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Workaholics on the Reality of a 120-Hour Work Week

Elon Musk swears by it, but is it even humanly possible?

Late last month Elon Musk gave an emotional interview to the New York Times, tearfully admitting to working 120 hours a week, not coming home from the Tesla factory for several days on end and only squeezing a few hours of sleep in when he did. Such claims, however, seemed dubious, if not outright impossible. There are, after all, just 168 hours in a seven-day week, meaning that would allow a mere 48 hours (or a little under seven hours per day) for sleeping, eating, running errands and any other bare essentials required to stay upright for those other 120 hours.

For an expert opinion, though, we reached out to Ketan Kapoor, CEO and cofounder of Mettl, an online talent-assessment tool for employers, who spent 120 hours a week toiling at the office during his company’s early years; and Gina Marie Guarino, a licensed therapist specializing in stress management in the workplace.

No Breaks

Musk admitted to a schedule broken down into five-minute increments, where every moment is accounted for — even lunch outside of a meeting is considered wasted time. “You can’t even think about taking short breaks during a day, let alone take time for short vacations in a year,” Kapoor says. “There’s no differentiation between a ‘weekday’ and a ‘weekend.’ Everyday is a typical workday that starts with a to-do list for that day and ends up jam-packed with an even bigger list for the next day.”

No Sleep

Plenty of research shows how quickly the body devolves without enough rest — from mental health to “cardiovascular mortality,” according to a study by JM Harrington in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Yet with only the aforementioned 48 hours of non-work time, most workaholics, obsessive entrepreneurs or young investment bankers opt to sleep only four hours a night. Kapoor admits to only sleeping because his body demanded it, and he knew it was necessary to function the next day. “I remember clocking at most four hours of sleep to avoid overstraining my body and refuel the lost energy to meet commitments for the next day,” he says.

However, Guarino argues that even though that’s technically “sleep,” it’s not enough. “When working so much during the week, your body and mind don’t have time to unwind before bed,” she explains. “This creates restless sleep, insomnia and other sleep issues that come with exhaustion. When people go to sleep exhausted, they suffer from side effects like nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night and nocturnal panic attacks.”

No Problems?

That said, a lack of sleep will temporarily make you feel like a million bucks. As Kapoor puts it, “Initially, I felt like a superhuman who could pull off 18 hours of full productivity and only require a bare minimum of four hours to sleep.” Though he lacked a regular eating schedule and his body “ran on fumes,” he remembers “feeling hyperactive while my brain worked at an incredible, accelerated pace. The best part: I attained a razor sharp focus and learned new things at record pace, close to two times the pace while I worked previous corporate jobs.”

Marcello Massimini, a neurophysiologist at the University of Milan, explains in Scientific American this “manic blur” of sleep deprivation is because the brain becomes more active without sleep. “It’s compensation for exhaustion,” Guarino told the magazine. “When we exhaust our brains or bodies, our natural reaction of our bodies is to do what it needs to do to continue to function properly. It’s similar to an adrenaline rush that’s intended to keep the body and brain going — a survival mode of sorts that is triggered by delirium.”

No Life

“Everything you gain in life comes at a hefty price,” says Kapoor. “Soon I realized what I was missing out on and how all the success I achieved came at the expense of my personal life and time ideally reserved for my family and friends. I learned the hard way that no matter how hard you try, following a regimen and taking care of your health is instrumental.”

Kapoor “pledged to re-shift” the way he works, and says he now “gets at least six hours of sleep, doesn’t skip meals and starts the day with a rapid 15-minute ‘stretch session.’”

The six hours of sleep and meal breaks is a far cry from working nonstop 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., but it will pay off in the end. A study published in Industrial and Labor Relations Review in July found that, after studying a random sample of 51,895 employees, “Even with discretion, work intensity generally is a stronger predictor of unfavorable outcomes than overtime work.” Some of those outcomes, per Guarino, “Cognitive decline, difficulty concentrating, communication issues, anger outbursts, fatigue, muscle tension and painful side effects like headaches, body aches, stomach issues, ulcers and acid reflux.”

In short, stop working so goddamn hard. Sitting more than eight hours a day at the office is already ruining your ass; any longer than that, and you’re seriously putting your mental and physical health at risk.

But if you’re so blinded by the job that a serious dip in your own health won’t convince you to ease up, remember that the erratic behavior all that work inspires is equally bad for your company (you know, the thing you care about more than your own well-being). Here again, we turn to Musk: After a recent bizarre appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast — no doubt a byproduct of not sleeping, not eating and not having a life (no matter all that news about Grimes) — Telsa’s stock price dropped six percentage points.