Let’s Think About Sleep Better


“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

"I’ve got a dream that’s worth more than my sleep.”

“If you’re going to be successful, then you have to be willing to give up sleep.”

These are all reasonably well-known quotes, and I think they illustrate something society as a whole espouses: sleep is secondary.  Of course, we all give lip service to the power of a proper night’s rest, but that lip service is often nothing more than talk. Want proof? Examine a college campus, where sleep deprivation flourishes in the chaos of classes, sports, extracurriculars, and a healthy social life.  When life gets crowded in college, the first thing kicked to the curb is almost always a good night’s rest.  I’ve shirked sleep plenty of times myself, falling into the same assumption so many make: sleep isn't necessarily integral to success, and if I want to achieve my dreams I should probably resign myself to living sleep-deprived.

It's not hard to see why we have this belief.  After all, our experience of sleep tells us it's an activity during which nothing happens, a period of blank blackness in between the bright and active days.  All the benefits it grants us are intangible, and its drawbacks are all too easy to quantify. Considering this, it’s not truly surprising that we view sleep as something we can and probably should sacrifice to attain success.

When it comes to sleep, however, science quickly shows us that our intuitions are dead wrong. Cognitive functions that take a hit when we’re sleep deprived include language processing, logical and practical reasoning, alertness, and higher-order cognitive functions such as decision making, abstract reasoning, and creativity. Furthermore, a link between sleep deprivation and psychosis was documented in 2007, when MRI scans revealed that sleep deprived brains can become incapable of responding properly to emotional events.  Finally, sleeping, and specifically dreaming, is widely considered to be the way in which we consolidate memories made during the day, so sleep-deprived people remember less about their days than those who get enough rest each night. Imagine, for a moment, trying to find success or pursue your dreams while your memory is shoddy, you struggle to make decisions or be creative, and  you can't even react properly to emotional events. Sleep is absolutely vital to our mental health, and thus we need to consider it central to our success.

This is not to say that we need to religiously adhere to the mantra of getting eight hours every single night or we won't be successful.  I know just as well as anyone that sometimes inspiration or a deadline keeps us up late at night. However, we need to think differently about sleep than we currently do. We can’t afford to consider it secondary, something that doesn’t contribute to or must be sacrificed for success. If we want to be as successful as we can, if we want to be the best that we can be, then we need to care about sleep.