Some people take pride in how little they sleep. It’s proof of their hard work, their dedication, their determination.
I’m prouder of the exact opposite.
Despite producing over a dozen books, writing my daily emails for Daily Stoic and Daily Dad, reading books to recommend to my Reading List Email each month, opening and operating The Painted Porch Book Shop, and spending lots of time with my wife and kids—I’ve never pulled an all-nighter. My writing pace is not fueled by stimulants. My productivity is not dependent on adrenaline. My work doesn’t interfere with my sleep. The only thing that has ever kept me up and busy in the middle of the night have been my young children.
In the military they speak of sleep discipline–meaning it’s something you have to be good at, you have to be conscious of, something you can’t let slip. We only have so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person knows this and guards it carefully. A smart person knows that getting their 7-8 hours of sleep every night does not negatively affect their output, it contributes crucially to their best work.
So in this article, I am going to give you the 13 strategies that have been the secret to my success. Some of them you may have come by before. Others you probably haven’t. But all of them work.
Arianna Huffington quietly grew The Huffington Post into a behemoth with some 200 million unique visitors a month and 17 international editions. Her stake in Huffington Post was worth an estimated $21 million. But for a time, Arianna’s wealth and power came at the expense of living a good life. After years of working upwards of 18-hour days seven days a week, the sleep tax collectors showed up. Arianna was in her home office when she collapsed, hit her head on her desk, broke a cheekbone, and woke up in a pool of her own blood. At the hospital, doctors ran several tests. Brain MRI. CAT scans. Heart sonograms. Her diagnosis? Burnout.
But unlike so many overworked people, however, Arianna was able to look in the mirror after this harrowing incident and do what too many are unable to do: she changed. She realized that life was about more than just doing, that there was no glamor in working oneself to the bone, trading sleep for an extra conference call or a few minutes on television or a meeting with an important person. So, despite being at her peak financially and professionally, she left The Huffington Post, went looking for what she would call the “third metric” of success, and launched Thrive Global, where she’s brought the resources of both science and philosophical wisdom to combat the rising epidemic of stress and burnout.
Near the end of his life, Marcus Aurelius sat down and wrote about what he learned from the mentor who most shaped his life: his adopted step-father Antoninus. Antoninus worked hard, Marcus wrote, but he also made sure “to take adequate care of himself…With the result that he hardly ever needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or ointment.” Marcus said that life is short and if we practice bad habits, if we don’t take care of ourselves, if we aren’t willing to change, we will surely shorten that time.
You Are Not An Exception
People say, I do perfectly fine on four or five hours of sleep. No, you don’t. I’m an exception. No, you’re not.
In a study by a team of scientists at the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, participants were divided into four groups: one was sleep deprived for up to 88 hours, one group slept for four hours a night, one group slept for six hours a night, and one group slept for eight hours a night. There were two important findings. First, the performance of the groups who slept four and six hours was as impaired as the sleep deprived group. Second, when asked, all participants grossly miscalculated how impaired they were.
As Dr. Thomas Roth, the Director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, put it, “The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population, and rounded to a whole number, is zero.” Or if not zero, close enough to zero that we can assume it doesn’t include you.
Sleep With Your Phone in the Other Room
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is known for giving his young staffers old-school alarm clocks — not because he wants to make sure they’re on time for work, but so they don’t have an excuse to sleep with their phone on the nightstand. If you have an alarm that’s not your clock app, your phone can go in the other room, and if your phone is in the other room, you can’t check it at night.
This means you won’t know if you get a text message or an email. It means you won’t be tempted to scroll through social media. It means you won’t be staring at a screen that are, as Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep, “artificially forcing us awake, thereby masking our natural tiredness at night, [which] keeps people awake for longer, and makes falling asleep more difficult.”
Wake Up Early
I have written many times about the power of waking up early. The mornings are the most productive hours of the day—before the interruptions, before the distractions, before the rest of the world gets up and going too. Early, we are free. Hemingway would talk about how he’d get up early because early, there was “no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Toni Morrison found she was just more confident in the early morning, before the day had exacted its toll and while the mind was fresh. Like most of us, she realized she was just “not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” Who can be? After a day of banal conversations, frustrations, mistakes and exhaustion.
