Mar 31, 2021
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 min read

The end of sleep deprivation culture

You've heard it a thousand times before. Sleep 8 hours every night to thrive.

Yet the whole world is tired: The World Health Organization declared sleep deprivation as a public health epidemic.

The same thing that sparked a culture of sleep deprivation is now turning it around and. Welcome to the era of sleep optimization.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead" is a death wish

Michael rose one morning feeling groggy, irritable, and sluggish after a terrible night's sleep.

He blamed his wife's snoring. She was sentenced to the couch for the next few nights. But still, Michael's sleep worsened.

After a few more months of terrible sleep, Michael started seeing doctors. Still, nobody could make sense of this strange, sudden case of insomnia.

It got worse, and eventually, Michael couldn't sleep at all. Not even with sedatives circulating through his blood. Not even a wink.

After 6 months, Michael was completely bedridden. Mentally he would have felt like a 94-year-old dementia victim.

A few months later, his mind and body completely shut down, and he died.

Michael had a rare condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia. Every patient diagnosed with FFI has died within 10 months.

This is sleep deprivation taken to an extreme.

But even without this frightening disease, touting the 'sleep deprivation badge of honor' might already be killing you.

Considering that two-thirds of adults in the developed world fail to get the eight hours of sleep each night recommended by the World Health Organization, consider these statistics:

  • An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention (source).
  • Chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of cancer, heart attack, and Alzheimer's disease (source).
  • If you drive after just five hours of sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to crash. Drive with just four hours of sleep, and you are 11.5 times more likely to crash (source).

And if you think you're one of those people who can operate on less sleep:

"The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero" - Matthew Walker.

So why have we glorified sleep deprivation as a culture for so long?

The Sleep Deprivation Era

Growing societal pressures to hustle + new technology = mass sleep deprivation.

The industrial revolution pushed us to work longer hours. And then Thomas Edison invented artificial light, and our habits revolving around work changed.

We started commuting to work and working longer hours overall. But rather than sacrificing free time, we sacrificed sleep. Poor work-life balance led to anxiety which we self-medicated with caffeine and alcohol…two of the biggest enemies of sleep quality.

Edison was the Elon Musk of his era, so naturally, he got a lot of publicity. Early newspapers showed him as a genius who was willing to work 24/7. He couldn't pull that off, but he claimed to have slept no more than 4 hours per night and expected the same from his employees. He even hired 'watchers' to stop his drowsy, sleep-deprived employees from taking naps on the job.

Thomas edison commenting about lack of sleep

Edison encouraged America to do as he did, claiming that eight hours of sleep were wasteful and even harmful to society. In a 1914 interview, he declared:

"There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all" – Thomas Edison.

You could look at this as the birth of the sleep deprivation badge of honor.

The Media Throws Fuel on the Fire

The media pushed the badge of honor throughout the business world.

Here are a few headlines from business Insider. They seem to publish different versions of the same story:

What's the story behind these headlines?

  • "Meet Mr. X"
  • "Mr. X wakes up at 3m and conquers the world before you've even hit snooze."
  • "Do you want to be successful like Mr. X?"
  • "Then wake up earlier"

Just look at the sleep-deprived hall of fame:

  • Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter: 4-6 hours.
  • Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo: 4 hours.
  • Donald Trump: 4 hours.

 And some of these sleep-deprived influencers help spread the propaganda:

I have friends who are successful and sleep ten hours a night, and I ask them, 'How can you compete against people like me if I sleep only four hours?' It rarely can be done. No matter how brilliant you are, there's not enough time in the day – Donald Trump.

When it seemed it couldn't get any worse, along came social media.

Suddenly the badge of honor was accessible to us mortals, and it seemed everyone wanted one.

Applying for the badge is easy. Just post a photo of your alarm clock set for some time before 5 am. Alternatively, snap a photo of your empty gym before the sun has risen. Just don't forget to add a ridiculous hashtag for good measure. 

You might have noticed that the sleep deprivation badge of honor is also worn by celebrities like Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg's morning routine went viral when he posted it on Instagram.

'Mark Wahlberg wakes up at 2:30 am to start his day with a workout' - CNBC.

Sleep deprivation stories sell clicks. Something tells me a headline focusing on the other half of the story would have flopped.

'Mark Wahlberg goes to bed at 7:30pm'


Your Kids are Sleep Deprived Too

This toxic culture of sleep deprivation found its way into the education system. Once upon a time, school in the developed world started at 9 am. 

Until it didn't. According to the author of Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, more than half of US schools now start before 7:20 am. And to get to school at 7:20 am, some kids have to get the bus at 5:45 am, meaning they have to get up at 5:15 am or earlier. For 5 days per week. Year after year.

Why is this such a big deal? A child's developing brains need more sleep. And considering the circadian rhythm of teenagers is 1-3 hours ahead of an adult, 5:15 am to a teenager feels like 3:15 am to an adult.

How would you operate if you were forced to wake at 3:15 am every day?

Simpsons meme - will somebody please think of the children!

Poor sleep habits continue into higher education, too. It seems students believe that sleep is not a luxury they can afford.

The Red Bull poster that found its way onto a few campuses (including UCLA) reminded students that "Nobody ever wishes they'd slept more during college."

And it seems the students heard the message loud and clear. A 2015 study published in the Sleep Health Journal found that up to 96% of college students don't get 8 hours of sleep per night.

A New Era: Sleep Appreciation

Technology accelerated sleep deprivation when Edison invented the light bulb. And now technology is turning the tables.

We can now study the sleep-deprived brain much better. And this is highlighting how wrong we were.

The high-powered CEO who's on email until 2 am and back in the office at 6 am is finally being labeled as a liability, not a hero.

Companies are starting to see that sleep deprivation means less profit.

A tired employee will choose an easy, mindless task over something that requires critical thinking.  And this comes at a price. A study across four large US companies found that lack of sleep costs $2,000- $3500 per employee per year in lost productivity.  Or up to $54 million per year.

And this research is catalyzing change.

Edison might be turning in his grave, but there is no denying that the nature of work is changing. We need creativity, intelligence, effectiveness, emotional stability, and critical thinking. Sleep gives you these.

Procter & Gamble and Goldman Sachs now offer 'sleep hygiene' courses to their employees.

Nike and Google have relaxed work schedules and provide 'nap pods' so employees can sleep on the job.

It's not a sudden philanthropic-al pivot. They understand that well-rested employees = more profit.

Not only is sleep becoming profitable, but it's also becoming fashionable.

A wave of trendy new sleep-tech brands is hitting the market and confirming that yes: sleep deprivation is out, sleep optimization is in. There's a new kid on the block: the sleep hacker. Rather than boasting sleep deprivation, the sleep hacker boasts Oura ring sleep scores. Rather than posting photos of 3 am alarm clocks, they post selfies showing off their blue blockers.

Things are heading in the right direction for kids too. Schools have started to revolt and wind back start times after a few pioneering schools saw strong positive results from shifting start times from 7:25 am to 8:30 am.

We are not quite there yet but things are looking up. Better technology and research combined with education and sleep-tech consumer trends are finally helping the world wake up to the age of sleep. 

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