Hopefully, it won’t take you long to figure out that I love toughness. I think it goes to the heart of being a man. Men need to endure, to battle, fight, scrap, and claw until they accomplish their goal. Research is now confirming that toughness (or grit) is the most important quality driving achievement, even more than talent or intelligence. The great news is that toughness can be trained, like a muscle. We can expose ourselves to stressors, and our ability to withstand them will grow if we persevere.
While toughness is at the heart of manliness, and while it should be trained, I’m not an advocate of stupidity or mindlessly working harder than necessary. What if I told you that I had a sure-fire way to increase your energy, focus, motivation, and general happiness, while reducing your stress? Channeling my inner Bob Ryan from Entourage, is that something you might be interested in?
Since most people don’t pay attention to any solution unless it’s called a “life hack”, here it is: sleep is the simplest life hack, and you likely need to sleep more.
That’s not a sexy message in the manosphere. We like to be tough. We embrace the hard way. As a result, social media is full of guys bragging about how little they sleep at night. We are inundated with Jocko wanna-be’s who post pictures of their watches showing that they got up at 4:30 a.m. (or at least woke up long enough to snap a pic of their watch). To be clear, I encourage everyone to wake up early (and to be like Jocko in general). Early mornings are a great time to get things done without distraction, and that’s something that all of us need in a world that clamors for our time and attention from a thousand different directions.
However, going without sleep for extended periods by choice is not smart. For most of us, regular extended periods without sleep are a choice. It may not feel that way, but it’s true. We have 24 hours in our days, and we spend those hours according to our priorities (click here for my post on scheduling priorities). If they’re not spent on adequate sleep, it’s either because we misunderstand adequate sleep or don’t value it. My goal today is to help you value adequate sleep and give you a plan for getting it.
I’ve lived on both sides of the sleep equation. During my 20’s, I was the guy who thought it going without sleep was a sign of toughness. I’d routinely stay up all hours of the night (and not because I was partying) and then head off the next morning. I’d live on 4-5 hours of sleep a night, and then try to catch up via naps and such on the weekends. But I was always tired. I was always craving a nap, but often wouldn’t take one because it didn’t seem like the “tough” thing to do, or I took one then felt guilty about it.
Probably as a result of having kids, my sleep schedule gradually changed. By the time they reached school age, I was getting up fairly early to get them ready for school. Because they had activities almost every night (again, four kids), I had no time for naps. So, I started going to bed at roughly the same time and getting up at roughly the same time, making sure I got 7-8 hours of sleep. Because this change took place gradually, I didn’t notice major results, other than I no longer craved naps.
However, I was reminded a few weeks ago on why sleep is so important. I had plans to attend a conference in Atlanta. Because of storms and sick children during the week leading up to the conference, I was only getting 5-6 hours of sleep each night. The conference was scheduled to begin on Friday morning. Because I wanted to watch my kids’ basketball games the night before, I decided to get up early that morning and drive to Atlanta. That meant I had to get up before 3:30 in the morning to get there in time for the first speaker.
I had gone to bed at my usual time of 10:30 PM, so I got around five hours of sleep. Operating on my fifth night of reduced sleep, I was amazed at how hard it was for me to focus on my drive. Everything was surreal, like I was in an altered state of reality. I realized then that this affect was the result of an extended period of reduced sleep. Had I gotten good sleep all week before the conference, getting up at 3:30 and driving on five hours of sleep would not have been a big deal. I’ve done things like that many times in the past and noticed little to no effect. But because this came on the heels of a week in which I’d gotten less sleep than normal, the effect was significant.
Unfortunately, too many of us live our lives in that sleep-deprived state that I experienced on my way to Atlanta. We hardly even notice it because we’ve done it for so long that it has become normal. Having less focus has become normal. Being tired has become normal. Being irritable has become normal. Being stressed has become normal.
Another thing that I noticed in my sleep deprived state was that I had much less motivation than normal. When I would contemplate ideas that typically stir my soul, I could tell I just didn’t have the energy to be excited about them. I was just “blah”. That response gives us insight into why many people can’t make the changes they wish to make in their lives. They simply don’t have the energy, partly because they haven’t slept well.
Remember, I’m not talking about a bad night of sleep or two; that happens to everyone on occasion. What I’m talking about is extended periods of reduced sleep, which I would call less than 6.5 hours per night. Having a night or two where you get less than 6.5 hours of sleep is not that big of a deal. It’s not optimal, but it’s not that big of a deal. If you rarely get more than 6.5 hours of sleep, I suspect you are operating at far less than your potential capacity.
As you’d expect, research is confirming a vast effect of sleep deprivation on all aspects of our lives, physically, mentally, and emotionally. One recent study (found here) looked at the impact of sleep-deprivation on cognitive functions of 30,000 people over 18 months. They concluded that even one night’s sleep of less than six hours decreases your cognitive responsiveness by over one percent. When you have two consecutive nights of less than six hours of sleep, that number jumps to nearly five percent. So, when you sleep less than six hours for two nights in a row, your mind is operating five percent slower than normal, and that’s with performance enhancing measures such as extra caffeine. What’s more, this reduced responsiveness lasts for approximately six days.