And of course, when you get up with the sun, you are more likely to wind down with the sun. It was one of Seneca’s observations: we were made to follow the rhythm of the sun. “We are more industrious, and we are better men if we anticipate the day and welcome the dawn,” he wrote, “but we are base churls if we lie dozing when the sun is high in the heavens, or if we wake up only when noon arrives.” If you want the secret to success, if you want to start executing at a higher level, then you have to get in the habit of waking up early. You have to come to the realization that you are at your best when you are in rhythm with the sun.
Strenuous Exercise Every Day
I take a walk and go for a run just about every day. It’s not about burning calories or getting the heart rate up or training for a marathon. “It is indeed foolish,” Seneca wrote, “to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs.” Rather, he said, the goal of exercise is simply to “tire the body” so we can later enjoy a heavy sleep.
The ancients didn’t need the research, but it is nice knowing what we now know. Matthew Walker writes of the “clear bidirectional relationship” between exercise and sleep. Physical activity leads to better sleep which boosts physical activity which leads to better sleep which, so on and so on. “It is clear,” Walker writes in Why We Sleep, “that a sedentary life is one that does not help with sound sleep, and all of us should try to engage in some degree of regular exercise to help maintain not only the fitness of our bodies but also the quantity and quality of our sleep.” Make it a rule, as I have: strenuous exercise every single day.
Go The F*ck To Sleep
You think you’re not an early morning person…but that’s mostly because you’re not going to bed early enough. You’re staying up to what? Scrolling through TikTok or tweets at 11pm? You should be asleep!
When you’re burned out, when you’re exhausted, when you’ve had that long day where all you want to do is veg out on the couch? That’s precisely when you need the extra discipline to get up and go to bed. Follow the advice of a book I love to read to my kids: Go the F*ck to Sleep!
Morning routines are great but a bedtime routine is important too. Being disciplined about wrapping up and winding down is essential.
Read Before Bed
The great William Osler (founder of John Hopkins University and a fan of the Stoics) told his medical students it was important that they turn to literature as a way to nourish and relax their minds. “When chemistry distresses your soul,” he said, “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare, ten minutes with Montaigne will lighten the burden.” He told his students to read to relax and to be at leisure. To keep their minds strong and clear.
Instead of turning to the TV or to Twitter, let us follow Osler’s advice:
“Start at once a bedside library and spend the last half-hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity. There are great lessons to be learned from Job and from David, from Isaiah and St. Paul. Taught by Shakespeare you may take your intellectual and moral measure with singular precision. Learn to love Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should you be so fortunate as to be born a Platonist, Jowett will introduce you to the great master through whom alone we can think in certain levels, and whose perpetual modernness startles and delights. Montaigne will teach you moderation in all things, and to be ‘sealed of his tribe’ is a special privilege.”
Journal Before Bed
“Is there anything finer than this practice of examining one’s entire day?” Seneca asked. “Think of the sleep that follows this self-inspection,” he said, “how peaceful, deep, and free, when the mind has been either praised or admonished, when the sentinel and secret censor of the self has conducted its inquiry into one’s character.”
That’s what a great night’s sleep requires. A mental state free of clutter and chaos. It is a state that is never not hard to achieve, because each day presents plenty of opportunities to clutter or minds—responsibilities, the dysfunctional job that stresses you out, a contentious relationship, reality not agreeing with your expectations. But journaling is a tool uniquely suited to help us declutter our minds. A couple thousand years after Seneca intuited it, the Journal of Experimental Psychology proved that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster. So tonight, try Epictetus’s nightly ritual and see what it can do for you:
“Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: ‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’ From first to last review your acts and then Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.”
Treat The Weekends The Same
It almost doesn’t matter what the problem is, the solution is often a consistent routine. Tell a sleep expert you’re not sleeping well, that’s what they’ll suggest. Tell a psychiatrist you’ve been feeling anxious, that’s what their first question will be. Tell a productivity guru your work output isn’t where you want it, that’s where they’ll start. Tell a dog trainer your dog is acting up, that’s where they’ll start. Tell a strength trainer you want to get stronger, tell an author you want to get better at writing, tell the Stoics you want to round out the day in a calmer, more tranquil state—a consistent routine will be the answer.
