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The Myth of "I only need five hours of sleep."

Yes, we're talking about sleep again.  It's that important!

Are you one of those people who gets by just fine with five hours of sleep every night? Are you also one of the 90% of drivers who report being “better than average” drivers?

It's tempting to tell ourselves that our sleep habits are just fine the way they are (thank you very much!).  Sleep is boring.  We're not getting ahead on writing the Great American Novel while we're unconscious, nor can we make headway on our ingenious startup idea. Life is too darn exciting to spend our precious, finite hours snoozing! The FOMO is just too great!

To top it all off, we are exposed repeatedly to implicit and explicit messages telling us that sleeping—enough, let alone “excessively”—is lazy.

Rise and grind!

You can sleep when you’re dead

How bad do you want it?

Well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided, advice

We also despise cognitive dissonance, a mismatch between our beliefs and our actions. And if we define ourselves as being health-conscious people who always get in our 3-5 workouts a week and meal prep with the best of ‘em every Sunday, it can be a strike against our self-identities to hear that shorting yourself of adequate sleep is one the most unhealthy things you can do. 

And so we tell ourselves that it’s no big deal. We are just genetically blessed to be able to crush life on four hours a night. Aren’t we lucky?!

But here's the thing.  Unless you wake up each morning without the assistance of an alarm clock, you probably don't sleep enough.  Regardless of how important your job is or how ambitious you may be, you have the same sleep requirements as everyone else, unless you truly are an extreme outlier.

Not to scale, but you get the idea! The huge majority of adults needs more than 5-6 hours per night. Be honest with yourself when deciding if you are really in the extreme tail.

Very few people can thrive on less than 7-9 hours of sleep.  Feeling accustomed to being chronically sleep-deprived is not the same as actually getting the rest that your brain and body desperately need.  Familiarity does not equate with being acceptable.

You don't just adapt to sleeping too little.  Can you imagine saying you’ve adapted to not eating veggies or not drinking water? That would sound crazy, right? So why do we feel like sleep is different?

If You’re a Type A, High Achiever, You Probably Need Even MORE Sleep

It’s not really fair, is it? The more we work, the more we try to get ahead, the more plates we try to juggle, the harder we exert our bodies in the gym or on the trail, the more rest and recovery we require, despite having less time.

Stressful job or relationship? Your R&R needs go up even more! Like we discussed previously, both positive and negative stress adds loads to our body and requires recovery time. Our physiology does not discriminate. Certainly, there are many recovery modalities, but sleep is by far the best. Just like you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, you cannot just spend an extra 10 minutes a day foam rolling or meditating or wearing compression socks and expect that to counteract your lack of sleep.

Do not let your ambition blind you to your body's physiological requirements.  Depriving yourself of sleep does not prove your work ethic or commitment to the hustle. Rather, it will hinder creativity and productivity while reducing benefits from workouts and increasing your risk of injury and illness. Guard your sleep time aggressively!  Sleep should be your top health priority, even above getting veggies at each meal or getting in every single planned workout.

Periods of Sleep Deprivation Should be Temporary

All that being said, you may have some life circumstances that legitimately interfere with your ability to sleep a sufficient number of hours on a consistent basis. Maybe you have a new baby at home who is super inconsiderate and keeps demanding to be nourished or changed or comforted. Maybe you’re starting a new entrepreneurial venture. Maybe you’re a surgical resident or preparing for your oral exams for your PhD candidacy. And yes, each of these cases will absolutely make it very difficult or impossible to sleep enough.

But even in these cases, before you throw your hands up and admit defeat, make sure that you really and truly cannot get more sleep, even if more is still not enough (suggestions provided below). Exhaust all possible solutions, and do your best to shift priorities such that you can meet your sleep needs as best as you can. Get comfortable with saying “no” and asking for help. And remember that increasing your 5 hours/night to 6 hours/night may not be perfect, but it is a huge improvement!

Once you have truly exhausted all avenues and have maxed out on sleep for your current life circumstances?

In these sleep-deprived seasons of life, your best bets are to:

  1. Accept the situation and roll with the punches life is giving you right now (stressing out over sleep loss will only exacerbate the toll on your body)
  2. Plan ahead as best you can to ensure this season of life has an expiration date (even if that may be somewhat up in the air); do not allow yourself to get used to being chronically sleep-deprived
  3. Double down on your stress relief efforts (meditating, journaling, listening to music, etc.)
  4. Reduce other stressors as much as possible (super intense exercise, extreme diets, over-committing yourself)

Remember that, for any situation, there is what is true and what you wish were true.  Acknowledging the former can be uncomfortable, but it will enable you to solve problems and live your best life.  Subscribing to the latter might be more comfortable, but it will prevent you from improving your situation and allow suboptimal conditions to persist.

