Sleep Deprivation is Making You Dumber

Before I worked for UserScape and Snappy, I worked at a university. It was a steady job and it paid the bills. But it wasn’t especially fulfilling. I found myself building “side hustles” to scratch that creative and entrepreneurial itch.

The most successful of these was an Etsy shop I opened. By most measures, it was a triumphant little venture, bringing in dozens of sales each week.

Of course, I was selling a physical product, and a hand-made, custom one at that, so filling orders took time. As did customer support, marketing, sales, and all the nitty gritty business stuff behind the scenes.

I still had that full-time university job. And two kids. And physics being what it is, the universe didn’t care how much I had to do. I still had the same number of hours in each day.

So I did what any good entrepreneur does: I quit sleeping!

You’ve met Old Me: I was the woman with a caffeinated beverage in one hand, cell phone in the other, a little bit of wild panic in her eyes at all times. And all of my conversations went like this: “Oh, I am so exhausted. My life is so, so crazy. It’s ridiculous. I never sleep.”

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @BeSnappy”]Sleep is generally the first thing we sacrifice when we start to get busy.[/inlinetweet]  Eight hours of sleep is a full third of my valuable time! Come on! Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I know I’m not alone in this. Anybody who has started a business has dealt with the sleep-or-work conflict.

I sometimes lurk around over at, a forum for founders of small businesses (most of them bootstrapped); Ian, Snappy’s founder, is one of the admins over there, so he introduced me to it.  And sleep was recently a pretty hot topic on the boards, kicked off by this question:


You can read the full thread here.

I was a little surprised by the answers: overwhelmingly, people said this user was asking the wrong question. That it’s not about sleeping less…it’s about sleeping MORE.

In my own mini-entrepreneurship, I was all about sleeping less. And less. And less.

Related: I’m not in business anymore.

What I built was profitable and exciting, but ultimately unsustainable, and in the end, kind of an epic fail. That’s fine by me, I’m much happier now. But if you want your business to succeed? And you don’t want to kill yourself? Well, survey says: you should probably sleep.

Snappy’s own founder, Ian, had this to say:

I used to only sleep about 5-6 interrupted hours. I’ve been making a real effort to get more lately though so up to around 7-8 (sometimes still interrupted by kids). You do feel a world of difference. It’s a lot to balance with a business and 3 kids so especially as you get older you have to try and make time to sleep.

I think we can all agree that we perform better on a day-to-day basis when we’re sleeping well. That alone should be enough to convince us all to change our ways, if getting more done better is the goal.

But there are other reasons to make sleep a priority.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows that sleep deprivation may actually lead to irreversible brain damage.

Yeah. I said brain damage.

In the study, extended periods of sleeplessness in mice were shown to result in damage and even death of a particular type of neuron, one that’s responsible for alertness and intellect.

A later, related study done on humans confirmed that even after 3 days of makeup sleep, college students previously deprived of sleep continued to show lapses in attention, suggesting “residual injury” to their brains.

So catching up on sleep by snoozing straight through the weekend? Well, it may help you feel a little better come Monday, but it does not make those neurons grow back.

When they’re gone, they’re gone.

Which means going months at a time routinely depriving yourself of sleep doesn’t just make you tired. It could actually make you a little dumber. Like…forever.

Not exactly conducive to long-term success, right?

These days, I do everything I can to get a full night’s sleep. But then again, I closed my busy little Etsy shop just in time to avoid a nervous breakdown, and never looked back. That was never my Plan A, and it cost me little to lose it.

What about you? Maybe your Plan A is what’s keeping you up at night. You might be deep in the process of launching your startup. Or maybe you’re just busy running your business, day to day, and sometimes night to night. Maybe you’re a working mom, like me, trying to find some time for yourself, and taking it when you should be sleeping.

There’s no doubt that it takes a lot of time and effort to build something that matters. And yet, the business owners over in the Bootstrapped forums (and really, successful people everywhere) seem to agree that it’s worth the effort to make sleep a priority. So how do you do both?

Remember that not all tasks are equally important.

Sometimes you have to let something go undone in order to focus on the bigger rocks. The dishes can wait until tomorrow. I promise. And whatever big project you’re working on will get done better and quicker if you’re well-rested and focused.

I  think that’s what it comes down to, in the end: You don’t want to work more. You want to work better. You want to accomplish more, not spend more hours to accomplish less. And if you’re not sleeping well, you are not working at your optimal levels.

[Tweet “You don’t want to work more. You want to work better.”]

This is one of the things I’m constantly having to remind myself, and one of the things I’ll probably be writing more about on this blog. I think we can all use some reminders and new ideas about how to use our time wisely, how to prioritize, and how to be the best and most productive versions of ourselves. I’ve certainly learned a few lessons in my own life, and I know all of you have stories, too.

So let me know what you think. How do you make sleep a priority? How do you make the most of the time you have, so your waking hours are productive and efficient, leaving you the time and peace of mind to get the sleep your body needs?

How many hours a night do you sleep?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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