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Losing Sleep for Success: Sleep Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs

When you’re building and running your own company, it’s difficult to balance work and sleep. The demands are high, time is short, and sleep can seem more like a luxury than a necessity.

As a culture, we’ve somehow come to expect entrepreneurs to sacrifice sleep. We have an ingrained image of entrepreneurs as smart, decisive, and – most importantly – tireless. They sleep as little as possible because they are completely dedicated to their work. They are a martyr to their métier. And, we revere their constant work because they’re doing something ambitious. But, sleep scientists see it differently. They know that expecting someone to sacrifice sleep for their work is equivalent to expecting their work to fail.

Thomas Edison, once said, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” The truth is, sleep is as fundamental to our 21st-century lives as it was before the dawn of civilization – especially for entrepreneurs like Edison. When founders and creators don’t get the sleep they need, the abilities they rely on become rickety and hallow. Memory, concentration, problem-solving, reasoning, and emotional control are all compromised by sleep deprivation. And, it doesn’t take long for the effects to manifest. Just one night of sleep loss severely impairs our ability to juggle tasks and adapt to new situations. We know that sleeplessness played a part in many historic disasters, like Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez explosion. So, it’s not hard to imagine the impact it can have on a new, risky venture (without hundreds of contingency plans). The question is: Why does our culture promote the myth of the tireless entrepreneur when we know that sleep is the engine of innovation, creativity, empathy, and intelligence?

Despite the lore of the sleepless entrepreneur, not all modern innovators neglect sleep. Yes, there are those like Elon Musk who often clock 120-hour work weeks and leave little time for rest. But, there are also founders out there like Jeff Bezos, who prioritize shut-eye. We wanted to explore the relationship between entrepreneurship and sleep, so we spoke with a few founders, including Charles Adler (Kickstarter), Sofya Polyakov (The Noun Project), Dulcie Madden (Rest Devices), and Max Temkin (Cards Against Humanity). During the conversations, we heard some great sleep advice for entrepreneurs. And, we want to share what we learned with you.

1. Keep Your Phone Away From Your Bed

Dulcie Madden of Rest Devices put it simply: “Our phones represent work.” When we bring this technology into our bedroom, our job comes with it. A quick glance at your inbox before bed may seem harmless, but sometimes that’s all it takes to spark endless thoughts about work that keep you up at night. Not only are these devices full of distractions that can lure us away from sleep, but they also emit blue light that disrupts our circadian rhythm.

Keeping your phone by your bed impacts mornings, too. During our conversation with Max Temkin, he shared this lesson from Jim Coudal, the co-founder of Field Notes: “Jim gave me some good advice about how to end the day and start the next. He told me he used to use his phone as an alarm clock, but would wake up and see a bunch of texts and emails. It’s like the minute you open your eyes, you’re playing defense. So, now he keeps his phone out of his bedroom and it’s really improved the quality of his entire day. I started doing this, too, and it’s made a big difference.”

2. Acknowledge the Anxieties That Keep You Up At Night

When you’re growing your own business, there are infinite things to figure out and stress about. Your mind is constantly buzzing with a potent mixture of excitement and anxiety. And, when these feelings go unchecked, they can get in the way of your work and your sleep. For Dulcie Madden, communicating the anxieties helps a lot. She told us, “If I’m really stressed out about something, I won’t be able to sleep. When this happens, I try to make sure I’m being super communicative about what’s causing the stress. Just getting it out there helps me stop it from rattling around in my subconscious.”

Max Temkin also addresses stress head-on. Before bed, he uses David Allen’s practice of Ubiquitous Capture to proactively think through what he’s facing the next day. Max said, “…most people walk around with all these ideas bouncing around in their head (‘I have to do this’ ‘I need to get that’ ‘I need to send that email’) and it’s hard to turn those thoughts from stress into action. This is where Ubiquitous Capture comes in. David Allen says, ‘Write it down. Put it in a to-do list.’ Getting it out of your head and onto paper gives yourself permission to forget it and not stress out about it. So, the time before bed is a moment for me to acknowledge what’s going on tomorrow and think through any anxieties or tasks surrounding it.”

3. Hack Your Brain With Meditation

At first, meditation (like sleep) can seem antithetical to entrepreneurship. We think of founders and inventors as active and creative, not idle and silent. But, it’s in those moments when you’re not actively working that you can step back and work on yourself.

Max describes meditation as a “thought technology I can take wherever I go.” And, decades of research backs up this notion. Beyond easing stressors and calming a racing mind, meditation has also been found to decrease anxiety, increase compassion, improve memory, and foster creative thinking – making it a powerful practice for entrepreneurs.

Not only does meditation help us while we’re awake – it also advances our sleep. Scientists found that it improves the quality of two sleep stages, deep sleep and REM sleep, which are critical for restoring the body and brain.

If you’re want to start meditating, Sofya Polyakov recommends the weekly podcast made by the Hammer Museum and UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

4. Create A Ritual That Helps You Clock Out

Charles Adler told us, “For me, work and sleep get in the way of each other. In the morning, I wish I could get more sleep. At night, I wish I could get more work done.” Many of us can relate. Sometimes, there’s just not enough time between nine and five to get everything done. Other times, you’re in the flow and don’t want to break the momentum. The energy and productivity surrounding entrepreneurship is almost hypnotic, carrying us from early mornings into late nights. And, before you know it, it’s 3:00am and you haven’t had dinner.

Closing your laptop and clocking out at night can be difficult, but it’s the first step toward a productive tomorrow. Dulcie found that it’s helpful to create a ritual that delineates work and sleep: “I’ve created good boundaries between these two areas by having a nightly break from 9:30pm to 10:00pm where I stop doing work and just talk with my husband.” Other entrepreneurs have different routines that help them disconnect from work. Sofya’s nightly ritual is to take a shower. She said, “I’ve been doing this for years and it really helps me relax. It’s my Me Time.” And, when we asked Max about his evening ritual, he said, “I need an hour to relax before going to bed. A lot of the time I’ll read Twitter, play a game, watch TV, listen to a podcast, or read a book. Or, just lie in bed and try to not think about work.”