Something that’s stuck in my head for a long time is the statement that very successful people typically sleep an hour less than the rest of us, and use that extra hour to get a jump on the competition. Unfortunately for those of us who’d like to join the club, the amount of sleep we require seems to be hard-wired into our genetics. On top of that, it looks like we’re better off skipping a meal than we are skipping out on sleep.
Say you decide to go on a fast, and so you effectively starve yourself for a week. At the end of seven days, how would you be feeling? You’d probably be hungry, perhaps a little weak, and almost certainly somewhat thinner. But basically you’d be fine.
Now let’s say you deprive yourself of sleep for a week. Not so good. After several days, you’d be almost completely unable to function. That’s why Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
Here’s what former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had to say in his memoir White Nights about the experience of being deprived of sleep in a KGB prison: “In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep … Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”
So why is sleep one of the first things we’re willing to sacrifice as the demands in our lives keep rising? We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity and our productivity.
Many of the effects we suffer are invisible. Insufficient sleep, for example, deeply impairs our ability to consolidate and stabilize learning that occurs during the waking day. In other words, it wreaks havoc on our memory.
So how much sleep do you need? When researchers put test subjects in environments without clocks or windows and ask them to sleep any time they feel tired, 95 percent sleep between seven and eight hours out of every 24. Another 2.5 percent sleep more than eight hours. That means just 2.5 percent of us require less than 7 hours of sleep a night to feel fully rested. That’s 1 out of every 40 people.
Great performers are an exception. Typically, they sleep significantly more than the rest of us. In Anders Ericcson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 ½ hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute midafternoon nap some 2 hours a day more than the average American.