Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi gets four hours.
Fashion designer Tom Ford logs just three.
Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s VP of Retail, says she gets a headache after six.
Sleep is a huge topic in startup circles.
Lately, the when, how, and how much is constantly debated and dissected.
And while leaders like Nooyi, Ford and Ahrendts are among “the Sleepless Elite” who thrive on just a few hours each night, sleep enthusiasts, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, say they can’t function without 7–8 hours on the pillow.
So, what works best?
If you want to grow a business or accomplish great things, should you take a page from Martha Stewart (3–4 hours) or Arianna Huffington (sleep advocate)?
Like most things in life, it depends who you ask. But first, let’s explore the basics of sleep.
Why we sleep
In a decidedly thorough post on the topic, author James Clear says sleep has three functions: restoration, memory consolidation, and metabolic health:
“… sleep plays a crucial role in cleaning out the brain each night. While these toxins can be flushed out during waking hours, researchers have found that clearance during sleep is as much as two-fold faster than during waking hours.”
As Clear explains, sleep is the brain’s way of “taking out the trash.” That’s why a long snooze makes you feel refreshed — almost like your mind was deep-cleaned.
Secondly, memory consolidation is the process of maintaining and reinforcing long-term memories. When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain can struggle to create memories, from facts and details to emotional experiences.
In terms of metabolic health, lower sleep duration has been linked to higher rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Decreasing either the amount or the quality of your sleep lowers the body’s insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.
Clearly, sleep is critical for physical, mental and emotional health.
Few things in life are as natural as sleeping, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy in our modern world.
Personally, I’ve always had trouble sleeping. In my 20s, I had about 1–2 sleepless nights every week — and I’d be totally ruined the next day.
When I started to build JotForm 12 years ago, I developed my own (rather unconventional) sleep habits.
Even as we’ve grown to employ 110 people and serve nearly 4 million users, I rely on these routines to help me get the rest I need.
I’ll share more about my sleep habits in a minute, but first, how much is enough? Can you get too much sleep?
I wanted answers, too. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The ongoing hours debate
According to the National Sleep Foundation (yes, there is such an organization), adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should get an average of eight hours per night.
But, in a recent Quartz article, sleep scientist Daniel Gartenberg said that in order to get that eight hours of sleep, you need to physically be in bed for 8.5 hours. As Gartenberg explains:
“The standard in the literature is that healthy sleepers spend more than 90% of the time in bed asleep, so if you’re in bed for eight hours, a healthy sleeper might actually sleep for only about 7.2 hours.”
Maybe you’re awakened by a tossing partner, a crying baby, or an ambulance siren. In a given night, you may also get up to use the bathroom or snore yourself into consciousness.
Whatever the case, it’s good to remember that every moment you spend in bed doesn’t necessarily translate into quality sleep.
While this mutation is rare, there are other genetic mutations that act on different neural pathways, which could naturally shorten sleep.
For the rest of us, Dr. Alon Y. Avidan says insomnia — categorized as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early — has one of two causes:
- Primary insomnia occurs from conditions like restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or physically acting out your dreams.
- Secondary insomnia can happen for a myriad of reasons, from medical or psychiatric conditions to excess caffeine, alcohol, noise, jet lag, too much light, or a long daytime nap. These are the most common explanations for our collective sleep struggles. And when you start to worry about sleeping, the problem can get worse. Insomnia can actually become a learned response.
That’s why sleep scientists like Matthew Walker say you shouldn’t stay in bed for too long if you’re not actually dozing; if you’re tossing and fretting about your lack of sleep. As Walker told NPR:
“… your brain is this remarkable associative device and it quickly learns that the bed is about being awake. So, you should go to another room — a room that’s dim. Just read a book — no screens, no phones — and only when you’re sleepy return to the bed. And that way your brain relearns the association with your bedroom being about sleep rather than wakefulness.”
Why sleep matters at work
When physician James Hamblin wrote about sleep for The Atlantic, he described the 36-hour hospital shifts he endured during his residency.
The sleep deprivation resulted in anger, despair and sometimes, euphoria.
In one vivid memory, he recalls talking to the family of a patient in critical condition, while trying not to… laugh. “This was the least funny scenario possible,” says Hamblin. “I was experiencing a physical reaction unrelated to anything I knew to be happening in my mind.”
