Here is a brief story I’d like to share with you. Several decades ago – I was probably ten or so - one night I walked into my grandfather’s bedroom (kids weren’t allowed in his room so it was sort of a special occasion to be in there) to watch a baseball game with him – he was a big Mets fan. I didn’t really like baseball but it was fun to spend time with him, I only saw him once or twice a year. We were talking, I don’t remember the conversation but I said something about how much I love sleep. I have always been a deep sleeper and as a kid I would just sleep and sleep and my parents would have a hard time getting me up and ready for school. My grandfather replied that he hated sleep. His reasoning was as follows: Think what you could get done if you didn’t have to sleep? Since his opinion was so opposite of mine it stuck with me and I have found that as I have grown older, I have started to come around to his point of view.
You might not expect this post from a fitness professional, but I am going to go ahead and say it. Sleep is overrated and often a significant waste of time. You can’t store or save up on sleep once you have fully rested. Extra sleep is just like pumping gas into an already full tank, it spills out - in this instance as wasted time. What if you got a decent amount of sleep but then spent that extra time doing something that you believed to be productive, imagine what you could accomplish?
First, let’s get some definitions straight. The general recommendation is for Americans to sleep 7-9 hours a night (1), so let’s average that and say the recommendation is to sleep 8 hours a night, or one of third of every day. If we sleep an average of 8 hours a night each night of the week (8x7) that is 56 hours we are sleeping every week.
Here is my observation and a subsequent suggestion. The human body is extremely adaptable. If you condition it to function on lower levels of sleep it will learn to accept that as the norm, just like you can get used to drinking less than a gallon of water a day or eating only two meals if you want. My suggestion is to learn to operate well off of 6 hours of sleep each night. If you feel it necessary, add in a couple of extra-long nights of sleep to play catch up. You’ll still come out way ahead in the end. Let’s do the math:
Person A) Sleeps evenly 8 hours a night, 7 days a week. 56 hours a week spent sleeping
Person B) Sleeps 6 hours a night 5 days a week, and then has 2 catch-up days as needed with 10 hours of sleep a night. 50 hours a week spent sleeping
If person B has just one make-up day a week then they spent 46 hours sleeping each week.
In our example the person just gained somewhere from 6-10 hours a week of time to do whatever they wish, and this isn’t even an extreme example. And 6-10 hours of time is very significant. Here are some things you can do in that time:
- Follow a very comprehensive, intense, effective exercise program
- Read all of the technical data in your field (research suggests if you read 1 hour a day in your field for 7 years your knowledge will be equal to that of most world experts )
- Spend time developing/mastery a hobby (writing/painting/gardening, etc)
- Work a part time job (to illustrate the point if you were a personal trainer and you just trained 2 clients a day twice per week – for example at 7 and 8 am on Tuesday and Thursday mornings - you could make an extra 5-20k per year working just 4 hours a week). Imagine if you put that money into a savings account or a stock portfolio and saved for several years, think what it could turn in to?
- Volunteer in your community – you can do a world of good giving 5 hours a week to your community
Just to use myself as an example, I would say on average I spend about 6-10 hours a week both exercising and writing. In the past 10 years I have been able to maintain a reasonably high level of fitness and I set some records I was going after, as well as write two in-depth books (All About Powerlifting and NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training) that I am very proud of, with another novel on the way. In addition I have probably written 150 fitness articles on various sites (most of them I was paid to write). Many of those things were bucket list items. I could have spent that extra time sleeping and maybe I would have had one less cold or not had the flu in certain years, but looking back on things – with the information I have now, would I trade in those accomplishments for extra sleep? No frickin’ way, it is not even close.
Of course if you are going to lose sleep you want to do something productive – watching reruns on TV or surfing your social media feed for one or two hours a day likely isn’t going to be very fulfilling long term. Keep yourself focused on a task, use a time journal if necessary to adequately chart your time on various activities, and see what you accomplish.
One of the keys to this method is that you can have an occasional catch up day and it is no big deal. In my opinion you’ll get far more out of one long day of sleep where you get 10 hours or so rather just adding an extra hour to most days a week. But the time you gain by sleeping a bit less on those other nights really adds up.
Why We Sleep?
Surprising as it is, there doesn’t seem to be a super clear answer to the question of why we sleep? You’ll hear answers such as it is safer at night to sleep then explore your environment; we conserve energy by sleeping; it has a restorative function; it helps with brain plasticity (3). My pet theory (which is just that so take it or leave it) is that we sleep so we can take our nerves off line and repair them so they can continue to function optimally. We can’t make new nerve and brain cells so we have to repair them.
