Sleep is the one game in life that we can’t cheat. There are no shortcuts, textbooks, or cheat codes. Nobody is going to sponsor us to get more sleep. Nobody will hold our hands.
It’s up to each of us, individually, to defend our hours.
In life, your sleep recovers your health bar. It reinforces learning, boosts creativity, allows the brain to stabilize mood, and builds connections otherwise impossible during wakefulness. In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, a professor of sleep science, writes:
Following a night of sleep you regain access to memories that you could not retrieve before sleep. Like a computer hard drive where some files have become corrupted and inaccessible, sleep offers a recovery service at night (116).
Without a healthy dose, your HP and mental acuity will slowly drain to nothing, even if you can’t tell the damage as it’s happening. According to Why We Sleep, “The human mind cannot accurately sense how sleep-deprived it is when sleep-deprived” (140).
Lost sleep can’t be regained. As Dr. Walker writes, sleep deprivation that accumulates over time leaves lasting effects:
Regardless of the amount of recovery opportunity, the brain never comes close to getting back all the sleep it has lost. This is true for total sleep time, just as it is for NREM sleep and for REM sleep. That humans (and all other species) can never “sleep back” that which we have previously lost is one of the most important take-homes of this book (63).
Sleep does more than recovery the mind. It also spurs creativity, intelligence, motivation, effort, efficiency, effectiveness when working in groups, as well as emotional stability, sociability, and honesty. “All of these are systematically dismantled by insufficient sleep” (299).
If sleep is so beneficial, why is it such a struggle for us to defend?
Because of social, societal pressures we face throughout life.
Like a role-playing game (RPG), there are enemies and environmental hazards at every turn. Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is the ultimate war against peer pressure. Building and benefiting from a habit of healthy sleep is a lifelong journey that constantly requires us to push back against the obligations that threaten our sleep.
It’s not as easy as a traditional battle, because your enemies assume the guise of people trying to help you succeed. They impose their values on you in subtle, subconscious ways. To be aware, you have to know when and where these random encounters will happen throughout life.
Random Enemy #1: Mom
She has worked two jobs to put a roof over your head and food on the table. So you can live a better life, she wants you to study hard, perform well in school, get into a good college, and land a stable job. Step one in that path is waking you up in the morning to go to school on time.
No worries: Early on, in preschool and kindergarten, you have nap time to catch up! I recall those kindergarten afternoons spent dazing and dreaming on my Sanuki towel. Although the scheduled period was not my favorite — that would be recess! — it provided my growing body with hours of sleep to offset the lost hours from restless nights.
Little did I suspect the next random encounter awaiting us in grade school…
Random Enemy #2: The Disciplinarian Schoolteacher
You know her well: bossier than your mom, there to teach you rules for your own good. No time for sleep when young minds must learn!
“You can get your sleep at night,” Ms. Glissa says, “because during the school day, it’s time for class!” You get books! Binders! Classes! Science experiments! Homework!
In elementary school, nap time disappears and eventually drags the habit of napping into the grave with it.
My solution: go to bed earlier. Forgo some books and games so I can be under the covers earlier.
Late in middle school, when graded homework and exams rear their monolithic head, the rest of life begins to encroach further into the Sandman’s realms. I couldn’t simply go to bed earlier because I had stuff to do. Instead, I had to catch those Zzz’s more surreptitiously: a few nods in class here, longer bathroom breaks there.
Finally, in high school, as social events and evening commitments invade students’ lives, sleep is almost an afterthought, a bridge between school days, an acquiescence to fatigue. Health and concentration take the backseat to completion (or cross-country two-a-days). Queen Mab arrives unwelcome, attacking the susceptible student in the middle of ennui rather than stepping with invitation into the dark recesses of our stress-hammered minds.
Stressed out by the last all-nighter, you seek out help. Never fear: Your college counselor, Don de Léon, draws near!
Random Enemy #3: The Macho College Prep Counselor
“You can’t get 9 hours of sleep in college. People just don’t sleep. You’ve got too much to do.”
“Make the most of your time in college. You don’t wanna spend four years of tuition in your dorm room, in bed sleeping.”
Ever the voice of reason. 🙄
With teachers looking out for you like that, who needs enemies?
My recourse: Once I got my own car, I spent assembly periods and pep rallies napping in the back seat. I spent many a lunch period curled up under my blanket, my car windows blocked out with sunshades to ward off Mr. de Léon’s wandering eyes.
In college, you’ll have independence, you think. You’ll have some semblance of control over when you can take classes, how early you need to wake up, how few nighttime events you attend.
Until you move into your freshman dorm and meet…
Random Enemy #4: The Randomly Paired Roommate
My college tried to help. It distributed surveys to us over the summer before freshman year, asking us questions like our hobbies and sleep habits. I remember a question asking me what music I liked; I wrote Silence. Surely, with this much care, they’d pair us well. What could possibly go wrong?
Meet my roommate, Zak Shockey. He goes to bed at 10pm!
… and rises at 6am.
The dining hall wasn’t yet open, so he’d stock pre-baked chocolate muffins along our windowsill. His morning ritual was to get up, shower, and unwrap his chocolate muffins. ::crinkle crinkle:: He’d chew. Loudly.
Battle tactics: I had more control over my day, and could schedule long blocks mid-afternoon to take naps in the library conference room, where nobody could bother me. My party in college grew. I made lots of friends, usually through classes and clubs.
