If sleep is so important, why do we glorify sleep deprivation in our careers?

This is an adaptation of an article by Michael Thomas.

We live in a “hustle culture”, wherein there is intense social pressure to get up earlier, work harder, and work longer than anyone else, and that is the only way to succeed.

Nowhere is this hustle culture more celebrated than social media’s 4:00 am club, a place where celebrities post pictures of empty gyms and alarm clocks set to ungodly hours of the morning. The club originally gained notoriety when an article about a certain famous actor’s morning routine went viral. 

But our culture’s celebration of early birds is far from novel. For years, Business Insider has published a slightly different version of the same story in which they profile a successful person that wakes up and conquers the world before many of us have eaten breakfast. The message of these stories is clear: if you want to succeed, you need to wake up earlier.

Author Michael Thomas attempted to embrace the early morning routine, by waking at 5:00AM and getting right to work. In the early days, he reported, his productivity seemed to soar, when he was free to work without interruption in the pre-dawn hours. It wasn’t until his sleep debt compounded that he began to understand the real cost of joining the cult of hustle.

He goes on to share examples of the effects of sleep deprivation: snapping at colleagues for no reason, sending inaccurate invoices to customers, delivering subpar work, and more. After 30 days of this, he quit the “club of hustle” and their early morning requirements. For Thomas, the cost was too great, and the rewards were dwindling.

Christopher Barnes, a University of Washington business professor, has dedicated a large portion of his working life to investigating the lost productivity caused by poor sleep. In one of his his most influential studies, Barnes investigated Sleepy Monday, the first work day after setting the clocks forward in the Spring. On Sleepy Monday, people sleep, on average, forty minutes less than they do on a regular night. While forty minutes might seem like an insignificant amount of time, the effects are anything but.

On Sleepy Monday, mildly sleep deprived judges hand out harsher sentences than any other Monday in the year. Sentences tend to be about five percent longer than the average. Sleep deprived people are more likely to interpret stimuli in a negative manner, and less able to regulate their negative emotions, both of which compromise their decision making and judgment.

But our society isn’t just sleep deprived for one Monday out of the year. Over the past sixty or seventy years, the average sleep a person gets has decreased dramatically. In 1942, people slept around seven hours and 54 minutes per night. Nowadays, however, Americans manage just six hours and 18 minutes a night. Only the Japanese are worse, sleeping for just six hours and 12 minutes each night. The negative effects are staggering: economists estimate that absenteeism caused by sleep deprivation costs the Japanese economy $138 billion annually.

We can only blame a work-focused culture so much. The average American in full-time employment works eight hours and 24 minutes, which leaves another 15 and a half hours every day open.

Why people choose not to sleep is a more complex issue. The modern world is full of things which reduce or inhibit sleep. Two of the most popular drinks in the world — tea and coffee — are primarily popular because they keep us awake. Then there’s alcohol, which fragments our sleep and suppresses dreaming.

Technology also plays a large role in our slow sleep deprivation. Our smartphones are always connected and provide friends, family and colleagues a direct line to our attention at all times of the day and night. The apps on our smartphones are equally as troubling. They are specifically designed to distract us and dominate our attention. And let’s not forget that we have season after season of commercial-free entertainment just begging to be binge-watched on our streaming services.

So what do we do when we want to break the cycle? Sadly, there is no silver bullet or magic pill – it just takes will power: if Netflix is your late-night poison, don’t turn on the TV. If your smartphone is the culprit, put it on Do Not Disturb and put it down at a set hour.

Studies have shown that getting more, and better quality, sleep can lead to massive improvements in focus, problem solving ability, and overall feelings of well-being. It is also important to prioritize your time throughout the day, so you can be efficient with the time you have, instead of feeling that the only way to be successful is to sleep less and work more than everyone around you.

Excerpts liberated from The Dropbox Blog.

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