exercise, has a positive effect.

sleep allocation

In other words, if you’re going to skip sleep, do something active.

He goes on to say that while the vast majority of individuals cannot perform optimally with less than 6 hours of sleep, a single night of sub-6 hour sleep will have minimal effect. Over time, however, this “sleep debt” will accumulate and will affect your decision making, executive processing, memory and other important cognitive tasks and, for me, the writing that I claim to do so well late at night.

Buman’s conclusion is simple. Find out how much sleep your body needs to perform optimally and that is what we should aim to get on a regular basis.

What’s Your Sleep Number? 

I have developed a simple three-step process for determining your “sleep number” and it’s something that I very much hope to personally test soon.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Go online and book a ticket to Aruba (or equivalent) for one week. If you have kids, leave them at home with a responsible adult.
  2. Once there, spend the first two nights catching up on sleep at which point, you can begin determining your sleep number.
  3. On days three through seven, go to bed at approximately the same time every night and wake up when your body naturally wants to. On average, how many hours is that? This how much sleep you operate best on. And yes, you will have to go easy on the cocktails because it will skew the data. Sorry.

optimal sleep

Tropical beach vacation or not, we should all invest in understanding the things that impact our body’s energy and performance, and knowing our sleep thresholds is an important piece of that.

The Sleep Wrap-up

I discovered some interesting things this month:

  • My sleep number: 7 hours and 45 minutes.
  • I can “sacrifice” 30-45 minutes of sleep most nights, aiming for 7-7.5 hours, in favor of work (and regular exercise). This is a safe, tested range where I can work without it impacting my health and performance. If I am under the weather, I know to bump it up to 8+ hours.
  • I only need 30 minutes to wind down (no devices, bright lights etc.) in order to fall asleep quickly.
  • I do not sleep well in hot rooms or rooms with too much light.

I was hoping to have more concrete sleep quality data, but life happened. Several nights of a misplaced phone charger (translation: no sleep tracking data). The 6.1 earthquake that struck Northern California at 3:20am which left me rattled and unable to fall back asleep. Kids having nightmares and climbing into our bed, and that’s okay.

It’s okay because these experiments happen not in a laboratory but in real life. Real life that is full of unexpected surprises where silly, sad and serious things happen, where there will never be a perfect time to start something new or test something out. We just have to decide to do it, because even then, we can find our wins.

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