What I Learned From Six Weeks of Sleep Deprivation
How do you get ahead in your career, live up to all your responsibilities (both at work and at home), and still make time for what matters? The answer for too many people is to spend time less sleeping. But sleep deprivation can have hidden costs that build up over time.
My Sleep Deprivation Experiment
Several years ago, I read an article about Bill Gross’s right hand man Mohamed El-Erian. I was impressed by El-Erian’s work ethic and how much he got done each day.
The article stated that El-Erian typically only slept for 4 hours a day, from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM. He was in the office by 4:30 most mornings and this routine allowed him to get more done than most of his colleagues.
As a young professional with a big family and lots of responsibilities, I thought I would give this kind of schedule a try. If I could train my body to operate on just four hours of sleep, I could work longer hours, get more done, and still have time to spend with my kids.
So I started working after the kids went to sleep, turning the light off at 12:30 AM, and setting my alarm for 4:30 AM. I would then get up and head out for a run. Then I would spend an hour at my desk before getting the kids up for school.
This was one of the most miserable periods of my life!!
I was able to keep the routine up for about 6 weeks. But I didn’t become more productive. I didn’t get more done. Worse, I was irritable, uncreative, and started getting sick.
My body just needed more sleep.
Thankfully, I quit being stubborn and decided to go back to a more “normal” sleep schedule. In fact, after doing more research, I now guard my sleep more closely, getting more sleep than the average American.
I’m still glad I tried this experiment. It taught me three important lessons about sleep. Lessons that have helped me to increase my productivity, while being a better all-around person at the same time.
Lesson #1: Good Sleep Boosts Productivity
The goal with my sleep deprivation experiment was to get more done during a normal work week. But the opposite is actually what happened.
Sure, I was at my desk for more hours during the week. Somehow I managed to log 80 “working” hours a week, while still getting the kids up for school and having dinner with the family.
But the quality of my work suffered.
I didn’t have nearly the energy I was used to. And that made it hard to really focus on my research or quickly move through tasks.
Also, I noticed the number of mistakes I made went up dramatically. I distinctly remember getting an irate email from my business partner at the time. He was (rightfully) exasperated at some of the errors that were showing up in my work.
Bottom line, while sleep deprivation allowed me to spend more time working, the value of that work was pathetic. The lesson I learned was that getting good sleep actually boosts my productivity – not the other way around.
Lesson #2: Good Sleep Boosts Creativity
As a writer, one of my jobs is to take ideas that seem complicated or boring, and make them simple or interesting.
That takes a significant amount of creativity. After all, no one wants to know the Black-Scholes option pricing model. But people do want to know how to use options to capture income from their investments.
Explaining investment concepts so that they’re easy to understand takes a good bit of creativity. But during my period of sleep deprivation, my creativity completely dried up.
Looking back at the articles I wrote during that period makes me cringe.
Instead of explaining ideas to readers in a way that was interesting and easy to understand, my writing was boring and academic.
Since then, I’ve noticed that my most creative ideas come after getting a full night’s sleep (or even after a nap). Sometimes I’ll even go to sleep at night thinking about a complicated subject. When I wake up, I already know how I want to frame the concept so that it is easy to understand.
I’ve talked to friends and family who are in more creative vocations than me. (For instance, my sister Katherine is an accomplished portrait artist.) These conversations have confirmed my own experience — that sleep is critical for fostering good creativity.
Lesson #3: Good Sleep Fosters Better Relationships
During my sleep deprivation experiment, I was a pain in the neck to be around. I was more irritable, I had a poor sense of humor, and I even struggled with depression.
This makes sense because researchers have noted a correlation between depression and sleep.
Sleep is also tied to self control. Rested people are more likely to manage their emotions (or their snappy retorts when frustrated). They’re able to choose to eat healthy instead of giving in to cravings. Sleep just makes it easier to choose the right things!
As the father of seven children, it’s very important for me to be kind, understanding and gracious. That’s true for work relationships too!
Even now that my sleep deprivation experiment is over, I still notice that I’m more irritable on days that I don’t get enough sleep.
The big takeaway here is that getting good sleep is an important part of a balanced and productive life. When I’m well rested, I’m a better investor, a better writer and a better dad. When I’m sleep deprived, all three of those roles suffer.
So these days, I make it a priority to get enough sleep. It’s not a selfish or a lazy thing. It’s actually a purposeful decision so that I can be better at the things that are really important to me.
What about you? Have you tried experiments to boost your productivity? Have they worked? Did they fail? What did you learn from them?
I’d love to hear about your experience. Feel free to comment on this post, or shoot me an email (Zach@ZachScheidt.com).
I hope you’re having an excellent weekend!