On the morning of April 6, 2007, Arianna Huffington woke up on the floor, bleeding from her head.
She had collapsed, exhausted from weeks of working nonstop, cutting her eye and breaking her cheekbone on the corner of her desk on the way down. As doctor after doctor would tell her, this didn’t happen because of some serious medical condition—she had just pushed her sleep-deprived body to its limit. It was a wake-up call that forced Huffington to reevaluate her lifestyle, and sparked a newfound interest in sleep.
Nine years later, the co-founder of the Huffington Post is evangelical about the benefits of a full night’s rest, and even has a new book, “The Sleep Revolution,” dedicated to the topic. We caught up with Huffington to pick her brain about the need to unplug, our cultural obsession with being tired, and why she’s a religious napper.
You seem to be able to do it all—you run a successful website, you’ve written several books, and you’re renowned for your glittering social circle. Is it ironic that someone so busy wrote a book about sleep, or is it fitting?
Actually, it was the realization (after that painful wake-up call) that I could do it all much more effectively and joyfully if I got the sleep my body and my brain craved that led me to write a book about sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living. What I realized is that there are just 24 hours in the day and you have to prioritize. And what I’ve learned since then is not only is the idea that you must choose between sleep and success a false one, but that sleep is one of the key elements of success—and well-being, and health and happiness.
How do you make enough time to do everything you do, relax, and get plenty of sleep in your day-to-day life? Do you have a specific routine, or steps you follow?
It begins with prioritizing sleep. Once you understand just how important it is to every aspect of your life, making enough time becomes easier and easier. And I do have a specific routine. I believe that when we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us. So I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them outside my bedroom. I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby—a bath that I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried about something. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before bed. And when I’m really having trouble sleeping, or wake up with thoughts crowding my mind, I’ve found meditation to be a great remedy.
"Before bed, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them outside my bedroom."
In “The Sleep Revolution,” you mention struggling with sleep deprivation yourself. Could you tell us about your experience?
For many years, I subscribed to a very flawed definition of success, buying into our collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for success. My collapse was a direct result of this dangerous misconception. I believed, mistakenly, that whatever success I’d had was because of my burnout and not, as I’ve since come to realize, in spite of it. So now I’m trying to spread the word to others so they don’t make that false choice.
Skimping on sleep has almost become a sign of success. How did being tired become “cool”? And is that trend starting to reverse now?
Yes, one of the biggest sleep challenges is that when it comes to getting enough sleep, we’re all up against something much larger than ourselves—this idea that sleep deprivation is macho and tough and sign of dedication and commitment. It’s even part of our language, from “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” to “You snooze, you lose.” The method (or cheat code) we use isn’t a mystery: feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. In fact, up against this unforgiving definition of success, sleep doesn’t stand a chance.
Fortunately, as you suggest, the trend is starting to reverse. The good news is, we have a growing number of leaders in every field realizing that well-rested employees are better employees. In sports, in schools, in medicine, and in the workplace, sleep is finally beginning to claw its way back to the place of respect and reverence it deserves. But that has to start with changing how we think about sleep—and no longer incentivizing sleep deprivation by equating it with dedication and success. And that change alone will transform our culture.
Describe your morning routine.
I begin every morning by not doing something—not going immediately to my smartphone to check my emails and texts. Instead I take a minute to breathe deeply, be grateful, and set my intention for the day. Then I do 20 to 30 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes on my stationary bike, on days when I’m home. I also practice yoga most mornings.
Do you nap? Why or why not?
Yes! I like to nap in the couch in my office. My office has a glass wall looking over the newsroom, and I keep the curtains open when I nap—it sends a clear message to the newsroom that not only is there no stigma attached to napping, it’s also the best thing we can do to recharge ourselves. And the message is being received. We have two very popular nap rooms in our New York office, and I must admit there was skepticism when we first installed them back in 2011. HuffPosters were reluctant to be seen walking into a nap room in the middle of a bustling newsroom in “the city that never sleeps.” But now they are perpetually full, and we’re spreading nap rooms around the world.
"I keep the curtains open when I nap—it sends a clear message to the newsroom that not only is there no stigma attached to napping, it’s also the best thing we can do to recharge ourselves."
The Huffington Post was at the forefront of digital content publishing, which has spiraled into a 24-7 news cycle that didn’t really exist when print was king. How has digital culture impacted sleep and our attitudes and habits around it?
Digital culture has had a huge impact. Technology has allowed a growing number of us to carry our work with us, in our pockets and purses in the form of our phones, wherever we go. Our houses, our bedrooms—even our beds—are littered with beeping, vibrating, flashing screens. It’s the never-ending possibility of connecting—with friends, with strangers, with the entire world, with every TV show or movie ever made—with just the press of a button that is, not surprisingly, addictive. Humans are social creatures. We’re hard-wired to connect. Even when we’re not actually connecting digitally, we’re in a constant state of heightened anticipation. And always being in this state doesn’t exactly put us in the right frame of mind to wind down when it’s time to sleep. Though we don’t give much thought to how we put ourselves to bed, we have little resting places and refueling shrines all over our houses, like little doll beds, where our technology can recharge, even if we can’t. We’ll never be able to turn back the clock and remove technology and digital culture from our lives—nor would we want to—but the goal is manage it and find a way of living with it so it doesn’t disrupt essential elements of what we need to thrive, like sleep.
You use the term “presenteeism” to describe sleep-deprived employees who still make it into work every day. What do you mean by that? How does presenteeism affect productivity?
Presenteeism is when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused. They come to work exhausted, and it takes a toll on productivity. In fact, we sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the U.S. economy of more than $63 billion. So productive work is really about quality, not quantity.
People reading this Q&A might think, “so what—I’m a little tired.” What are some of the consequences of extreme sleep deprivation?
There are so many, it’s hard to list them all. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, feelings of loneliness, cognitive impairment, infertility, compromised decision making, fine lines, wrinkles, and more. And we also pay a price in terms of creativity, memory consolidation, our ability to learn and solve problems, our ability to manage stress and anxiety, and immune system function.
And it’s not just about the consequences about sleep deprivation, it’s about the incredible benefits of living life fully rested. Look no further than the world of elite athletes to see just how fully sleep has been embraced as the ultimate, and side effect–free, performance enhancer.
If someone is struggling to fit rest and relaxation into a busy schedule, what one tip would you share with them? When it comes to prioritizing sleep and health, what’s the first step someone should take?
It’s about taking small steps. Changing all our bad habits regarding sleep is not something we can achieve quickly. As with any other self-destructive pattern, making a lasting change requires taking small daily steps toward our goal. And the steps that will work for each of us are unique; we may need to try out a few different practices and rituals before landing on the right combination.
So as a first step that anyone can take, starting tonight, I recommend removing electronic devices from the equation. Don’t charge your phone next to your bed. Even better: gently escort all devices completely out of your bedroom.
And don’t beat yourself up when you fail—it’s a long process, with bumps along the way, but the rewards are worth it.
Photo credit: Arianna Huffington