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Sleep is a fundamental need for most biological organisms. It can be observed in all mammals and birds as well as in most reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects.

But us humans, especially the ambitious ones among us, seem to have this love-hate relationship with it.

I’ve drug my ass out of bed many times after only three or four hours, spent the whole day cramming coffees down my gullet, and come home at the end of it to hit my pillow exhausted. Then did it all again the next day.

I’ll continue this pattern as long as my body will let me. Eventually my willpower wains and the need for sleep triumphs.

That’s when I’d pass out for fourteen hours on a Friday night and wake up wondering what day and year it was on Saturday afternoon.

In the past, I didn’t think anything of it. To me, it was just part of daily life and trying to make it in this world.

It wasn’t until I got in a serious relationship that I started to question this way of life.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, everything was peachy. We’d see each other mostly on weekends and occasionally on weekdays.

When thing became more serious, however, and she was with me for most of the week, I began to notice a pattern.


Stupid, irrational little arguments coincided perfectly to the times of exhaustion.

Usually every two weeks on a Wednesday or Thursday night.

I have terrible self-awareness. So, I’ve never noticed it before. It took a girl with enough gumption to tell me I was being an asshole to stimulate a little self-reflection.

It made me question why we put such an onus on sleeping less so we can do more; why we view people who get enough sleep as softies and why we feel that sleeping less to work more is a necessary trade-off for success.

So, if you’re anything like me and tie your satisfaction in your work ethic to how exhausted you are and you’re feeling a little reflective, read on. I’ll take you through the origins of this mindset and why the “sleep less to do more” mindset runs so rampant in our culture.

The origins of sleep less to do more

Leonardo da Vinci

We start with the Renaissance man himself, the great Leonardo da Vinci.

I’m sure you know who da Vinci is. Among his many accomplishments, he is most widely known for painting the Mona Lisa. Which is the most visited, most written about, most sung about, and most parodied work of art in existence.

But, he did much more than that.

Painter was just one item on one of the most impressive resumes in history. He was also an inventor, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, botanist, writer, historian, and cartographer. Not too shabby.

Leonardo da Vinci was the first major figure I found that felt sleep was hampering his ability to cross off everything on his daily to do list.

How did da Vinci stave off the heavy eyes and drowsiness that hampers our ability to perform even the simplest tasks?

By adopting one of the most insane sleep schedules in the history of man. One that stretched his waking hours to twenty-one out of every twenty-four hours.

By taking a fifteen to twenty-minute nap every two hours and repeating this every day.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napolean Bonaparte, the Napolean of all Napoleans, also expressed a disdain for the ‘death-like’, wasted hours of sleep.

When asked how many hours of sleep a person should get each night, he replied, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.”

Bonaparte was a French military and political leader in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. His military prowess is legendary.

His rise to prominence during the French Revolution has him revered as one of the greatest military commanders in history.

To this day, his wars and campaigns are studied in military schools worldwide.

Although not quite as extreme as da Vinci, Bonaparte also sacrificed sleep in an effort to be more productive.

He would sleep just a few hours during the night before rising at three in the morning to work. Afterwards he would take a hot bath and return to sleep for a few hours in the late morning.

Thomas Edison

My last example of a famous historical figure who slept little has perhaps the greatest distaste for sleeping I’ve ever come across: Thomas Edison.

He wrote, “For myself, I never found need of more than four or five hours sleep in the twenty-four hour.”

He regarded sleep as a mere waste of time and a “heritage from our cave days.”

Edison embodies the prominent attitude of the career-driven, ambitious type of today perfectly. He saw it as something for the weak and lazy and wore his lack of sleep like a badge of honor.

“We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality, and opportunities.”

For Edison, productivity was a compulsion. He reportedly averaged eighteen-hour work days for ten years. And when one of his printing machines failed, he worked continuously for sixty hours.

The effects of lack of sleep

These men are the exceptions to the norm.

The amount of sleep a person needs is highly individual and is influenced by many factors, such as age, lifestyle, and health.

Most of us need 7-10 hours every night to be firing on all cylinders every day.

What happens when we forgo those hours in bed and choose to attack the day on varying levels of sleep deprivation?

Moral Judgment

Morality is your ability to make the distinction between right and wrong and good and bad behavior.

It’s that little voice inside your head that keeps you from kicking a hole in a vending machine after it stole your quarter, or tells you to keep your calm when your coworker screwed you out of a promotion at work.

