I don’t sleep much. This used to be something that people bragged about. Now it’s often seen as an unfortunate reality for people who just don’t have the time to devote to proper amounts of sleep. It used to be something I could blame on being the parent of twins, and certainly having children factors in, but it’s only one of many contributing factors now.
Having one of the best jobs on the planet is the primary reason. When I tell people that I write about movies and TV, a frequent response is, “Oh, so you get to watch movies all day for work?” If only that were the case.
Most people in this line of business spend all day writing, which means shifting television and movie watching into the evening. We often can’t even start that until the kids are in bed. There’s also always one more post to write or email to send or topic to find for the next day, so the media consumption might not even begin until 9 or 10 p.m., which means 2-3 more hours before going to bed, only to wake up again at 5 a.m. to get in an hour of work before the children wake up.
On a good night, I get six hours of sleep. On most nights, it’s closer to five. On Sunday nights, it’s closer to 4. It’s no different on the weekends, when kids need to be occupied, television needs to be caught up on, movies need to be seen, and starting again shortly, Saturday Night Live recaps need to be composed.
It takes an unfortunate toll. Since beginning this schedule nearly four years ago, I’ve gone almost completely grey (and I’m not that old), my wife often suggests to me that I look as though I’ve been punched in the eyes, and my body doesn’t recuperate from minor aches and pains as it once did. They just compound. The lack of sleep has dramatically hastened the aging process.
Then there’s the vague memory loss throughout the day, the fog that sits in my brain much of the time, and a weird writing disorder that usually settles in during the afternoon, in which I often leave out words in sentences, as some of you can attest. I am not naturally a person who has issues with typos and errors — I went to journalism school, to law school, and I spent two years as a managing editor of a publishing company, where I copy edited everything that went out the door. I know how to edit. It’s only in the last couple of years that it’s become a concern, and it’s also why I do all my Uproxx work in the mornings when I’m most fresh, because you all are far more forgiving.
Then there’s the 6-7 cups of coffee per day, and the 50-60 milligrams of nicotine I consume (I do not smoke, and I have not regularly since a three-year stint law school, but I do go through the equivalent of two-packs of day in Nicotine lozenges). Thanks to the stimulants, I can almost always feel my blood pulsing, and it never throbs more than when I’m actually trying to fall asleep at night after the three cups of coffee and six lozenges I needed to get through a fucking Kurt Sutter drama.
It’s a first-world problem, to be sure, but it’s recently become a concern. My father — who worked two jobs from 1:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day — didn’t sleep more than four hours a night, either. It led to a speed addiction, which led to a sleeping-pill addiction (to come off the speed), which led to a hard-drug addiction, which ultimately led to his demise at the age of 45.
I have to break the cycle before I get to that age, and I hope that the opportunity to do so will avail itself soon. In the meantime, I’m always looking for a shortcut. A way to be more efficient, or a way to cheat the system. I’ve tried various strategies, but nothing ever works. Or sticks. I always slide back into the same schedule. I need 19 hours a day to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. (I know it’s the same or similar for many of the writers here, who have kids, or day jobs, or several other freelance jobs, and who I often see composing posts or Tweeting in the middle of the night or very early in the morning).
I also read a lot of sleep studies, either because I am hopeful to learn that the damage I’m doing to myself is not that bad, or to try and scare myself into correcting the behavior. i know what the studies say: Lack of sleep leads to hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, and it also impairs our cognitive functions (something with which I am intimately familiar). It also contributes to weight gain, although I’m mindful enough about that possibility that I attempt to offset it with a proper diet.
My situation is also anomalous to what some studies have concluded. People with more education and people with more money usually sleep the most, because the more you sleep, the better your mind works, and the better your economic opportunities. Conversely, those with less education and less money sleep less (it’s also a possible factor in the black/white economic gap). However, those with more money and education also spend less time in bed; they’re simply more efficient sleepers (conversely, those with less money/education spend more time in bed, but less of it sleeping).
A recent Freakonomics podcast addressed a lot of these issues in an attempt to drill down into how sleep really factors into health according to the hard data. One of the many findings in this podcast illustrated that, at the very least, I’m not alone. Americans only sleep, on average, seven hours a night now, and 30 percent of us sleep less than six hours.
Hello to the other 30 percent!
But there is hopeful evidence from studies, which at least shows that the correlation between lack of sleep and health problems is not as strong as the correlation between diet and exercise and health problems. Your fast food is worse than my lack of sleep!
Another fascinating statistic I heard is that women sleep, on average, an hour more per night than men, and that white people sleep, on average, an hour longer per night than black people (the overall gap between white women and black men was about an hour and a half). Another study showed that, when babies are factored in, men lose another 8 minutes per night, on average, while women lose 16 minutes, on average (only 16 minutes? That’s can’t possibly be true.). Married people also sleep less than single people, while America overall sleeps less than most other countries.
But to the point of this post: There is one thing you can do to guarantee that you sleep longer and more efficiently: Put away your goddamn smart phones and other devices. A lot of anecdotal evidence and several studies have shown that those things are wrecking our ability to sleep, and not entirely in the ways that you might think.
Yes, they do keep us up longer, as we fiddle on our devices, watch YouTube, read emails, and play games, but even more harmful to our sleep is the the fact that so many of us pick up our phones when we wake in the middle of the night just to check the time. Instead of falling immediately back to sleep, however, we find ourselves up for half an hour or longer, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter on our phones while curled up on our side under the blankets.
That smart phone is the equivalent of waking up and grabbing a shot of espresso, some scientists say. it’s not just the distraction that our phones offer us, either. It’s the light. According to the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health, “Exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders.”
Those screen lights set of receptors in our brains designed to keep us awake, so even if you put your phone back down on the side table, your brain has already been stirred awake. It screws with our sleep patterns. In fact, the light emitted by phones and tablets before we fall asleep can keep us awake, on average, another half hour each night.
Our smartphones are also messing with our relationships with other people. Ten percent of Americans are more likely to reach for their smartphones when they wake up than their own spouses. According to another study, three percent of people even sleep with their smartphones in their hands, and many more sleep with their phones next to them on their beds. That’s sad (also, I am guilty).
In other words, if you want to sleep better, turn off your phone and use an old-fashioned alarm clock. If you want to sleep even better, don’t even bring your smartphone into your bedroom at night. Leave it downstairs. There’s enough going on in our lives with work, children, and anxiety to keep us from sleeping as much as we should. Don’t exacerbate the problem with smart phones, not when it’s such an easy fix.