I used to write this snippet at the bottom of my work emails whenever I worked past midnight. Bonus points if I could send another mass email before 6:30am the next morning. “Sleep is for the weak“ used to be my professional battle hymn, my war cry, my calling card.
But several years ago, I realized I was wrong. Here’s why…
Let’s go back 10+ years ago to my time as a graduate student. I started drinking coffee in my early 20s and loved it immediately. I loved the caffeine buzz and additional focus it provided. My favorite coffee shop at Princeton was Small World Coffee, where I spent many days learning economics while cracked up on coffee:
Mug from Small World Coffee, Where It All Started
As a graduate student, I prided myself on being able to accomplish so much in so many areas of life. I took tons of hard classes. I taught myself how to play the guitar. I trained and completed multiple marathons and ultra-marathons (including two 50-milers alongside my future wife!). I bragged about showing up for a 9am lecture after already running a 20-mile long run from 5-8am (true story!). I smiled and laughed as my friends rolled their eyes at how ridiculous it all was.
Every once in a while, I would drink a coffee or a Mountain Dew right at sunset, in order to stay up all night working. I would send what I called a “Strategic Email” to one of my best friends from the PhD program (who is now a professor at a top-10 business school), razzing him because I was working while he was sleeping.
Here’s an actual email exchange from 2011, after I’d entered the working world and had our first son:
To: PhD Classmate
Date: Nov 17, 2011 at 5:44 AM
Subject: Mountain Dew
Sleep is for the weak, don’t you agree?
After going to bed at 3am, [my son] woke up at 5:45 screaming. And no, he did not go back to sleep…
From: PhD Classmate
Date: Nov 17, 2011 at 10:01 AM
Subject: Re: Mountain Dew
Dude. You are hardcore. Not sure if I can sure if I could survive being a dad… I need like, 8 hours at least. 🙂
To: PhD Classmate
Date: Nov 17, 2011 at 3:52 PM
Subject: Re: Mountain Dew
Try not to slip one by the goalie. Have a nice day!
We joked that this is how Lance Armstrong used to taunt Jan Ullrich (while beating him five times in the Tour de France). Lance would call him up after a long training ride when he knew Jan was relaxing, and yell into the phone: “What are you up to?? I’m training while you’re sitting on your ***!” Intimidating maybe, and also a bit psychotic. So I followed suit and sent my friend a taunting email every time I stayed up all night to make him feel guilty for not working hard enough.
The same thing happened with clients and consultants who used to work for me. My company gave me a dedicated page on Sleep Is For The Weak in the company yearbook:
Here’s a real email excerpt I wrote to a client in 2014:
Time: 8:34AM (after sending him earlier emails at 3am)
In response to your questions…
Sleep: is for the weak, don’t you agree?
Updated data: That all makes sense. We received the new data…
Heck, I even bought my kids some Sleep Is For The Weak T-shirts (also from Small World!):
I used to view lack of sleep as a sign of strength, a sign of work ethic, a signal that I would do whatever it took to get the job done. My CEO loved it. Clients loved it. I’m not sure how much people who worked for me loved it.
Until one day, I realized it was actually ridiculous. The idea of sleeping less and working more was unhealthy, unproductive, and, yes, a bit psychotic.
Fast forward to 2015. My wife and I were 2 years after having our 3rd child. We had just moved to Boston. I was trying to remain effective at work while at the same time reducing my hours. I created goals of spending more time with my kids, putting my family first, trying to enjoy each day just a little bit more than I used to.
And I realized: Sleep is most definitely not for the weak. In fact, sleep is for the healthy, the thoughtful, the well-adjusted, the confident, the creative, the effective, the well-rounded, the balanced.
Sleep is so fundamental to our well-being as humans. It’s one of the three pillars of health, along with exercise and diet (or possibly add medicine as the 4th pillar). It’s literally 1/3 of your life, if you do it right. It’s a big freaking deal!
I never realized the importance of sleep when all I cared about was being a work warrior. I shudder to think about the pressure I used to put on co-workers who worked for me. “If the boss won’t sleep, you probably shouldn’t either!” “He’s staying up late again — I’d better get on it!” “Good grief, is that guy ever going to let up?”
In retrospect, I wish former colleagues or bosses would have stood up to me and said: “What are you doing?? Can’t you see that losing sleep is bad for your mood, your mind, and your health? Tone it down a bit, champ!” Such an intervention would have undoubtedly changed my life for the better.
- Related EconDad article: Living The Life Of Your Dreams
The science is clear that sleep is critical for high performance. Ariana Huffington has been pounding the drum on more sleep with her books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. See her Ted Talk titled How to Succeed? Get More Sleep:
Here’s an excerpt:
“This is a room of type A women. This is a room of sleep-deprived women. And I learned the hard way the value of sleep. Two-and-a-half years ago, I fainted from exhaustion. I hit my head on my desk. I broke my cheekbone, I got five stitches on my right eye. And I began the journey of rediscovering the value of sleep. And in the course of that, I studied, I met with medical doctors, scientists, and I’m here to tell you that the way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep.”
“So as we are facing all the multiple crises in our world at the moment, what is good for us on a personal level, what’s going to bring more joy, gratitude, effectiveness in our lives and be the best for our own careers,is also what is best for the world. So I urge you to shut your eyes, and discover the great ideas that lie inside us; to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.“
- Related EconDad article: Strive to Thrive
In other interviews, Ariana suggests that women (and men) can find success by Sleeping Their Way To The Top. She writes:
“By sleeping more we, in fact, become more competent and in control of our lives. It gives new meaning to the old canard of women sleeping our way to the top.“
Ha! What a way with words. As an aside, there’s no way this girl of mine will be sleeping her way to the top:
Ironically, I’m writing this article at 4:45am in the morning. My consulting team and I just turned in an economic report due at midnight on the West Coast (3am in Boston). I’m so amped up from the deadline that now I literally can’t sleep. So I thought I’d write instead of sleep, and here I am. I rarely do this anymore, and my life is better because I sleep more than I used to.
I’m grateful for my team who put in incredible hours and too many late nights — truly an unfortunate aspect of this project — to pull it all together. But now that we’re complete, I’m going to encourage them to come back to normal, to get some rest, to go back to a regular up cycle of activity and down cycle of recovery, to prioritizing their health, well-being, and focusing on effective work over exhaustive work. I’ll remind them that sleep and rest are an important part of work and life, like I wish someone had done for me years ago.
The bottom line is this: Sleep is a essential part of a healthy and balanced life. The 2-4 hours you might get back from cutting back on sleep might feel productive every once in a while, but you’re truly better off being well-rested, spending a focused chunk of your day on Deep Work, and then spending the rest of your day on catching up, exercising, reading, being healthy, progressing on non-creative activities, and planning the next day. Sleep more, Learn to Relax, and you’ll reap the benefits of being more effective, productive, and happier at work and at home.
So before you start bragging again about sleeping less than the competition, go lay down and take a rest. I’m about to any minute now…