Startup founders: that’s enough work for today, go and get some good sleep

Shakespeare called sleep the honey-heavy dew of slumber. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sleep is a basic need. We’ve all lost a night or two of sleep during an important project, and it’s a familiar one-liner in startup circles: snooze, you lose, lending weight to the hard-core notion that entrepreneurs must sleep less than others.

The likes of Marissa Mayer and Elon Musk have claimed to be able to perform at their best with four hours a night, touting the benefits of waking up before the sun. Rest assured that’s not the norm, the average person needs seven to eight hours to get through enough sleep cycles to properly rejuvenate their mind and body. But during the crucial stages of starting a new business, sleep slips down the priority list for entrepreneurs, working around the clock before they hit the sack. 

In our startup culture where being busy and working beyond capacity is celebrated, sleep is undervalued – which is why there is the bravado of working while mortals asleep. Some are natural larks, at their best before sunrise, while others are night owls, working away into the small hours. Does this impact on their performance? You see conflicting studies claiming morning people are more productive or night owls are more successful. Whatever the case, setting aside time for getting your seven or eight hours is important.

A lack of sleep almost becomes a badge of honour, and the sacrifice a demonstration of ambition: 3am emails are considered de rigour. But is this a wise choice? Cutting back on sleep is a mistake. William Dement, a sleep scientist and founder of the Stanford University Sleep Research Centre, cites a litany of disasters in which a lack of sleep played a part: the Exxon Valdez, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and at Three Mile Island all took place at night, and each involved serious errors of judgment by over-tired operators.

A study from Stanford University found that productivity declines sharply when the work exceeds 50 hours. Productivity drops off so much after a 55-hour week, that there’s no point in working any more. Newsflash: If you’re working a 70-hour week, you’re getting about as much done as someone working 55.

There has to be a reframing of what success looks like as an entrepreneur, starting with sleep and its connection with productivity, clarity of thought and decision-making. For me, the defining moment was reading Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution. After working an 18-hour day building The Huffington Post, she woke up in her office in a pool of blood. She had collapsed while working, hitting her face on the desk and breaking her cheekbone. She went from doctor to doctor, undergoing multiple tests to find out what was wrong.

It wasn’t an underlying health problem that caused Huffington’s collapse, but rather something many busy founders experience every day: she was exhausted – a level of tiredness where you don’t actually notice you’re tired because you no longer remember how not being tired feels, Huffington writes in her healthy sleep habits book: I was sleepwalking through my life.

Those chilling words are relatable for many startup founders. When your inbox is overflowing and your schedule packed, what is the first thing to go? But cutting out sleep under the false notion that you’ll be more productive is a bad idea. Maybe you’ll finish that proposal by staying up till 1am, and still get up for that 8am client call. So, you get a little less sleep than optimal tonight, six hours should be fine, all that’ll happen is you might be a little sluggish the next day, right?

Wrong! That’s not what the science shows: people who sleep six to seven hours a night lose 1.5% of their productive time compared to those who sleep seven to nine hours. Another study found that just two nights in a row of less than six hours of sleep decreases your performance for the next six days. Building up a ‘sleep debt’ has to be repaid before the debtor can operate normally again. A common response is to economise on sleep during the working week and catch up at the weekend. That’s a myth too.

From a biological standpoint, operating with a sleep deficit causes motor functions to be slightly increased – the mind works twice as hard and your body will be slightly more tense. Cortisol, the endorphin released when feeling stress of any sort, is released. Also, your brain cells take cat naps while you are awake, as the neurons become stressed and are forced to take short shut-downs, making you feel lightheaded, diminishing cognitive functions and making it hard to think straight.

I was a poor sleeper – I tried counting sheep so I could fall asleep but that got boring, so I started talking to the shepherd instead – so in 2017, for 40 nights, I made a point to close the laptop at 6pm and be in bed by 10pm and get a ‘sleep routine’. The results have been astounding. While I didn’t set up a scientific study or keep a journal, I did notice that I fell asleep much faster, and awoke feeling more refreshed. I now get good quality kip most nights from 10.30pm to 7am on workdays, longer at weekends, if the dog doesn’t wake me.

What made a difference? Let me share a few ‘good sleep’ habits. 

Make your bedroom a mobile free zone I used to go to bed with my smartphone glowing in the dark, doing emails before going to sleep. Most mornings I’d hit my inbox just as quickly as I hit the alarm. The problem with this ubiquitous habit is that ‘blue light emission’ (the type that comes from laptops and smartphones) is harmful to our sleep, suppressing melatonin and delaying our circadian clock, thus reducing our alertness the next morning. Blue light is really bad. It’s like witnessing an eclipse without those goggles. 

The solution? Keep the phone outside the bedroom. The kitchen is for eating, the living room is for watching TV, the study is for working, and the bedroom is for sleeping. This makes it easier to make that mental switch into ‘work mode’ and ‘sleep mode’.

