Unplug & Recharge//

I Get 8 Hours of Sleep 95% of the Time. Here’s What Happens When I Don’t.

What happened when I got a glimpse of my old life of burnout

I get asked all the time how much sleep I get. That’s what happens when you write a book called The Sleep Revolution, travel around the world talking about it, and found a company committed to ending our global burnout crisis. So when the question comes, I’m ready: I reply that 95 percent of the time I get 8 hours per night.

But last week I experienced what life was like in the five percent. I flew from New York to Nashville for a speech to the Institute of Supply Management and then from Nashville to San Francisco for an Uber board dinner followed the next day by a Mind Share Partners mental health conference followed by an Uber board meeting and and a fabulous dinner at the home of Trishla Jain and Satyan Gajwani (our Times of India partners in India), which was too delightful to bring to an early end. The next day began with an early Thrive board meeting at the offices of IVP, that led our Series B round, followed by a flight to Houston for more meetings followed by getting up at four a.m. to fly to Toronto for an Onex board meeting followed by a flight back to New York. By the time I found myself in Toronto, I had a glimpse of my old life of burnout, feeling exhausted and underslept and begging for a third Starbucks to stay awake.

Bottom line: I was irritable, my mind was cloudy, I was looking for toothpicks to keep my eyes open and there wasn’t a lot of joy in what I was doing. But the funny-yet-not-funny thing is, that’s how most of my days used to be before my epiphany moment of collapsing from exhaustion in 2007 – lurching from one cup of coffee to the next in series of peaks and plunges, just trying to survive until I could climb into bed for another four to five hours of sleep, and then start the cycle again the next day.

That way of living worked — or so my sleep-deprived self thought — until it didn’t. After that, I started getting more sleep, and I’ve only become more ruthless about prioritizing it since, getting up to my 8 hour mark as my 95 percent norm.

The most popular follow-up question I get goes something like this: “But isn’t it really, really hard to make time for 8 hours of sleep?” Again, I have an answer, based on years of my own experience (not to mention the ample science): Once you experience the benefits, and see firsthand just how directly sleep fuels everything from your well-being and performance to your ability to connect with others and find joy in your day, it’s really not hard. In fact, the question becomes: If you could improve all these aspects of your work and life just by getting a bit more sleep each night, why wouldn’t you?

But we all need reminders from time to time, and I certainly got mine last week in Houston and Toronto. (At least I’m pretty sure it was Houston and Toronto — my memory is foggy.) It was like getting a visit from the Ghost of Burnout Past — the difference being that my nightmare actually happened while I was (somewhat) awake. But just as in the original, what I saw was not a pretty sight. I couldn’t believe I actually used to live like this. How did I function? How did I actually think this was a normal way to live? How many opportunities, connections and insights did I miss as a result?

Still, my burnout flashback served as a small but useful aftershock to my 2007 earthquake. It made me more certain than ever that whatever I have to do to continue to maintain my 8 hours habit is well worth it. So I’ve renewed my vows in my love affair with sleep.

The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to. 

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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