According to a group of researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, sleep deprivation can soften this little voice.

The researchers presented twenty-six healthy adults with a series of hypothetical dilemmas. The participants were tested once when they were well rested and once again after sleep deprivation.

When sleep deprived, the participants took longer to answer the more complex moral dilemmas than they did when they were well rested.

So, basically, you don’t immediately become an asshole when you’re sleep deprived. It just takes you a little longer to not be an asshole and a little more effort.

The results of this study are best explained by decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC is the region of the brain responsible for executive function.

Which, in non-psychological terms, means it is the region of the brain responsible for differentiating among conflicting thoughts, determining good and bad, better and best, same and different, the future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, predicting outcomes, forming expectations based on actions, and social control.

These are high order functions that play a major role in moral judgement.

Imaging studies show that lack of sleep decreases activity in the PFC compared to well rested controls.

Sleep and Mood

I doubt you need much scientific proof to convince you sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood.

Just think back to the last time you were short on the Zs.

The next day undoubtedly came with some irritability. Or, maybe you completely flew off the handle.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found this too. In their study, participants limited to four and a half hours of sleep each night for a week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted.

When these same people went back to their normal sleep schedules, their mood went right back to normal.

These results are easy to digest because we’ve all experienced this.

What I found more surprising, however, is the link between sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.

Studies have shown fifteen to twenty percent of people diagnosed with insomnia will develop major depression.

And inadequate sleep can be even worse for anxiety. In a study of 10 000 adults, people with insomnia were twenty times more likely to develop panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder.

What does this all mean for you?

If you’re low on sleep on a regular basis, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to develop a significant mood disorder.

But, if you’re anything like me, who has a tendency to be a bit of an Eeyore and have a little bit of anxiety bubbling under the surface on a regular basis, not sleeping enough can exacerbate these problems.

Sleep and Learning

This section is one I take particular interest in since I’ve spent almost a decade in university. I’ve cut many nights short of sleep to cram for exams and I know many of my colleagues have too.

Sleep affects learning from two angles: acquisition and retention.

Acquisition is akin to downloading a file on your computer. For our brain, the download process is attention.

To acquire new information, we must allocate a certain amount of attention to it.

This takes mental energy and vigilance.

Sleep deprivation decreases vigilance and available mental energy, which decreases the attention we’re able to allocate to a given set of information we’re attempting to acquire.

The effect: It’s harder to learn that information.

Sleep also effects retention.

Part of retention is consolidation. Which, if we go back to the brain as a computer analogy, is like saving the file you downloaded.

Consolidation is essential for retaining a memory and accessing it later.

It occurs while you sleep.

Less sleep equals less consolidation and, therefore, less retention.

Why do we still believe we need to sleep less so we can do more

These are just a few of the areas of mental function sleep affects.

The take home is that these decreases in aspects of mental performance ultimately lead to decreased efficiency, productivity, and, more importantly, increases in errors and accidents on the job.

Knowing all this, why do we feel such a compulsion to sleep less?

The message seems to perpetuate because of a common fallacy that runs rampant through our culture and one that you’ll find in many self-help books that you pick up.

Which is: If you do what other successful people do, you too will experience success.

There’s two reasons why this doesn’t work and they’re two sides of the same coin.

On the one side: you are not the person you are idolizing.

The recipe for success is as personal to the individual as their own DNA.

It is a sophisticated cocktail of experiences, talents, and environment that cannot be replicated.

Yes, the success of da Vinci, Napoleon, and Edison may be partially explained by tangible habits they practiced, like sleeping less.

But, the more likely explanation of their success is from their intangible traits. Da Vinci had insatiable curiosity, Napoleon was an incredible strategist, and Edison was insanely creative.

Each one had their own mixtures of ambition, creativity, and talent that can’t be replicated.

The other side of that coin is: the people that you idolize and attempt to emulate are not you.

Just like you aren’t your idols, they aren’t you. Da Vinci, Napoleon, and Edison lived like this because they found it worked best for them. Sleeping less allowed them to realize their potential.

What works for some does not work for others. Some people work great early in the morning while others are most productive late at night. Some flourish under the pressure of deadlines, while others work best at a more relaxed pace.

Your success is going to come from identifying what works best for you and building a life and work schedule that allows you to get the most out of yourself.