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| September 25, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… Just how many hours did you get last night?


If you are like me, I typically answer this question by saying something like, “not enough.” Each of us by design, by inattention, or the events-of-the-day, end up trying, usually unsuccessfully, to cram more into each day than is reasonable, practical, of good for our life and health.
And in doing that, sleep always gets short-changed. Yet, sleep is absolutely necessary for human life. During sleep we restore ourselves enabling our executive functions – problem solving, reasoning, organizing, planning, executing those plans, etc., all functions necessary for getting things done, for continuing to function. Also, during sleep, our body removes metabolic wastes that build up when we are active, and new memories are consolidated with ones we already hold. Simply put, without sleep we cease to be functioning beings. Claudia Aguirra provides an overview of this in her Ted-Ed presentation What would happen if you didn’t sleep?1
Even though sleep is necessary for life, our work, our home responsibilities, our community activities, our recreation, etc., all these activities together seem to conspire to reduce the number of hours we make available for sleep. And, this is dangerous.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to have been a contributing factor in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Chernobyl Nuclear explosion.
While not as dramatic, but certainly very important to every individual’s life, sleep deprivation can noticeably affect an individual’s performance. You think less clearly, react less quickly, and have an impaired memory formation. Your mood is affected, you are more easily irritated, you may have problems with relationships. You may be easily depressed and have increased anxiety. You may behave less ethically. An Infographic available on the Hult International Business School Blog2 informs us that:

  • 72% of managers noted difficulty concentrating on tasks because of lack of sleep.
  • Most professionals get between 6 and 6 ½ hours of sleep each night, significantly less than the 7 to 9 that is needed. (A 2017 Center for Creative Leadership study3 found the 42% of leaders get six or fewer hours of sleep a night.)
  • This lack of sleep affects our comprehending and communicating, our assessing risk and anticipating consequences, producing innovative solutions to problems, decision making, displaying emotional intelligence, and
  • That team members who are not getting enough sleep are more irritable, stressed, and prone to miss work due to health issues, and less focused, innovative, and cooperative.

Further, a lack of sleep effects a manager’s ability to inspire and motivate those around them. And, leaders who were systematically sleep deprived rated their staff as less likely to do the right thing, possibly because employees were actually behaving in less moral ways as a result of the workplace environment or because of their own sleep deprivation.
Knowledge@Wharton4 reports that “Circadian, the Massachusetts firm specializing in staffing, scheduling, training and risk-management issues relating to work fatigue, lists [among the actual dangers of sleep deprivation] slower response times, increased errors and mispronouncing or slurring words, driving impairments, an increase in risky behavior, and an inability to develop new strategies based on incoming information.”
For example, studies by the National Sleep Foundation indicate that 60% of U.S. adults have driven while drowsy and about half of them have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. Driving after being awake for 18 hours straight results in you driving like you have a blood alcohol level of 0.05 (0.08 is considered drunk). If you’ve been awake for a full 24 hours and drive, it’s like driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.10.
So, I think that most of us would agree that sleep deprivation is a real, significant and perhaps growing problem. And, studies, such as the one mentioned in Knowledge@Wharton4 are beginning to report that time spent working is the primary driver to our sleep deprivation. It’s how we work, and in particular the endless streams of interruptions from drop-bys, email, text messages, tweets, phone calls, etc., many associated with our ever-present handheld device which aids and abets the interruptions.
Sleep deprivation is a real and, I think, a growing problem. What can we do about it, both in general and personally? I think that it first comes down to setting cultural norms for your organization, your group, your family, and especially yourself. What is my norm, how will I monitor compliance, and what level of commitment do I have to managing this issue?
Here are some specific things that you might choose to do:

  1. Come to terms with how damaging your fatigue can be – to you, to your family, and those who work with you. If you don’t see your fatigue as a problem, you won’t act to reduce it.
  2. Stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up schedule. Avoid substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine close to bedtime.
  3. Avoid smartphone use near bedtime and keep the smartphone out of your bedroom.
  4. If you are having trouble sleeping, ask your physician to check you out for insomnia and sleep apnea.
  5. Aggressively manage your calendar. Schedule everything that you plan to do during the day. Set aside time to do the work that only you can do as well as time for people to drop in for those short “do-you-have-a-minute” conversations. Make this a regular, daily process. (See the recent Tuesday Reading Your daily Calendar for some additional ideas.)

In “Sleep Well, Lead Better,”3 the author, Christopher Barnes, associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, writes “It is clear that you can squeeze in more work hours if you sleep less. But, remember that the quality of your work – and your leadership – inevitably declines as you do so, often in ways that are invisible to you. As [Jeff] Bezos says, ‘Making a small number of key decisions well is more important than making a large number of decisions.’ If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion.’ Even worse as my [Barnes’] research highlights, you’ll negatively affect your subordinates.”
Each of us often feels intense pressure, mostly from ourselves, to put in just a bit more time each day. A short quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, which is highlighted in a recent Time magazine column,5 puts the pressure that I feel and that you feel to do just a bit more in a better perspective. Goodwin has studied presidents for the past five decades and written about their presidencies. In Leadership, she wrote this: “If Lincoln during the Civil War can go to the theater a hundred times, and if FDR during World War II can have a cocktail hour every night where you can only talk about books you’ve read and gossip, and if Teddy Roosevelt can take two hours every afternoon to exercise,” none of us has an excuse. “We just keep thinking our time is more complicated. It is because we’ve made it so.”
Think about what Goodwin has said. You’ll get the time you need to sleep by making your life less complicated. That means not doing some of the things you are now doing, delegating more, not watching over other’s capable shoulders, etc. And, from that hard work, among other things, you can find more time to sleep.
This is something that I am working on. I hope you’ll consider joining me.
.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Claudia Aguirra, What would happen if you didn’t sleep?, Ted-Ed.
  2. How Sleep Deprivation Affects Work and Performance, Hult International Business School Blog.
  3. Christopher M. Barnes, Sleep Well, Lead Better, Harvard Business Review, September-October 2018.
  4. Wake-Up Call: Why Everyone Needs More Sleep, Knowledge@Whatton, February 2015.
  5. Lily Rothman, The Brief, Time with Doris Kearns Goodwin looks to past presidents for lessons on the present, Time, September 17, 2018, pp 12-13. 


  1. What Is Sleep?, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School in Partnership with the WGBH Educational Foundation.
  2. How is the body affected by sleep deprivation?, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  3. Effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance, Wikipedia.
  4. Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving: How Similar Are they, National Sleep Foundation.
  5. Sleep and learning, Wikipedia.