On Prioritising Sleep
My aim with this post is to offer you:
a) A short case on why you should seriously consider radically prioritising sleep, if you're able to.
b) A mindset/mental approach that I've found has helped with prioritising sleep - because rationally accepting something should be made a priority, and actually doing it, are sadly two different things.
c) Sleep tips.
a) Why you you might want to consider prioritising sleep.
This week, across almost the entire northern hemisphere, the clocks go back one hour tomorrow, thanks to daylight savings. About 1.6 billion people will be affected by this, across 70 countries.
Come Monday morning, following this extra hour, heart attack rates will drop, across this 1.6 billion people, by 21%. In 6 months, when we lose an hour, the next day there will be a roughly 24% increase in heart attacks for the same group. Traffic accidents will follow a similar pattern - being reduced when we gain an hour, and increasing when we lose one.
This staggering statistical observation is explained by Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep as a consequence of a mere loss or gain of a singular hour of sleep. His entire book is a tour de force - and an extremely convincing one - on why sleep is so important to nearly every function the body performs.
Sleep affects everything; cardiovascular health, cognitive ability, the immune system, longevity, cancer risk, the risk of degenerative diseases, athletic performance. It affects your body composition - those sleep deprived when losing weight lose more lean muscle mass than fat, and have higher appetites. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Walker likened sleep to a true healthcare system - preventing issues before they arise, keeping us healthy. What we have in society, he argued, is not a healthcare system but a sick-care system, only intervening once things have gone wrong. We neglect the natural, simpler, cheaper option all of us have available to us, because of how society has developed. Culturally, sleep is rarely prioritised.
Walker goes so far as to say that if your lifestyle or job prevent you from regularly getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night, it should be thought of as a carcinogen, due to the staggeringly increased cancer risk.
My reaction to the above statistics, including others presented in the book, was one of shock. Sure, we all know sleep is important, but this is a qualitative judgement, something known in general. We don’t really notice much of a change in our day-to-day experience of life if we lose an hour of sleep here and there. Sure, we’re a bit more tired, but sometimes getting lots of sleep can leave you feeling fatigued too. Between caffeine, alcohol, the waxing and waning of stress in our personal and professional lives, various amounts of physical activity, there’s too much noise for most of us to pick up the signal.
It takes looking at statistics - more than your singular data point - to really quantitatively assess the impact of sleep loss. And frankly, the stark reality seems incredibly alarming. Further to this, it’s worth acting on.
Walker argues that we all need at least 7 hours of sleep. There’s a tiny fraction of the population that seem to only need a minimum of 5 - but this is less than 0.5%. This is associated with a specific gene that promotes natural wakefulness. Statistics being what they are, in all likelihood you are not one of these people. Walker himself says he gets a non-negotiable 8 hours a night.
Sadly, the way in which to sleep well seems to prohibit the kind of fun we like to indulge in. One of the best things for sleep quality is regularity - going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including the weekends. Finding a consistent 7-9 hour window that works for every day of the week without clashing with our lives - be that wanting to be out with friends, watching Netflix in bed, or waking up to go to work - seems impossible.
With any lifestyle choice we make, there’s an inherent bet we’re taking. Anyone who sacrifices short term pleasure for the promise of long term benefit is essentially making the bet that they will be around to see those benefits they’ve invested in. You could argue that sleeping might extend your life, but you’ll spend that time sleeping (and crucially, missing fun times). I think there’s an element of truth to this - living purely for the sake of health or longevity seems pointless to me, as we’re all certain to die. That being said, there’s a cynicism to this attitude that misses a few crucial points.
Firstly, adequate sleep isn’t just going to help extend your lifespan, it’s going to improve the quality of your life also. Aside from being cognitively more functioning, and having generally better health, getting enough sleep makes you happier. When you don’t get enough sleep, your mood is much more volatile, plus you have the added detriments of dealing with fatigue and onset of considerably-less-than-optimal functionality.
Secondly, there’s obviously a middle ground to be had here. Prioritising sleep in general is far better than not doing so at all. So you go out once or twice a week - doing your best to sleep well the other nights is better than not doing that.
A group of people that are heroically anti-sleep are the hustlers. The ones that are working in finance or banking, ‘getting after it’, making money, doing deals, being productive. Lack of sleep for them means they accomplish more, at least in their minds. And in the short term, this is surely true, however, please realise that if you are one of those people you are still making a bet.
For however much money you make now, your medical bills in the future will likely be vastly more expensive.
Your lifespan, again, will likely be shorter.
The quality of the work you do will be diminished. You are effectively choosing short-term-quantity over long term quality. The thing about long term quality is, the actual quantity of the work done, once all is accounted for, might be greater.
