I’m one of those guys who white knuckles his way through tiredness. Whether I’ve been on a flight, working late or just out the night before sinking beers until 4am, when the next morning rolls around I force myself to get up between 6 or 7.
It’s something I was incredibly proud of. Business tycoons, marines, artists, world leaders all seem to manage fine. From Thomas Edison to Margaret Thatcher, managing (and indeed, seeming to thrive) on just a couple of hours a night is a badge of honour. I was in their company – I was on the right path. I was acting like a man.
“You know me!” I’d say, when confronted with gasps about how many hours I got a night, deriving a sick pleasure from being perceived as tough. “The early bird catches the worm!”
The way I saw it, the longer I was awake, the more I could get done – and the better I felt. One more chapter, one more drawing, just the end of this documentary, fire off another email. I love being productive. So I’d power through the sluggishness or tiredness I felt, self medicate with coffee and exercise.
That’s got to stop.
Today, I listened to Joe Rogan’s excellent podcast with neuroscientist, sleep expert and author of the critically acclaimed ‘Why We Sleep’, Matthew Walker.
I was confronted with reams of scientific evidence that systematically tore down all the lies I was telling myself. Sleep is vitally important – as Walker says, in an evolutionary system where weaknesses are eliminated ruthlessly as per the needs of the species, why have this big chunk of inactivity, unless it is critical to our survival? During sleep, we’re not gathering food, or reproducing, or seemingly doing anything much. So what’s happening?
A lot, it turns out. It’s not the ‘wasted productivity’ I though it was. You’re planning, repairing, making neural links and coming up with ideas. There’s a reason when you’re confronted with a tricky problem the age old advice is to ‘sleep on it’.
There is enough data out there now. It’s absolutely incontrovertible – we need sleep. A lot of it. 7-9 hours. The portion of the population who can operate efficiently on less is statistically equal to 0.
There’s a linear relationship between sleep deprivation (which means anything less than 7-9 hours) and early death. If you don’t get enough, your chances of negative health skyrocket: cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, decreased cognitive function, mood swings, an inability to regulate your diet, weight gain… I’m not even getting started. Even 6 hours a night is insufficient – your genes literally start to change, breaking down your body’s ability to repair and defend itself.
The problem is so widely accepted that evening shift work that disrupts sleep patterns is often listed as a carcinogen.
I won’t go into the science of it here: I’d make a meal out of it, and I don’t want to dilute the importance of the message. Please take the time to listen to this podcast, or read Walker’s book.
All I know is I’ve got to change. We’ve all got to change. These were the key tips I took away from Dr. Walker to start sleeping better:
- Establish a routine. This is the most critical point, apparently. Try and go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, if you can. Go with the circadian rhythm that runs us, rather than fighting against it.
- Dark/cool room. Your brain needs to drop a couple of degrees (Fahrenheit) to drift off, so crack that window open or use an ice pack. Also, blackout blinds or an eye mask to keep it dark.
- Put your phone away. I’m appalling at this. I read the news, I watch YouTube, I scroll through Instagram and my WordPress stats. Stop it. That light is directly fucking with your body’s production of melatonin – that’s the hormone which regulates sleep and wakefulness.
This was a massive blind spot for me. I’ve been wilfully ignorant of the damage I’ve been doing to myself, through a kind of stupid, testosterone fuelled contest with the forces of evolution. It’s as ridiculous as trying to have a boxing match with a thunderstorm – and being proud of our grit, valour and determination for doing so.
There’s no ‘hack’ to get around this. There’s no shortcut. There’s no instant gratification. We just need to get our heads down and sleep.