Article Thumbnail

You Can’t ‘Make Up’ for Lost Sleep

Here’s a polite reminder that you can’t “catch up” on sleep. That is, if you didn’t sleep well several nights this week — because you were out late partying; had some long nights at the office; tried to get a full night’s sleep, but tossed and turned instead; or some combination thereof — you can’t “make up” that lost sleep by snoozing until the early afternoon on Saturday.

Nope, that’s not how sleep works.

Two nights of 10 hours of sleep will not erase the damage of sleeping only six hours every other night of the week. And the false perception that you can make up sleep is counterproductive — basically helping people justify their erratic sleep habits and preventing them from adopting better ones.

“But I always feel better when I sleep for 13 hours on Saturday night!” you say in defiance.

Well, yeah.

Lots of sleep feels better than too little sleep.

Even then, though, you’re still not offsetting the cumulative effect of your many sleepless nights, since your ability to focus is still impaired.

Sleep scientist Matthew Walker explained why on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Sleep is not like the bank. You can’t accumulate a debt and pay it off at a later point in time. If I were to deprive you of sleep an entire night, and then in a subsequent night give you all the sleep you want, you never get back all that you’ve lost. You will sleep longer, but you will never achieve that full eight-hour repayment. The brain has no capacity to get back that lost sleep…”

Instead, you need to adhere to a strict sleep schedule, sometimes sleeping up to 10 hours a night for several months straight if you’re chronically sleep-deprived. Only then will your sleep debt be fully paid off. And you’ll have to maintain an eight-hour-a-night sleep schedule afterward to prevent racking up another debt.

I, too, used to operate under the delusion that sleep was a luxury, especially during the workweek, and that any sleep deficiency I accumulated Monday through Thursday could be made up by sleeping until noon on Saturday and Sunday. Sleeping a full eight hours each night was unrealistic — an impediment to the important work I had to do. It was an act for the un-busy, the unserious and insufficiently caffeinated.

Sleep was for the weak.

But what I’ve since come to learn is that all of these supposedly time-consuming self-help behaviors we hear about — such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, meditating, stretching and taking frequent walking breaks throughout the work day — are actually time-saving behaviors.

It’s a quality vs. quantity calculation. Self-care activities might cut into your work time, but practicing them ensures you’ll be sharper and more productive during the hours you do spend working.

So don’t tell yourself, “Ah, I’ll just make up for it by sleeping in on the weekend.” Because you’re not making up for shit. Go to bed at the same time every day, sleep eight hours and spend your waking moments at 100 percent.