And hey, this bet might work in your favour. You might experience none of the drawbacks, or if you do, they might be worth what you’ve gained. There are certainly people in the world who, running on little sleep, have achieved vastly more in their lifetime than most could do with several. I’m certainly in no position to judge these people, or say they bet incorrectly.
All I’m saying is, weigh up your options.
Summary: Sleep is one of the best ways we can care for our health. Prioritising it increases your chances for a long and healthy life. The sacrifices made for prioritising sleep may or may not be worth it depending on what your goal in life is. Make an informed choice. Don’t get sucked into thinking there’s no middle ground - prioritising sleep a little bit more than you do currently, if you are sleep deprived, is better than not making any improvement at all.
Quick Note: Some people, due to their work or the demands of their life, simply cannot prioritise sleep. Please do not panic, or feel judged, if this is you. Although sleep is great, we must remember that humans are incredibly robust and adaptable. Just because today, this week, or this year, you're not getting the optimal amount of sleep doesn't mean you're in dire straits, or won’t have a great life. Again, many people have wonderful, healthy happy lives running on low sleep. Statistically however, in principle, it seems to be better if you don’t have to make that sacrifice.
Besides, consider this; every single human that's acted as a guardian, raising an infant from birth has had to deal with lack of consistent sleep for arguably several years at least. This impairment of recovery comes at one of the most demanding times in the life of the guardian - they have to be alert 24/7 while taking care of this child. This is obviously demanding. It would be deeply strange if we didn’t have the faculties to deal with lack of sleep well - and we clearly do. The whole world still turns and advances, filled with wonderful things, despite lack of sufficient sleep being extremely common. This argument is directed towards those that in principle have the freedom to do choose to do so.
Nobody lives a perfectly optimal life.
b) Approaching prioritising sleep
OK, so sleep is important. Certainly deserving of standing alongside the other two pillars of health; diet and exercise. The problem is, while we all love sleep, prioritising it is boring. Going to bed early means saying no to things. Sleeping in means being late for work, and being fired. How can we circumvent this?
Aside from trying to maximise the quality of sleep (which I’ll talk a bit about in the next section) we need to change our attitude.
Sleep feels like hours unavailable to us. It’s time we can’t spend doing other things. There’s a certain reluctance we have with it - there’s so much more we could do and enjoy if we didn’t have to dedicate time to it. It feels like dead time.
If we change this mindset, we can start looking forward to sleep.
My first piece of advice would be to simply try it. Try prioritising sleep such that you get between 7-8 hours a night (and that means actual sleeping for 7-8 hours, not 7-8 hours between getting in bed and having to wake up). Do this for a singular week, waking up and going to bed at the same time. Assuming you don’t have a sleep disorder, or something else that seriously dampens the quality of your sleep, you’ll likely feel a whole 10-20% better for the entire of the time you’re awake within a few days. For me, it’s made a significant difference. Actually doing sleep properly, so you’re allowed to experience it’s benefits, can make it more appealing and therefore motivate you to prioritise it.
Secondly, become interested in the experience of sleep. Specifically, dreams.
Dreams are this strange thing we all experience, but are incredibly boring to talk about. They are, to some extent, natural hallucinations. Unfortunately, most of us don’t seem to remember them.
Suppose this weren’t the case. Suppose that you started remembering dreams - that every night, you would experience something strange and perhaps wonderful that you would take with you into the next day. Suppose that those 7-9 hours of ‘dead’ time, just became a different kind of ‘alive’ time - a time where you explored the mystery of consciousness, and the only one you really have access to - your own.
A few years ago, I acquired a copy of Dreams of Awakening: Lucid Dreaming And Mindfulness Of Dream And Sleep by Charlie Morley. It’s the only book on the topic I’ve read, and I found it fascinating (even the challenge of such a book - consider how one might try to claim with legitimacy to be an expert in dreams, and then write a book about them). I’m certainly no pro lucid dreamer, but the experience surrounding natural dream exploration, and approaches people take towards it, has been utterly fascinating. One of the exercises he recommends to help you become fully lucid in a dream, is to develop the habit of looking at your hand during the day.
Specifically - looking at your hand, looking away, then looking at your hand again. Or looking at your hand, and really inspecting it, turning it over, and back again (i.e. being mindful and present for this experience). Dreams aren’t so great at consistency, and Morley argues that if we develop the habit of checking for consistency - and watching out for it collapsing - in the real world, then it’s a habit we’ll consciously emulate while we dream. If you look at your hand, look away, and look back, and find it’s different, or your experience of it has changed, that’s a way of working out what level of reality you’re experiencing. If you do this in a dream, and realise something’s strange, you can become lucid.