You may wish you only needed five hours of sleep, just as you wish you could build muscle and burn fat while laying pool side with a frosty, pink umbrella-adorned pina colada, but maintaining those illusions will not bring you any closer to your career, health, or performance goals.

Carve Out More Sleep Time

So you’ve decided sleep is important, and you want to get more. Awesome! Here are some actionable steps to help you dig up more time and earmark it for sleep. Remember, you may not go straight to getting 8+ quality hours of uninterrupted sleep. If you do, wonderful. But any improvement is still a move in the right direction, with benefits you will feel immediately. Before you can worry about sleep quality, you first need to make sleep a priority and make (not find) time for it.


Just as with diet, it can be exceptionally helpful to take stock of the situation so you can identify areas for improvement. Take a typical week, and record how you spend your time each day for seven consecutive days. Yes, it’s tedious and annoying. But you know what? It’s also extremely eye opening.

It may come as a huge surprise to you how many hours of facebook accumulate over the course of a day. The more detailed you can be with this, the better. Be as maniacally specific as you can stand, aiming to record in 15 minute blocks of time. If you really want to nerd out, you could even categorize your activities and make a pie chart to see how much of your time is being allocated to work, rest, play, social activity, chores, commuting, personal care, studying, etc.

There are apps you can you use on your phone, but sometimes keeping it simple with pen and paper is best. For an old-fashioned methodology for auditing your time, check out a template like this one or create your own.

It doesn’t matter if you go modern or old school, just decide which you will be more consistent with, and use that strategy. The most important thing is to record things accurately and as close to real time as possible (you’re unlikely to remember every little activity by the evening).

Step 2: REVIEW.

Once you’ve completed your time audit, determine what is non-negotiable. This will probably include things like your job, spending time with loved ones, and personal hygiene.

When determining your non-negotiables, consider whether each item is truly non-negotiable. Be creative and don’t prematurely rule out any possible solutions. Take, for example, commuting. Maybe you spend two hours a day every day sitting in your car. If your boss is willing to allow you to work remotely 1+ days per week, you very quickly get back a ton of time.



Everything that is not a non-negotiable is a candidate for the chopping block! Either eliminate activities entirely or reduce the amount of time you allocate to them. Give yourself rules and use a timer to adhere to these rules to take back hours each week. For example, you might limit yourself to 30 minutes (or less) of TV per day, 20 minutes of facebook a day, or two 15 minute personal email sessions per day. Don’t trim out all self-care and recreation time, as these are just as important as work time, but do be somewhat ruthless in choosing which activities to allow into your schedule. Mindless, non-productive, or not particularly enjoyable activities may not be worth your time.


For your non-negotiables and other items that you simply want to keep in your schedule, consider that you may be able to condense tasks into smaller windows of time. Maybe you’re required to be at your desk from 8AM to 5PM, but you often find yourself staying late until 6:30PM to finish up work because you are inefficient. Strategies like checking email only twice a day can save a ton of time from being wasted as you switch back and forth between email and a task. You don’t need to cease all small talk from office life, but do be more intentional with your conversations. Consider that you may unconsciously be making a choice to spend time chatting about the weather that will cause you to stay late that will then dig into your sleep time. Worth it?


Without being selfish or shirking responsibility, create boundaries for friends or coworkers who may reach out late at night with non-urgent requests. Let them know that you’ll be happy to discuss an issue in the morning, and use airplane mode on your phone to preclude late night interruptions.

Set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it. When you have that deadline for yourself, you’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you can get through chores and how much more you enjoy your relaxation time when you’re awake enough to be fully present. You can set a reminder on your phone or use an app to provide an extra push to get to bed.

Use tools to make it easier to adhere to your bedtime


Let friends, family, and coworkers help you, especially when you are particularly time-crunched. Maybe your husband can pick up milk on his way home so you don’t have to make an extra trip. Or you can take your dog to the vet while your partner cooks dinner. We want to do it all on our own, but helping each other out can help free up time for everyone involved.

Once you have the time for sleep set aside and protected, there may be other situations that interfere with your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get quality sleep. These are all great topics for another day! But the prerequisite to all of these problems is having your sleep hours penned, not penciled, into your schedule.

Gratuitous cute dog photo in support of adequate sleep!

In summary:

  • Sleep deprivation will hinder creativity and productivity while reducing benefits from workouts and increasing your risk of injury and illness
  • Feeling accustomed to being chronically sleep-deprived is not the same as actually getting the rest that your brain and body desperately need.  Just because it’s familiar does not mean it is OK.
  • Just like you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, you cannot just spend an extra 10 minutes a day foam rolling or meditating or wearing compression socks and expect that to counteract your lack of sleep.
  • The prerequisite to getting quality sleep is having your sleep hours penned, not penciled, into your schedule



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