This is the inaugural article of our new series, “Lessons to My Younger Self.”
The advice I would give to my younger self is very, very simple: get enough sleep and you will be more productive, more effective, and more likely to enjoy your life.
This realization started with a bang. More like a thud, actually. That was the sound my face made when it hit the edge of my desk. It was April 2007. The night before, I had arrived home from the airport at midnight, after a week of taking my daughter on a tour of colleges. I had agreed to her request—okay, it was more like a demand—that there be no checking of my Blackberry during the days, which meant staying up very late during the night catching up on work. That particular morning, I had gotten up just after 5 AM to pre-tape a CNN show. I had been back at home for about an hour when I began to feel cold.
Next thing I knew, I was laying on the floor, bloodied. I had passed out from exhaustion and banged my head on the way down. The result was a broken cheekbone and five stitches under my eyebrow.
That’s when I knew I needed to renew my estranged relationship with sleep. We had once been quite close. It had been very important early in my career. But, as time went by, responsibilities piled up and we had grown apart and taken each other for granted. Sometimes we’d go days and barely see each other. But, when it comes to wakeup calls, few are as effective as the spilling of your own blood.
So sleep was back in my life. I became obsessed with it. And the more I studied the issue—and the more I saw how sleep deprived we’ve become as a nation—the more I realized that sleep is, in fact, the next big feminist issue.
Women have, obviously, made great strides in all areas of society, especially the workplace. But our national delusion that the way to be ultra-productive is to cut back on sleep is particularly destructive for women.
On average, single working women and working mothers actually get an hour and a half less sleep than the seven-and-a-half-hour minimum the body needs to function.
And in the macho boys’ club atmosphere that dominates many offices, women too often feel they have to overcompensate by working harder, longer, and later.
In fact, lack of sleep has become a sort of virility symbol. I had dinner recently with a guy who kept bragging that he had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. I wanted to tell him (but I didn’t) that our dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.
This has got to stop—because the scientific research is in, and not getting enough sleep is not only not a sign of virility, it’s bad for you in a million different ways. Including in the bedroom (nearly 25 percent of Americans say they have sex less often or have lost interest in it because they are too sleepy).
But if even you don’t care about sex, lack of sleep leads to increased risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and heart disease—and the risk goes up more for women than for men.
Sleep deprivation is also involved in one of every six fatal car crashes. It is, literally, killing us.
Sleep deprivation severely affects relational memory, which is the brain’s ability to combine and synthesize distinct facts. It’s the sort of thinking that allows us to see the big picture and solve problems with creative and innovative breakthroughs.
Bill Clinton, who used to famously get only five hours of sleep, once admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”
At the moment, the world is facing multiple crises. Many brilliant leaders with extremely high IQs have made terrible decisions, both in government and in business. What’s been missing is not IQ but wisdom—and sleep is our ticket to wisdom.
The prevailing culture tells us that nothing succeeds like excess, and that working 70 hours a week is better than working 60. We’re told that being plugged in 24/7 is expected, and that sleeping less and multi-tasking more are an express elevator to the top.
Well, actually, I believe women need to sleep their way to the top. Literally.
And even more important than doing what’s best for ourselves and our careers, the world is in desperate need of big ideas. And there are many, many of them locked inside of us. We just need to close our eyes to see them. So, ladies, shut down your engines and get some sleep.