When it comes to time, certain narratives get repeated a lot. One is that we are all increasingly sleep-deprived. Certainly, some people are sleep-deprived; probably a number of readers of this blog! Many people have bad nights here and there. I know I do. Human nature means these bad nights stand out more in the mind than the good nights. However, looking at time diary data from the American Time Use Survey, we find that the average American sleeps 8.8 hours per day. This comes out to 8.54 hours on weekdays and 9.40 on weekends and holidays. Even employed people with children under 18 years of age in their households slept 8.44 hours/day on average. This breaks down as 8.30 for men and 8.58 for women.*
On one hand, these figures look like they are worth celebrating. Generally people talk about getting 8 hours/day as a good number, and it seems the average person is hitting this.
On the other hand, there is some interesting new research finding that the 8 hours target is not based on solid evidence. Indeed, large studies are finding that people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours tend to do best. Both short sleepers (less than 6.5 hours) and long sleepers tend to do worse on various metrics, but the definition of long sleeping, where the problems start, seems to be right around 8 hours.
The question of correlation vs. causation is of course tricky here. It is unclear if long sleepers would improve outcomes by sleeping less. It is possible that some people need more sleep, and these people also have worse health outcomes, but if they slept less they’d still have bad outcomes and feel miserably sleep-deprived. But this does hint intriguingly at a very different story line. The average American is not sleeping too little. It may instead be true that the average American is sleeping too much for optimal health.
When I spent the past year tracking my time, I learned I spent 51.81 hours/week sleeping. This comes out to 7.40 hours/day. The quality was not as good as I would have liked. I logged 146 interrupted nights, and I defined an interrupted night as being woken up before 4:30 A.M. (after that, it’s just a short night!) So 146 probably understates the non-optimal nature of my toddler’s sleeping, and hence mine.
However, I think the quantity is probably about where it should be. I have logged weeks in the past when I was not caring for a toddler and the totals came up pretty similarly — somewhere around 52 hours/week. In general, I think my body needs just a bit under 7.5 hours, and one way or another, I tend to get it.
These past 16 months have featured a lot of “one way or another.” Right now I am making myself go to bed strictly at 10:30 P.M. because I never know for sure when the day will start, or if I will be woken in the middle of the night. It is happening less than it used to, but it still happens. I do not set an alarm because I know I will be woken up, and also because I want to capture any extra minutes of sleep I can to make up for the shorter nights. As a mom of four, I know from past experience that things will be different in another 12-18 months. And so I have been pondering what I would like my sleep schedule to look like when the littlest is 3 years old.
I think ideally I will go to bed around 10:45 and wake up at 6:00. I will work or read for an hour before starting the day with showers and kid routines. This weekday total of 7.25 hours will be supplemented by a few extra minutes on weekends. That is the key problem now, that I cannot make up the time easily on weekends without arranging for a nap. Having the extra hour in the morning on weekdays will give me some extra time for things I want to do.
It is not that I will be sleeping less or more, it is that the sleep will be more orderly and planned. That makes it possible to use the time in chosen ways.
Interestingly, the idea of sleeping a wee bit less was one of Linda Formichelli’s suggestions in this blog post on how to have an extra hour a day for fun. If you are sleeping 8.8 hours/day on average, cutting this down to 7.8 hours does open up space — if it is not a tip you’ll read many other places. I know from logging my time that under 6 hours is the danger zone for me. I stop being able to function. Between 6-6.5 is functional foggy. 6.5 to 7 is only mildly foggy. Anywhere between 7-7.5 hours is generally great.
* New here? A quick introduction to the ATUS — this is an annual survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Researchers ask thousands of Americans to report how they spent yesterday (rolling throughout the year, so all days basically become yesterday at some point). This methodology tends to get different answers than asking people how they spent a “typical” day, which is a judgement call. Since researchers aren’t asking about any specific category of time, this methodology also reduces the temptation for people to give socially desirable answers.
In other news: Linda, who has guest-posted here before, has a new book out called How To Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out with a Sharpie.