One of the single most devastating and widely-believed myths is this idea that not sleeping is the mark of dedication. A real man/woman, the thinking goes, doesn’t need more than a few hours each night. If they really, truly want to be successful, they shouldn’t bend in the face of sleep deprivation. It makes you stronger, and only the weak need sleep.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out this motivational video. You can watch the whole thing if you like, but the most relevant section starts at about 3:38:

A few choice quotes from the clip:

  • “Most of you don’t want success more than you want sleep!”
  • “Sleep is for those people who are broke!”
  • “In order to be successful, you’ve got to give up sleep!”

On the surface, these quotes seem to make sense. If you want success, you need to push yourself to your limits and beyond. This includes sleeping much less than you normally would. Do this long enough, and the hours normally spent sleeping compound – translating into success.

This is bullshit. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that regular sleep deprivation is damaging to both learning and long-term health, and you would be wise to heed the warnings that are now being issued about what not sleeping can do to you.

Sleep Affects Memory

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you care about your memory. And, if you’ve read my book, you’re probably familiar with the concept of consolidation, a crucial process for forming long-term memories. It turns out that sleep plays a key role in consolidation, and skipping it has significant consequences.

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In a June 2014 study (paywall), scientists at the New York University School of Medicine and Pekin University Shenzhen Graduate School trained mice how to walk on top of a rotating rod. They then compared the living brains of mice that had been sleep deprived, and those who had not. Mice that were sleep deprived formed far fewer neurons – meaning they were forming fewer memories, and in turn learning much less.

This same study even went as far as comparing the effects of missing out on specific phases of sleep, and found that deep (aka slow-wave) sleep was essential for forming new memories. This same process is thought to occur within humans that don’t get enough sleep.

But what should really worry all of you that are in need of a nap is the fact that vigorous training didn’t do anything to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation. As far as anyone can tell, sleep is an absolute must for effective learning.

Sleep Deprivation Can Make You Gain Weight

A 2004 study found that sleep deprivation had a significant effect on the levels of hormones related to hunger and, as a result, body mass index (BMI). The researchers focused specifically on leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is linked to the sensation of feeling full, and lower leptin levels mean you’re far more likely to overeat. Ghrelin signals hunger, and is usually excreted whenever the stomach is empty – essentially a hormone designed to compel you to eat as a sort of starvation response. In this study, researchers found a shocking difference in the levels of both: 15.5% lower leptin, and 14.9% higher ghrelin.

In other words, when you sleep less, you end up eating more. This leads to weight gain, which in turn compounds into all kinds of health problems.

You Are Dangerous When Sleep Deprived

According to a meta-analysis done in 2005, not sleeping has a significant impact on your ability to do basic motor tasks. For example, driving a car while sleep-deprived degrades your performance to about the level of someone with a 0.1% BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), which is drunk enough for a DUI in California. This is thought to at least partly explain why teenagers, who are chronically sleep-deprived due to school schedules, are at much higher risk of death while driving.

Part of what makes sleep deprivation so dangerous for tasks like driving is because your brain has a sneaky way of getting sleep without your permission. You click off from consciousness and catch a bit of shuteye for a short period of time. This is called a microsleep, and it can last up to 30 seconds, which should frighten anyone who drives after not getting enough sleep. What’s even more devious about this is that you not only don’t have any control over microsleeps, but you are completely unaware of them. You might catch a 10 second microsleep while going freeway speed, during which time you might very well cause an accident.

Sleep For Success

There’s far more to the sleep puzzle, and I recommend you read the book recommendation at the bottom of this page to get a better idea of how sleep can affect you. However, it’s worth reviewing what not sleeping in the name of success will actually do to you.

  1. You will learn slower and remember less.
  2. You will become less healthy due to your body’s sleep-deprived starvation response.
  3. You might kill yourself and/or other people while trying to drive without enough sleep.

So for those out there that think they need to work until the wee hours every night to make it, do yourselves a favor: get some sleep. You might think you’re missing out on opportunities, but I promise your progress will be much greater if you put aside that concern. The sheer number of hours you dedicate to work might end up being less, but the quality of your work will be much higher. You’ll also end up living longer, since you’ll be much less likely to kill yourself or anyone else via bad driving or eating habits.

Book recommendation:

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall is an excellent introduction to the world of sleep research. This book is designed for laypeople, so you can get a great deal of useful information out of it without having to sift through a ton of dry research.