He also refused to believe that his actions or thought processes were unsafe:
“Sleep experts often liken sleep-deprived people to drunk drivers: They don’t get behind the wheel thinking they’re probably going to kill someone. But as with drunkenness, one of the first things we lose in sleep deprivation is self-awareness.”
We should all listen carefully when we’re driving a car or, say, operating heavy machinery. But once we’re safely at work, many of us are thinking — and talking, meeting, strategizing, and planning. We’re not lifting big objects or operating a crane. And if you are, then please get your eight hours.
But, if you’re growing a business, stretching your creativity, or trying to solve a tough problem, that sleep-induced lack of self-awareness can hold you back. And here’s where your own research comes in.
Whether you have chronic insomnia or you’re dreaming before the lights go out, it’s important to study yourself:
What promotes your best sleep?
How much do you need to function well — and when?
It’s good to experiment and track your own patterns.
After decades of insomnia, I’ve finally learned what works for me. I’m not saying the problem is gone, but I’m sleeping much, much better than I was even 15 years ago.
A highly personalized guide to better sleep
Here are the routines I follow sleep scientists might actually endorse.
1. Keep the room temperature cool
I need an almost-frosty bedroom to stay asleep. If it’s too hot, I’m lying wide awake, thinking about something I shouldn’t.
2. Don’t consume caffeine in the afternoon
I live for coffee, but I only drink it in the morning. As Walker explains,
“… even if you can fall asleep [after drinking a post-dinner cup], the depth of sleep that you have when caffeine is swilling around within the brain is not going to be as deep anymore.”
3. Exercise daily
I go to the gym every morning before work. My trainer punishes me for an hour, then I head to the office feeling great.
Even when I’m on vacation, I try to swim in the ocean or go for long walks.
Exercise definitely improves my sleep, and it’s another science-backed way to sleep longer and better.
4. Wind down before bed
Working late rarely leads to great sleep. I know that if I don’t stop working at least 2 hours before closing my eyes, I won’t sleep well.
Watching the news has the same effect. It gets me worked up and I can’t stop ruminating.
“I love sleep. It’s my favorite.”
– Kanye West
Now, here are some less conventional sleep tips and tricks. And, spoiler alert, most of the following habits are exactly the opposite of what the experts suggest.
So, take all my experiences with a huge dose of salt.
I’m sharing my habits in case they help you, and at the very least, to show that “normal” is always relative.
1. Watch dull TV shows on a tablet
Science says to minimize screen time before heading to bed.
“Phones and tablets emit light that’s skewed heavily toward the blue end of the visible spectrum,” says Hamblin, “and some research suggests that these frequencies are especially influential in human sleep cycles.”
However, I watch my iPad as I’m falling asleep. Animal documentaries or formulaic shows like Elementary knock me out.
Anything more exciting makes my mind race.
The same goes for audio books and meditation. I’ve tried both, but they just don’t work for me.
2. Eat right before going to sleep
Typical sleep advice tells you to avoid meals before bed. For me, the reverse applies. I can’t sleep if I’m hungry or even a bit snack-y.
And I’ve tried all the warm milk, carb-heavy remedies that people often suggest. The only thing that does help? Plain, unsweetened yogurt.
3. Forget about sleep aids
Research shows that melatonin supplements may help people with insomnia to fall asleep slightly faster.
It can also help those with “delayed sleep phase syndrome,” which means you fall asleep really late and have a delayed wake up.
I’ve tried melatonin, but it doesn’t work for me. The same goes for Tylenol PM and other over-the-counter sleep aids (which you shouldn’t try without consulting your doctor).
Drugs have never helped me to sleep, and in some cases, they make me feel even worse the next day.
4. Don’t sweat a bad night’s sleep
I think this is good advice for everyone — unless you’re battling a serious sleep disorder. Then it might be wise to seek medical help.
But for the occasional night when you just can’t get to sleep or stay in that sweet REM phase, don’t worry so much. You’ll get through it.
The next morning, give yourself permission to go a little slower, if at all possible.
For example, if I stared at the ceiling all night, I don’t push myself to make major business decisions. I pay bills, read relevant articles, and do less brain-intensive tasks. I remember that tonight will likely be better.
“Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep.”
– Fran Lebowitz
Sleep is essential for a successful business and a great life, so it’s worth figuring out what works for you.
Listen to the experts and test out their advice.
But in the end, create your own routines — whether that means Animal Planet at 11 pm or candles, meditation and a sleep mask at 8 p.m.