At the heart of our current sleep crisis is our collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed. The method (or cheat code) we use isn’t a mystery; feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. In fact, up against this unforgiving definition of success, sleep doesn’t stand a chance.
Put another way: Our relationship with sleep is closely linked to our relationship with time. We all know that feeling of being stressed out, the feeling that there’s not enough time for what we need to do. In fact, there’s even a term for it: “time famine.” Every time we look at our watches it seems to be later than we think.
I personally have always had a very strained relationship with time. When we’re living a life of perpetual time famine, what we’re losing isn’t more checkmarks on our to-do list. Instead, we’re robbing ourselves of our time to recharge, of our creativity, of our ability to experience wonder, our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives. From time to time, we all need to be reminded to stay connected to the essence of who we are, to take care of ourselves along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to put our successes—and our failures—in perspective.
A lot of people in our culture like to think they don’t need much sleep and even brag about it. The truth, however, is that less than 1 percent of the population actually qualifies as “short sleepers”—those rare few able to get by on little sleep without experiencing negative consequences. Though many people would like to believe they can train themselves to gain admission to the short-sleeping 1 percent, the trait is actually the result of a genetic mutation. You either have it or you don’t, so it’s not something you can develop over time or something you magically acquire because of your dedication to your job.
Considering these widespread cultural attitudes, how do we get the sleep we need without feeling guilty about taking time away from other important aspects of our lives? Let me say it plainly: This is a false premise. We wouldn’t feel guilty for looking after our health and well-being in other ways. So why should we feel guilty for getting the sleep we need, when the scientific consensus tells us a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night is essential for optimum health?
The question of having enough time to sleep really concerns how we go about allocating the 24 hours we call day. There are a number of national surveys asking American adults how they spend their time—in work, leisure activities, preparing and eating meals, commuting to and from work, sleeping, etc. These surveys tell us the number of hours people say they spend sleeping, on average, over the course of a few weeks. Many Americans say they sleep around eight hours; however, these numbers vary by age, gender, economic status and other factors. And while the Centers for Disease Control recommends that healthy adults get a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night to avoid the negative consequences of sleep loss, 35 percent of US adults don’t get even this minimal amount of recommended sleep.
While we know a great deal about the sleep habits of Americans, we know very little about how they make decisions about allocating time for sleep. When I ask my patients how they select their bedtimes and rise times, they usually tell me about the daily tasks and responsibilities that dictate how much time they can spend in bed. Sleep is usually what’s done with the “leftovers” of the day. Over the long run, this strategy leads to chronic sleep deprivation, sleepiness, fatigue and all of the risks associated with chronic sleep loss.
For my sleep-deprived patients, I recommend a paradigm shift: putting sleep first, and everything else next.
For my sleep-deprived patients, I recommend a paradigm shift: putting sleep first, and everything else next:
1. Allocate at least seven hours per night for sleep and more than seven hours if you still aren't rested in the morning.
2. Select a bedtime and get-up time that that are consistent with times you are likely to sleep well, meaning go to bed at a time you feel sleepy, and get up when you are likely to wake up without an alarm clock. Of course, these times need to align with your daily responsibilities and allow time for pleasure. However, when those responsibilities (or fun activities) don’t allow for at least seven well-timed hours in bed, it’s time to re-evaluate and re-prioritize.
On a related note, the issue of insufficient time for sleep is not simply the “fault” of overachieving adults. We begin disrespecting sleep at a very young age. Consider the start time of high school and the late hours of sports practices and events for teens. The current generation of adults was brought up during a period when sleep time was not respected. It was not viewed as an avenue to health, but rather as a pathway to laziness. As we learn more about the benefits of restorative sleep, the conversation is shifting away from “how can I get by with less” to “how can I carve out time for more.” Finding time for sleep is just as beneficial as other things we do to protect our health and well-being.