Our bodies and even our physiology get very used to routines. My wife tends to go to bed right at 10 pm. At 9:45 she will seem alert and awake then suddenly twebty minutes later she can’t seem to keep her eyes open. I am the same way only I tend to go to bed around midnight. Once you have established a routine your body wants to keep it. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Once you get in the routine of sleeping less you will find it much easier to maintain, but if you are used to always sleeping 8-10 hours a night in the beginning it is going to take some effort to adapt to a new routine. It would be easy if you simply had to adapt, much like those in the military have to do, but when the option to sleep is there it can be hard to turn down. This is why it is really important to get on healthy and productive routines. If you start regularly including something in your routine that is less than ideal (napping at a certain time in the afternoon for example) it can be tough to rid yourself of that habit.
I think using the example of hunger as analogy works well. Our bodies get used to eating a certain times. For example I usually have breakfast at 8:30 and then lunch at 11 am. If 11:30 rolls around and I have not eaten my stomach will be growling. But am I really hungry? I just ate 3 hours ago. I call these signals “fake” hunger. Your mind is telling yourself one thing – you are hungry – but it is not a real sensation, your body is just trying to maintain homeostasis. Even if I skipped lunch and dinner I wouldn’t “really be hungry” despite my cravings, people can go for weeks without food. Those folks on Naked and Afraid or similar survival shows are really hungry, just because I consumed 1500 kcals instead of 2500 kcals that day doesn’t mean I am truly hungry. Your body will do the same with sleep. It will send powerful signals that you are sleepy or that you need sleep but it is just doing that because of your real routine. Find something that will really keep you occupied or excited and get through that 30 minute window and suddenly you’ll discover you were not sleepy at all.
Should Everyone Sleep Less?
Certainly there are going to be times to when you need to sleep more, and in general I would say trust your body. The amount of sleep people get is going to be a continuum including amounts that are too little, just right, and too much. In my opinion I think if you are regularly sleeping less than 4 hours a night that is likely to be problematic. Iif you can’t stay awake or focused during the day that isn’t productive and of course if you suffer an accident because you fall asleep while doing something (say driving) that doesn’t help anybody. I think 6 hours a night is a good amount to shoot for on a regular basis, sometimes you might sleep less and sometimes you might sleep more. I think anything more than 8 hours a night is overkill on a regular basis unless it is a catch up and if you are sleeping 10 or more hours a night on a regular basis that is a giant time suckage, ask yourself if you couldn’t be more productive spending your time doing something else?
During the following times you probably need more sleep:
- Young kids growing should get more sleep, the suggestion here is for adults
- When you are sick or recovering from an injury or illness
- If your immune system is suppressed
- If you are experiencing the signs of sleepiness such as falling asleep at work or at the wheel or you can’t focus on your tasks (check diet and exercise as contributors to this as well)
- Elite athletes might be willing to sacrifice productivity in other areas to ensure their body is adequately rested for their training/sport.
Other factors to consider:
- If you have insomnia or other sleep disorders disregard this advice
- If you suffer from chronic illness work with your doctor
- Don’t double dip – if you already get a low amount of sleep and then you think “I’ll just cut another 2 hours out every night” that can quickly become problematic
- Individual sleep requirements may vary – the trick is to find the minimum effective dose for you
In the interest of full disclosure, I am simply sharing my opinion on this topic. I am not a sleep expert and I have not studied the subject closely for many years. Those two sentences alone may be enough for you to say – this is just one dude’s opinion and I really don’t give a sh*t what he says. I am okay with that. But most people want to be productive. Most people wish they had more time, and the one thing they likely spend more time on than anything else - perhaps even work - is sleep. Many people see the amount of time they sleep as some untouchable thing: ‘well of course I need 9 hours of sleep a night’ they say, but I would argue it should be the first place one should look to gain extra time. I don’t think too many people lie on their deathbed and think “I wish I had spent more time sleeping,” but I do think lots of people would say “I wish I used the time I had more wisely and if only I had spent 5 hours a week every week doing something that I loved, imagine what could have been?” You can either have sweat dreams with your head nestled on the pillow, or you can wake your ass up and make your dreams become a reality. The time you are given is yours to spend as you see fit, but once it is gone you can’t get it back. Spend it wisely and with no regrets.