So, part of what this study shows is that, wherever we are in our sleep habits, the state that is created becomes our reality. Whether we are rested or dog tired, that state becomes normalized for us. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, you probably don’t realize the extent to which it affects you. You’ve become used to being tired and all of the consequences of that. It’s become normal to you to have less focus. It’s become normal to you to be irritable. It’s become normal to be more stressed. For the person who is sleep deprived, that normal state only gets changed when they get several good night sleep in a row. That’s when they’ll notice the increased ability to focus, the reduced stress, the happier outlook on life. Likewise, as I found out, the person who is normally well rested doesn’t realize how bad things are for people who are sleep deprived. It’s only when you go several days in a row without good sleep or go and extended period of time without sleeping, that you realize how poorly you function in that state.
And the effects of sleep deprivation extend beyond cognitive performance; research suggests that a lack of sleeps results in less self-control. As you might imagine, reduced self-control has a myriad of consequences, all of them bad. On the health side, it results in missed workouts and poor nutrition. On the ethical side, it results in behaviors that go against your own moral beliefs; you’re more likely to give in to temptation, so to speak.
As a result, it’s clear to me that we need to sleep more. Social media is full of people doing challenges: ice bucket, push-ups, running man, mannequin, etc. No one ever does sleep challenges. They just don’t sound that interesting. And almost always people ignore the advice to get more sleep. People will read volumes and blog post after blog post looking for life hacks, but they ignore the simplest and easiest life hack that exists: get more sleep.
So, I issue a sleep challenge. For the next week, I want you to make a plan for more sleep. The easiest way is to start with when you need to get up and calculate nine hours backwards from that. Remember, I’m all for getting up early before the world wants your attention. So, nine hours before you have to wake up I want you to do what’s called powering down. Turn off all your electronics (phones, televisions, laptops, tablets, etc.). If you like to read, please read. If you want to spend time with your wife, do so. Sex is a great way to power down.
The goal here is to start shutting your mind down and relaxing so that you can move toward sleep. The goal is to get at least eight hours of sleep every night for a week. By powering down one hour before you need to be asleep, you should be able to get eight hours of sleep. The mandatory part is that you must be in the bed with your head on the pillow at least eight hours before you’re scheduled to wake up. Perhaps you won’t be able to fall asleep at first. But by being in the bed with your head on the pillow you are creating the conditions to fall asleep, especially combined with your powering down routine that you done for the last hour.
Please understand that your powering down need not last for an hour; you might be able to turn everything off and go right to sleep and sleep for nine hours. If so, that’s fantastic. But it might be that you need to spend an entire hour winding down and powering down after a day of work and mental stimulation. Everyone is a bit different in this regard.
The goal is to find a routine that works for you. And for most people, an hour of powering down will be plenty, and many will not need near that long. It will likely take several days to change your biological clock and restore your circadian rhythms. Our bodies get used to going to sleep and getting up at a certain time according to our habit. So, if you’ve been used to staying up until midnight and you try to go to sleep at 10 o’clock, you might have problems the first few nights. Stick with it. You’re powering down routine will help to change this.
So, commit to the challenge for at least a week. Begin powering down at least nine hours before you’re supposed to wake up and make sure you’re in the bed with your head on the pillow and lights out at least eight hours before your scheduled to get up. Do this for a week and see how it goes. I’m confident that you’ll feel and function better. And that you’ll have more energy and motivation to make the changes that you want to make in your life. Shoot me an email or comment below and tell me how it goes.
Matt Pascucci says
Great article, Stephen! I was actually just coming to this point with my sleep schedule, trying to figure out exactly when and how long I should be sleeping. I’ve always been a night owl, and tend to go to bed after 1 AM and wake up around 8 or 9, since I can be at work whenever I want. Then I just stay later, or work at night if I have stuff to catch up on. The amount of hours I’m sleeping and working doesn’t change, but I’ve noticed that I really struggle to focus until after lunch, so the quality of work and my focus is way off prior to 11 or 12. So to combat that, I’ve started to go to bed around 10, and get up between 5 and 7 AM.
Now, I’ve noticed I still feel groggy if I get MORE than 8 hours of sleep. Have you come across any studies or do you have any insights about sleeping too much?
Stephen Marshall says
Hey Scootch, thanks for the comments. I haven’t looked st the research on too much sleep, but my guess is that your experience would be validated. Sleeping too much is typically associated with laziness and depression, and members of both groups often report a lack of energy and sluggishness.
Each person has to find their own sweet spot on the amount of sleep that allows them to function optimally. If I come across anything on too much sleep I’ll send it your way.