Stop pulling all-nighters — Sleep is the real secret to success

There’s no question that sleeplessness has been fetishized in the world of business, and particularly when it comes to entrepreneurs looking to make a mark.

We work through evenings, weekends and vacations because this is what we’ve come to believe success looks like. We hear stories about founders who sleep so rarely that they end up collapsing for a few hours in their office. We read interviews with renowned leaders — from Oprah and Martha Stewart to Apple’s Tim Cook and Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi — who swear by four or five hours of shuteye per night.

The implication is that cutting back on sleep buys you a few extra hours over your competition. And we’ve reached peak glorification of exhaustion.

But what if we’ve been thinking about this all wrong? There’s no question that building a business and getting your ideas into the world requires a huge amount of dedication and hard work. But what if instead of scrimping on sleep in order to make your dream a reality, we actually saw sleep as a way to improve performance, clarity, collaboration, and creativity?

It comes down to the idea of working hard versus working smart — ideas that aren’t mutually exclusive but can reflect a certain culture of accomplishment.

Is it possible that the answer to working both harder and smarter is to get more sleep?

What’s the status quo of sleep?

The evidence shows that most of us are not getting enough. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults need between seven to eight hours of sleep every night — but most of us are getting less than seven.

One study found that workers with a chronic sleep deficit — who routinely get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night — reported poorer workplace performance, including the inability to stay focused in meetings or generate new ideas, taking longer to complete tasks, and reduced motivation to learn.

Imagine the implications with respect to a business you’re trying to build — focus, idea generation, motivation and the ability to complete tasks can make or break a business.

I know what it’s like to pour everything into a business and idea that you’re building from the ground up — and to wear yourself out while doing it. As CEO of JotForm, a business with over 140 employees and millions of users, I know how tempting it is to just keep pushing yourself and your team to do more and work through the fatigue.

But I also know what happens when you start making mistakes or hit a wall you simply can’t surmount.

More perils of skimping on sleep

Too little sleep won’t just have you reaching for a second or third cup of coffee; it has also been linked to all kinds of negative health outcomes, including chronic disease and even early death. Sleep loss can even lead to, according to Harvard Medical School, “an increase in errors at the workplace, decreased productivity, and accidents that cost both lives and resources” — which doesn’t exactly sound like the way to get ahead.

Burnout is becoming an increasingly toxic force as too many people try to do too much with too little — and usually while not getting enough sleep. A recent Gallop poll found that 23 percent of full-time employees report feeling burnout very often or always, while 44 percent reported feeling burnout sometimes.

As Anne Helen Peterson noted in her 2019 viral Buzzfeed article, this burnout is in large part because we’ve increasingly 

“internalized the idea that [we] should be working all the time” — even when that work cuts into sleep.

What can sufficient sleep do for you and your team?

A lot.

Sleep can have an enormous impact on memory and cognition, meaning that sufficient sleep can actually help us learn new things. It makes sense. After all, a person who’s sleep-deprived can’t focus well enough to absorb new information. And it’s the sleep itself that plays a crucial role in the consolidation of memory — retaining the new information you’re given.

There is also significant research into the link between sleep and creativity, with some researchers suggesting that 

“the two main phases of sleep — REM and non-REM — work together to help us find unrecognized links between what we already know, and discover out-of-the-box solutions to vexing problems.”

And so the more deep, or REM, sleep you get, the more luck you’ll have with troubleshooting a nagging problem.

And then, of course, there are the interpersonal advantages of getting enough sleep. No one wants to collaborate with a frazzled, zombie-like colleague who seems like the personification of a Dilbert character.

According to the University of Berkeley, sleep is great for our social lives in these four key ways:

  1. A lack of sleep causes us to become socially avoidant — not the kind of tendency that fosters collaboration.
  2. Sleep can help us empathize with others, which is an important skill for both teamwork and leadership.
  3. Sleep can help us to be less angry and aggressive, which is definitely a benefit both at work and home.
  4. Sleep promotes cross-group interactions and less dependence on stereotypes — which is connected to greater empathy and less aggression.

Do greater focus, clarity, patience, creativity, empathy, productivity, and teamwork sound like the kind of qualities that can improve your workplace? If so, it might be time to place a premium on getting enough sleep — both for you and the people who work with you.

Sleep is trending right now

Sleep as a priority is gradually working its way into the mainstream. To meet the needs of sleep-starved workers, some employers are even introducing nap rooms to the workplace. EnergyPods — “the world’s first chair designed specifically for napping in the workplace” — has made its way to the offices of Google, NASA, Samsung, and the University of Miami.

Private napping centers have also popped up in financial districts around the world, including ‘Nap York,’ which has plans to open several “sleep stations” across New York City.

As Natalie D. Dautovich, an assistant professor in the psychology department at Virginia Commonwealth University and an environmental scholar for the National Sleep Foundation, told The New York Times:

“In the United States, we are only beginning to understand that sleep is a critical aspect of a healthy and productive lifestyle. Rather than viewing sleep as ‘lost time’ away from work and socializing, we are beginning to recognize that prioritizing sleep is necessary to achieve optimal productivity and well-being.”

Increasingly, much of the narrative surrounding how we work supports the idea that less is more: Digital nomads are fanning out across the globe, unwilling to sacrifice quality of life and adventure for professional advancement. Companies are starting to experiment with the four-day work week, which was found to boost productivity by 40 percent at Microsoft.

So next time you’re tempted to pull an all-nighter or brag about your chronic exhaustion, ask yourself whether you’re working harder, smarter, or just working against yourself.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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