Ming-Ho's Blog

Thoughts about sleep

June 15, 2012

As a university student, it’s very common to hear people talk about not getting enough sleep, or having to pull all-nighters. I’d like to share some of my thoughts about sleep. This post will be similar to my last one on cooking, in the sense that I haven’t really planned this post out, and I’m just writing whatever comes to mind.

My sleep schedule

I keep to a fairly regular and normal sleep schedule. There’s no point for me to become nocturnal, or wake up and sleep at odd hours. In fact, there are compelling reasons to keep a “normal” sleep schedule — I have work, or classes, businesses are open, and so on. It’s also easier to maintain my sleep schedule if I wake up and go to bed at the same times every day.

Back in high school, classes would start around 08:00, so I woke up at 07:00. However, I usually had orchestra rehearsals at 07:00, so I’d set my alarm clock an hour earlier. (Speaking of alarm clocks, I still have and use one, instead of a phone. Am I the only one who does this?)

I would typically go to bed between 23:00 and 00:00, giving me around six (and sometimes seven) hours of sleep a night. (I rarely stayed up to midnight.) Nowadays, I wonder how I managed with so little sleep. It was only today that I realized I would usually take naps after coming home from high school.

My sleep schedule hasn’t changed too much, now that I’m in university. I wake up between 07:00 and 09:00, depending on when classes/work start. My bedtime has been pushed farther back — I usually stay up to 00:00 or 01:00. If I have a lot of homework, I end up sleeping at 02:00. In uncommon circumstances (for example, even more work and being able to sleep in the next day), I’ve stayed up to 03:00.

This generally gives me seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and if I’m unfortunate, only six hours. I’ve found that six hours is not enough sleep for me. I get really tired and feel miserable the next day and often get headaches. I used to wonder how I managed with six hours of sleep back in high school, but that’s because I used to take naps. I don’t any more, and without naps, six hours is not enough sleep.

For that matter, I’ve found that even seven hours of sleep is a little low for me. I’m still functional the next day, but I really feel a difference if I can get eight hours of sleep. Eight hours of sleep a night seems to be above average (no, I don’t have any supporting data), but that’s how much sleep I need. And I try to get it.

I prioritize sleep

As I just mentioned, I need eight hours of sleep to be fully rested. Seven is doable, but six is my limit. I’m pretty miserable with six hours of sleep, but that’s the absolute minimum. I can’t function at all with less sleep. And it’s because of that, that sleep is a pretty high priority for me.

That’s why I refuse to pull all-nighters. I really need my sleep. I’ve come close once, and it’s always very tempting to stay up later and work on some assignment (especially if a deadline is looming). But, at a certain point, I realised it was futile to continue — I wasn’t making any progress, and I could barely stay awake. I ended up with four to five hours of sleep that night, and the next day was absolutely terrible. I was so tired that I wasn’t able to work. I had stayed up an extra four hours, got nothing done, and then destroyed the next day in terms of productivity. Ironically, I would have been better off had I not stayed up.

On the topic of staying up later, I’ve noticed that even working between 00:00 and 02:00, my productivity is drastically reduced. It’s very tempting to continue working (especially if I’m engrossed in the work), and it’s tempting to think that my productivity doesn’t suffer… but it does. I have found myself struggling over problems late at night, only to find them trivial and obvious after a good night’s sleep.

So my personal philosophy is that it’s usually not worth staying up to finish an assignment. My productivity and mental capacity suffer if I stay up, and if I don’t get enough sleep, then the next day is also lost.

What if there’s a deadline*? If there’s an extension, but I can avoid it (and the penalty) by staying up later, is that worth it? Especially since any work I produce would be of lower quality?

What if there isn’t an extension, and it’s “submit something incomplete” or “stay up and finish it”? I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t (yet) had to face this exact circumstance. But I’ve thought about it, and decided it’s not worth staying up.

First of all, what would I gain? Any completed assignment would be of poor quality, because I would be so tired. Secondly, what would I lose? At the very minimum, I would be exhausted the next day, and I wouldn’t be able to do much. What else could happen? More seriously, this could be bad for my immune system and I could get sick. Getting sick means falling behind. I would have more work… and less time to do it, as I’d need the sleep and rest.

So I’ve concluded that it’s simply not worth it, in the long run. I hope this situation never arises, but if it does, I know what to do.

I guess I should also mention studying for exams. This is something for which I came to a conclusion a long time ago. It is definitely not worth it to stay up and continue cramming. Yes, I may be able to cram more knowledge into my mind, but what’s the point if I’m too tired to use it during the exam? Therefore, I always make sure I get enough sleep before any midterm or exam.

*I’m pretty much only referring to academic deadlines where you only lose marks. The situation’s different if it’s a deadline that absolutely must be met, for example, if you have a project for a client.

On abnormal sleep schedules

There’s two that come to mind, which I should probably briefly discuss. First is xkcd’s 28-hour day, and the second is polyphasic sleep.

xkcd’s 28-hour day, regardless of how serious it is, is pretty interesting. Sleep for eight hours, but spend twenty awake, at the cost of one day of the weekend. I could not do this in my current situation. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my sleep schedule is normal because the rest of the world is normal. If I had the freedom (maybe working from home for a startup, or taking all online courses), then maybe. But I don’t see that happening any time soon, so for me, the 28-hour day is just an amusing idea, and nothing more.

The polyphasic sleep schedule is also quite interesting. The theory is that your body only gets two hours of REM sleep — and that’s all it needs. Non-REM sleep is, apparently, unnecessary. So you basically trick your body by getting your REM sleep in naps spread throughout the day, with possibly a longer stretch of sleep (though shorter than the regular eight hours). The page I linked to has more details, as well as some nifty diagrams.

It’s always tempting to think about polyphasic sleep, whenever I think about sleep in general. To need only two hours of sleep every day, which would give me an extra six hours awake. But I have a few problems with it.

First of all, I’m still very skeptical about polyphasic sleep. I hear claims about the REM sleep and such, but there aren’t any sources. (To be fair, I haven’t done any research on my own, so I shouldn’t complain.)

The other problem is that, apparently, your REM sleep naps must follow a very strict schedule. If you miss a nap, then it’s the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. And as I mentioned before, I don’t have the luxury to take naps according to a strict schedule.

So basically, I don’t see myself changing my sleep schedule any time soon.

What’s the take-away message?

Well, there really isn’t one. This isn’t a “you-should-get-more-sleep” advocacy post. It’s “I-like-my-sleep-and-this-is-why.” But this post is probably longer than I anticipated, so I might as well sum up:

I try to get eight hours of sleep every night, because I need my sleep. Otherwise, I’m not as functional, I feel worse, and my productivity and mental capacity suffer. Is it worth it to stay up and cram for an exam? Is it worth it to stay up to complete an assignment? Is it worth my health?

For me, the answer is no. I won’t sacrifice my sleep.

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