I find this whole concept really cool.
It’s a type of mindfulness that goes beyond simply advising ‘presence’ because it becomes a way of assessing what level of existence ‘you’ (whatever that means) might be in. It feels deeper to me, and something I can care more about.
Keeping a dream diary can also be an extremely fun way of reinforcing this interest. You might think that this wouldn’t work for you, as you never remember your dreams. All I can say is, anecdotally (and this has been echoed from much of what I’ve read) is that if you make a conscious effort to want to remember them, and start paying attention to your state of mind, then recollection becomes easier. It’s now far more common for me to remember a dream I had, and write details of it down when I wake, than for me to have no recollection. This certainly wasn’t always the case, until my recent interest in sleeping and dreaming.
It’s potentially a scary thing, learning about what your mind does by examining and remembering your dreams, but it can be deeply fascinating. Only you can explore your mind. There’s something, at least to me, appealing about that.
My third mental approach is aimed at the types who are too ‘hardcore’ to need the benefits, or to care about dreaming. Perhaps think about approaching sleep this way - sleep is a thing you can become good at. But it’s a subtle art - thinking about sleep too much as you’re trying to fall asleep prevents you from doing so - much like thinking about anything too much prevents sleep. To become consistently good at sleep, you need a certain level of nuanced mental, physical and emotional finesse. This could be thought of as a challenge and puzzle to approach, which changes daily depending on the demands of your time and your body during the day, and is therefore entirely unique to you to solve. Do you even sleep bro?
Summary: Just try it for a week, allow yourself to see some benefits. That will likely be motivating. Beyond this, become interested in the experience of sleep - look into dreaming, become more aware of your changes of consciousness. Thirdly, think of it as a subtle challenge that requires finesse.
Quick Note: Some people with sleep disorders, or other conditions and situations, may not wish to explore dreaming. These approaches simply reflect what has worked for me, given my disposition towards it.
c) How to sleep real good
You probably won’t like any of these.
Sadly, the things that improve our sleep quality, are things that most of us need discipline to do. Some of Matthew Walker’s recommendations include:
Cut out all caffeine (and if you must have it, have it before noon)
Don’t drink (it may help you fall asleep, but you will not sleep well)
Consistently go to sleep and wake up at the same time - even on weekends
No screens for ideally a few hours before bed - reading on an ipad even an hour before going to bed was found to delay peak melatonin levels (melatonin is a hormone vital to sleep) by 3 hours - and even then the peak wasn’t nearly as strong.
Exercise, but not too soon before sleeping - ideally leave at least a two hour gap between finishing your workout and falling asleep
Sleep in a cold room - ideally 16 to 20 degrees Celcius
Aside from this, here are some other recommendations:
Things like f.lux, twilight for android - or any ‘blue light’ app for your phone or screen hasn’t been shown to be hugely effective, but are unlikely to hurt. They’re free, so it feels like only potential upside to me
Consider your pillows/mattress/the amount of light in your room when you sleep. These physical things can be a chore to replace and get right, but are worth the effort to do so.
Having a night time routine that you do, even if it’s 15 minutes long and involves simply reading, really seems to help. I still do this even if I’m behind on sleep, as it seems to improve the quality of sleep, and the likelihood that I’ll get to sleep faster. Pick something you find relaxing, that doesn’t involve screens that you can do before going to bed, and build the association.
Summary: Drink less coffee and alcohol. Have a bedtime. Learn to relax. Do healthy things, they compound with other healthy things.
Sleep is something that, hopefully, will be seen as more of a priority in our culture moving forward as the body of literature and research around it grows. As we become ever more stimulated through ever-interconnected tech in our lives, the need to truly decompress and unplug will surely only grow.
Ironically, sleep is becoming an increasing topic of interest in the tech space, with each year seeing advanced sleep trackers emerging, promising to help you improve your sleep. These seem to be, for the moment, quite hit and miss. That being said, should they truly innovate in that space, with sleeping well becoming to an extent fashionable, it might be helpful to everyone. For now though, please just consider more deeply the 1/3-1/4 of your existence that you likely neglect. If you’re unsure, maybe just sleep on it.
If you want to learn more about the resources here, I’d start of with this podcast with Matthew Walker and Joe Rogan. If you can’t stand Joe Rogan for whatever reason, Matthew Walker was interviewed on a number of different podcasts, and offers much of the same information there too. He’s very articulate, and speaks passionately about this topic, I strongly recommend you check any interview of his out:
Other decent free sources of information include some Ted Ed videos:
And ones created by the channel What I’ve learned:
The books referenced in this piece were Matthew Walkers Why We Sleep and Charlie Morley’s Dreams of Awakening.