In the introduction to 168 Hours, I quote a young woman who was answering a survey question about combining work and motherhood. Asked about her strategy, she said “I plan never to sleep.”
While that might be extreme, we certainly hear, frequently, that working mothers — and perhaps these days, fathers — must be exhausted. The National Sleep Foundation’s press release on its poll on women and sleep in 2007 claimed that working moms of school aged kids spent less than 6 hours in bed per night on weekdays. (I recently read through the whole report, and it appears that this was incorrectly reported in the release — the summary of the “briefcases and backpacks” demographic says they spend less than 6 hours in bed, but the small print just says they’re more likely to spend less than 6 hours in bed than other women — 17% vs. 12%. But the 6-hour average is how this was widely reported).
But here’s a different statistic. According to the American Time Use Survey (which generally has a better methodology than the NSF), working moms of kids aged 6-17 sleep, on average, 8.36 hours per 24-hour period. Working moms of pre-school aged kids (under 6) also average more than 8 hours.
When I use that statistic in conversation or speeches, people look at me like I’m crazy. But I’ve had a lot of people keep time logs over the years, and even very successful people (and perhaps “even” is the wrong word in this sentence) tend to get adequate amounts of sleep. Recently, I gave a speech at a company with a reputation for long hours. This was for the women’s group, and so I had several of the more senior women keep time logs. Guess how much they were sleeping?
51-56 hours per week, which comes out to 7-8 hours per night.
That doesn’t mean that some nights weren’t bad. Someone getting on a 6 a.m. flight was up at 4 a.m. That was not an 8-hour night. But even without sleeping 13 hours a night on weekends, people manage to make it up over time. We need a certain amount of sleep to function, and so we figure out ways to get it. We skip a TV show and go to bed early some nights. We demand a partner take the baby in the morning after a particularly bad night. We plan to get up early…and don’t. Over time, this averages out, even if our impressions of our life are sometimes different.
When I say that, in general, even busy parents tend to sleep, sometimes people get angry. That’s because they’re remembering the bad nights. Indeed, if I didn’t know these statistics, I might be angry at the moment. I’m posting this at 6:50 a.m. after a lousy night that involved being up with the baby from 1-2:45 a.m., then back up with her at 5:45 a.m. But since I do know the stats, rather than being exasperated, I find these statistics inspiring. I’d love to find that young woman in the survey and say “Hey, guess what! You will get to sleep!” The idea of combining a big career with a big family is less intimidating if you know that it doesn’t have to mean chronic sleep deprivation.