There wasn’t a Sleep Club though. “So, how much sleep do you get each night?” doesn’t exactly make a good pick-up line when you’re evaluating lab partners, or project buddies.
If you like taking classes and learning things, you may not even see your next enemy coming. He’ll sneak up on you as you’re checking problem sets. He’s not even an “enemy” in the traditional sense of the word.
Random Enemy #5: The Overachiever Friend
Meet Simon! He takes 20 units, a full course load. Rows with the varsity rowing team. Writes for the school paper. He’s always doing something, whether it’s next week’s problem set or preparing for next week’s meet. He’s got his master’s thesis planned out, so he can transition into graduate school before junior year ends. He has a can-do attitude I find invigorating, except when he told me one day,
💀 “You can sleep when you’re dead.” 💀
Little did he know, if he didn’t sleep more, he’d be dead earlier than the rest of us. As the years went by, he only took more and more classes, never satisfied with one degree alone. He got through it by cutting his sleep. It didn’t seem to affect him.
Of course, how would we know? He might not even know it. As Matthew Walker points out, sleep-deprived people don’t even notice their effects themselves:
Interestingly, participants in the above studies do not perceive themselves as applying less effort to the work challenge, or being less effective, when they were sleep-deprived, despite both being true. They seemed unaware of their poorer work effort and performance — a theme of subjective misperception of ability when sleep-deprived (300).
You can still be friends with him! Just learn when to say no to masochism, so he can respect your boundaries.
You’ll both graduate.
When you’re an adult in the workforce, you’d think life would afford you more freedom to sleep in. Until you meet your manager:
The Boss Battle
His mantra: “Showing up is half the battle.”
The boss wants you on-call. Your job isn’t customer-facing or emergency response, but if you get an important email, he expects a response in 2 business hours. If you get a text from him, you need to respond immediately or else it’s going on your performance review. He calls an early morning standup just to get people there.
He’s not a bad person. He just got the wrong cue from our society, which glorifies the high-powered executive intoxicated on coffee and Red Bull. You’ve heard the stories: power agent Michael Ovitz returning every call by day’s end, or the legendary Steve Jobs firing back an email reply at 2:00am to fix a gradient, then showing up at the office by 6:00am for standup.
Ability doesn’t matter so much as availability: being there for 8 hours, not leaving before your coworkers, showing constant commitment to the team. When you approach your colleagues, many of them admit they don’t have enough time to sleep because they have so much work to do.
“Could your workload be so high because you’re not getting enough sleep at night to be efficient during the day?”
There’s no easy way out if you end up working alongside people who value sleep differently.
What I’ve done: Meet my deliverables, and request a transfer to a manager that evaluates output rather than face time.
One way you can tell who values sleep is to simply ask. When you’re interviewing for a position, ask your interviewers how much they sleep each night. Ask your hiring manager. Don’t be afraid to broach the conversation. The worst thing that can happen is self-selecting yourself out of a toxic environment, or knowing what you’re getting into upfront. You’d rather avoid a mismatch than pay for it with your sleep and sanity.
In an RPG, your enemies try to take your health from you. In real life, they take away from your sleep. It’s a battle against peer pressure, with very strong peers — and often, a boss.
To overcome that pressure, draw from how you win in RPGs.
- Early in life, when your nighttime commitments haven’t taken over, you can try to go to bed earlier. If you’re a night owl, then find your nap time by stealing breaks here and there. I did it by sneaking away when there was a pep rally or assembly. Any free time I had, I slept it away in the backseat of my car. When teachers came to look for stragglers, I blocked the windows.
- Get people on your side. Build your party. Find other people who see the benefits of sleep and band together. You’re stronger when you have to fight together. Ask friends and trusted mentors how much they sleep, then ask them to fight for you in arenas where you have less authority, like upper management or the school board.
- Build experience points and get stronger. Sleep well so you come from a place of logic and data, rather than emotion and distrust. Be so sharp and logical your haters can’t point to your sleep schedule as a way to put down your worth as a human being.
- Learn stronger spells to strengthen your defense. Speak with your results. In school, score higher and run faster. Write columns in your school paper and verbally express what the benefits are to you. If you find yourself in an unsupportive environment, perform until you can switch groups. In interviews, show a portfolio of results, produced on your schedule. In the workplace, block out your calendar to avoid early morning meetings and justify that time with productivity later in the day. If necessary, block out nap time to recharge your body and mind in your car or conference room.
- Kill them with kindness. Instead of arguing back, educate them. Most of the time, people simply don’t know that late sleepers can be productive people. They’re a morning lark, rather than a night owl, or they assume what has worked for them works for all. You can cite this article, or some of Dr. Walker’s scientific studies. Gift them Why We Sleep for their birthday. During your next one-on-one, discuss the passage: “Not everyone’s circadian timing is the same…. night owls are not owls by choice. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate” (21).
- Set up your home base like a fortress. Close your door and turn off your phones when you sleep to let your family know you mean business. Don’t cave to early-morning clubs, classes, or meetings. Always ask for alternatives where possible. Defend your eight-hour minimum like the last line of DoTA tower defense.
The battles will come, and not when you expect them. Think of them as random battles as you wander the overworld of life. Prepare your points. Stand your ground.
It’s a battle you have to constantly wage. Even if you must succumb one battle — like the global monthly meeting that runs into your normal sleep time — take it as an isolated loss, as long as you don’t let it become a habit. Just come back and try to win the next one. There’s always the next night.
Even if you lose a battle, you have to win the war. Because the war is your life.