At first, it was hard not to do my usual scrolling through social media on my phone while lying in bed, but I quickly found my mind was racing less and less, and I was able to fall asleep faster without my mobile to distract me.

Switch off the apps One of the biggest hurdles I faced was the immediacy of the apps I used in my workflow. Slack, Google Calendar and Evernote features lend a certain sense of urgency to respond. I find that the best way to handle this is to be clear upfront with every person I work with that I don’t respond to messages past a certain time of day. If you use Slack, it’s important to set your status to Do Not Disturb mode so people don’t expect an immediate response.

Have an evening ‘wind down’ routine Many entrepreneurship articles revolve around the perfect morning routine to jumpstart your productivity, but I have an evening routine that helps me wind down. Few of us can transition quickly from a hectic day to a restful night’s sleep.

I now mentally shut down any thinking about work by 8pm, at least two hours before bedtime. This allows my brain to release melatonin and prepare to go to sleep. I make an evening list of priorities for the next day, to help me switch off. A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.

Reframe your focus. I read 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. It explores some of the consequences of the expanding non-stop processes of C21st capitalism which operate through every hour of the clock, pushing us into constant activity and eroding forms of privacy, community and silence, damaging the fabric of everyday life.

Crary examines how this blurs any separation between an intensified, ubiquitous consumerism, individual attentiveness and the impairment of perception within the compulsory routines of contemporary culture. At the same time, he shows that human sleep, as a restorative withdrawal from these routines, has been subject to an alarming shrinkage in modernity: the average adult now sleeps six and a half hours a night, which is an erosion from eight hours a generation ago and ten hours in the early C20th. It’s a humane and bracingly splenetic counterblast, which, pun intended, was a wake-up call for me.

Habits Exercise is important and at the right time of day. The right time is in the morning or the afternoon or an hour before you try to go to sleep, depending on which expert you ask. Sex does count as exercise but the timings are more complicated, depending on how good and/or complicated it is. No trapeze sex after 5pm. Only if it’s-my-birthday-then-herbal tea is the penultimate eight minutes before lights out recommended. Also, never go to sleep on an argument. I try to schedule my arguments for at least two hours before lights out. Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.

Don’t track your sleep As business owners, we track revenue, margins, user growth etc. We’re encouraged to do the same with our sleep, but we end up thinking about it so much with our Apple Watches, Fitbits and Sleep Cycle tracking our sleep patterns, that it keeps us awake. I ditched the tech and simply reverted to a pre-sleep routine, open bedroom windows and fennel tea. Works a treat!

So, being an evangelist for getting a good night’s sleep rather than being dog tired, here’s what I’ve found to be the positive benefits from diving under the duvet by 10pm.

Improved concentration A regular, healthy sleeping pattern has improved my concentration, creativity, and productivity. This is the primary reason why it’s simply not worth skipping sleep in the long term. Sleeping four hours a night may give you an extra four hours of work during the day, but you won’t be able to use this time to its full potential. You’ll get a lot more done in fewer hours if you’ve had a decent night’s sleep.

Enhanced problem-solving skills Solving problems and overcoming challenges are the bread and butter of an entrepreneur’s day. When you’re well-rested, you’ll be much more efficient at decision making and dealing with unexpected challenges. Interestingly, one study I found stated that the negative impact on brain function caused by inadequate amounts of sleep causes an effect similar to alcohol intoxication. You wouldn’t be calling vital decisions while drunk, so it only makes sense not to do it when you’re worn out.

Better memory Improved sleep has improved my recall. The work schedule of most entrepreneurs is a hectic and challenging one, and the last thing you want is to lose your train of thought and be foggy during a pitch. Better memory also means you’ll be more efficient generally, since you’ll recall data and information quicker, and generally be more mentally agile.

Improved social interaction and emotional function I am less grumpy! For an entrepreneur, making a good impression during interactions with clients, investors and your team is paramount. Poor sleep, causes lethargy, mood deterioration and makes it more difficult to control and regulate your emotions, reducing your ability to engage with emotional intelligence as your judgement is impaired.

Startup founders need to reject the notion that losing sleep is a worthy sacrifice, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of sleep.

Sleep is essential for health and wellbeing, which is why I used to lie awake worrying about it. I don’t have a NASA-designed mattress, nor a hypo- or hyper-allergenic, soft/firm/smart mattress, or bed sheets made from llama eyelashes, and there is no space here to talk about pillows – read the science, take a degree in ergonomics and a master’s in thermodynamics and make your own choice. Oh, and avoid a lavender-infused eye mask.

To sleep, perchance to succeed as Shakespeare nearly said. My formula is not based on having sleep apps or self-sleep books, but a simple routine and herbal tea. Out of the loads of advice out there for entrepreneurs, this might be the most radical bit you’ve seen: That’s enough work for today; go get some good sleep. Knock yourself out. Metaphorically speaking.

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