Regardless of the practices you implement from above, the best thing you can do for your sleep is be consistent, seven days a week. “There is much we can do to secure a far better night of sleep using what we call good ‘sleep hygiene’ practices,” Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep, “but if you can only adhere to one of these each and every day, make it: going to bed and waking up at the same time of day no matter what. It is perhaps the single most effective way of helping improve your sleep.”
Sleep Is An Act Of Character
I mentioned it above—in the armed forces, they refer to the idea of sleep discipline. In the Persian Gulf in the 1990s, future Admiral James Stavridis had just been given command of a ship for the first time. This occurred at exactly the same time, he noticed, at age 38, that his natural metabolism and his infinitely youthful ability to just gut it out, had begun to decline. You don’t have to be the most self-aware person on the planet to see that you make worse decisions when you’re tired, that you’re less able to work well with others, that you have less command of yourself and your emotions. But it was still a considerable innovation for Stavridis to decide to treat sleep as an equally important part of a functioning warship as its weapons systems.
In response, Stavridis began to monitor the sleep cycles of his crew, moderate their watch duties and encourage naps wherever possible. “Watching our physical health,” he would write later, specifically referring to sleep, “is an act of character and can enormously help with our ability to perform.”
Discover The Life-giving Powers Of The Nap
Anders Ericsson, of the classic ten-thousand-hours study, found that master violinists slept eight and a half hours a night on average and took a nap most days. A friend said of Churchill, “He made in Cuba one discovery which was to prove far more important to his future life than any gain in military experience, the life-giving powers of the siesta.” Naps are restorative, especially as you get older. After a triple-double performance by Lebron James on a Sunday following back-to-back road games in the Midwest and a stop in Phoenix to watch his son play, James was asked if there’s any secret to all the energy he’s been playing with. “Sleep,” LeBron said. “I slept last night from 12 to 8. I got up, ate breakfast, and then I went back to sleep from 8:30 to 12:30.” Teammates joke that Lebron is always either sleeping or playing basketball.
I try to tell this to my kids, who hate napping—one day you will miss this. Trust me.
Don’t Sleep When You’re Dead (Sleep Or You’ll Die)
The thing I take from Arianna Huffington’s story is that cutting back on sleep not only decreases your quality of life…but it can take your life. People get depressed without sleep. They burn out. They crash their cars. They faint in the bathroom and hit their heads. The philosopher and writer Arthur Schopenhauer used to say that “sleep is the source of all health and energy.” He said it better still on a separate occasion: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death. The higher the interest rate and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.”
If you want to have a good and long life, sleep now, not later.
Invest In Your Sleep
When I dropped out of college and moved to LA, I didn’t have enough money to buy a bed. I borrowed an IKEA futon and slept on the floor for almost two months. When I made a little bit of money, I bought the cheapest mattress from the cheapest mattress store and slept on it for almost a decade. I don’t remember when exactly I decided to upgrade but it was long after I could afford otherwise. The point is: If sleep has all these benefits, if it is literally life-saving, then it makes sense to invest in it. Maybe that’s buying a better mattress. Maybe that’s biting the bullet and paying for a layback seat on an international flight. Maybe that’s a sound machine or blackout shades. Figure out what gets you better sleep and consider it a hell of a deal.
(One part of my sleep routine is the Eight Sleep’s Pod Pro Cover. Actually I should say OUR sleep routine because my wife loves it more than I do…and if she sleeps better, my life is also better.)
P.S. Eight Sleep users fall asleep up to 32% faster, reduce sleep interruptions by up to 40%, and get more restful sleep overall. Eight Sleep’s Pod Pro’s technology makes it easier to sleep through the night, tracks sleep stages, heart rate and HRV, to provide deep health insights. And overtime, it learns from all this data and auto-adjusts to create your optimal sleep environment. It even offers dual-zone temperature control. And I worked out an exclusive deal with Eight Sleep for you all. Go to eightsleep.com/ryan right now to upgrade your sleep experience and get $150 off the Pod Pro Cover!