Need a lot of sleep? How to cope

FullSizeRender-7I have been tracking my time for the last 19 months. When I ran the calculations on the first 12 months, I discovered I was sleeping 7.4 hours/day. When I ran the calculations for the next 6 months, I discovered I was sleeping…7.4 hours/day. In other words, I am pretty sure this is what my body is aiming for. To be sure, it is often a disjointed 7.4 hours. For the first few months of that, I had a newborn. The newborn turned into a really crappy sleeper. The night before I wrote this post, he got up at 2, and I had trouble getting him back down. At one point, I must have fallen asleep on the bed in his room, because when I woke up at 3:30, he was asleep on the floor in front of the door, thwarted in his escape by the baby lock. I snuck out and left him lying there. I tossed and turned a bit but fell asleep around 4, I think. The good news? He proceeded to sleep until 6:30. Since I had gone to bed around 9:30, I got…around 7.4 hours of sleep. If he had woken up at 5 or 5:30, I probably would have tried to take a nap in the afternoon. Some weeks are better or worse than others, but between naps, trading off with my husband, or going to bed earlier, that’s how I wind up arriving at a pretty set number, averaged over the long haul.

I know not everyone can take naps during the day (or has a spouse to trade off with on the kid front). But when I studied the time logs I collected for I Know How She Does It, I saw a fair number of catching up strategies. Someone might turn off an alarm, and accept that a morning workout would not happen (or a first meeting might be taken by phone from the car). People fell asleep in their kids’ rooms at night, or on the couch in front of the TV. People slept in on weekends if they had older kids. Such sleep is likely worse quality than a solid 7-8 hours in one’s bed nightly, but for people who are not chronic insomniacs,* the catch-up function can be pretty strong.

Here’s the tricky part, though: the number people’s bodies aim at can be incredibly different. I was thinking of this after blog reader Megan posted a comment on a previous thread noting that her long-term average was about 8.5 hours/day. She travels frequently for work, and had noticed that in the time colleagues were sleeping, getting a workout in, and having breakfast, she was just sleeping.

On the I Know How She Does It logs, I saw a few women who definitely needed less sleep than other people. One high-energy woman was able to do quite well on 6 hours of sleep a day. She never napped during the week and when I asked about it, she noted that this was how much she slept on vacations too. In her case, it enabled her to run two businesses while being the primary caregiver for her children. A few other people with averages of around 6.5-7 hours/day mentioned not setting alarms. They popped out of bed, alert, with that much sleep.

But other people like Megan need 8.5 hours, or even more. These are normal numbers. While the recommendations keep moving, over the past few decades the recommendation has generally been 7-9 hours/day. It’s just that since we all have 24 hours/day, needing 7.5 hours opens up an extra hour per day over someone who needs 8.5 hours. In a year that is 365 hours. In a decade, that’s about 3700 hours with leap years. This is the equivalent of almost 2 extra years of full-time work. It’s enough to meet — and double! — the recommended aerobic exercise guidelines. Or consider that when I tracked my time for a year, I found I read 327 hours. That’s a reasonable chunk, but it’s still less time than the gap between needing 7.4 hours and needing 8.5 hours of sleep. And while I might be on the lower side, I am still higher than some people. Looking at my husband, he seems to do OK with 6.5 hours. The ability to stay out until midnight socializing and networking, and then still be alert in a 7:30 a.m. meeting, can be a competitive advantage.

So if you happen to be a higher sleep needs person, what can you do about it?

Unfortunately, I am not sure it’s possible to train yourself to sleep less. Some people think it is. However I generally think these people are training themselves to deal with a deficit over the week and then make it up on weekends. And sometimes the catch-up starts by the end of the week. They come in a little later on Friday, or crash in front of the TV Thursday night. A “typical” night is 6 hours but stretches to 7 and then to 8 or 9 over the weekends, coming out to a far more reasonable 7 and change averaged over 168 hours. Over the long run, I generally think that time “saved” by sleeping less than one’s biological minimum will be lost in poor focus, mistakes, etc.

Instead, I think the best strategy is to accept reality. We all have our physical limitations; of physical limitations one could be dealt, needing more than 8 hours of sleep is not that tragic as these things go. Instead, as with much in life, it’s better to try to make the most of the time you have, rather than wish for time you don’t have.

What does that mean, practically? If you can’t stay out late at dinners, try taking people out for lunch or breakfast or coffee, or do other non-night time bonding activities (for all its baggage as a business activity, that is an upside of golf). If you’ve got an intense work and family schedule, you may not be able to watch as much TV as other people do, but that’s probably the easiest thing to sacrifice. Shorter, more intense workouts might be a better bet than longer ones. If you can’t stay up late responding to emails and cranking out projects, you will have to emphasize other competitive advantages that don’t involve sheer hours of availability. Minimizing distractions and prioritizing work projects are good ideas for everyone, but particularly for people who don’t have an extra 90 minutes to play around with daily.

If you’ve got higher sleep needs than average, how do you structure your life to deal with those requirements?

*Many people with chronic insomnia don’t have this catch-up mechanism. Chronic insomnia is a serious medical issue that needs to be treated in its own way.

24 thoughts on “Need a lot of sleep? How to cope

  1. When I was younger and my children were younger, I got far less sleep and would play catch up on the weekends when I could swap out with my husband. As I have gotten older, I am definitely in the 8.5 hour camp. My perfect sleep schedule is 9:00-5:30. I can wake up without an alarm clock and I feel refreshed. Yet, getting in bed by 9:00 is an almost impossible task. I don’t work past 5:00 most days, but many of my kids activities run past 8 or 9:00. Away ball games are the main culprit. Until they can drive themselves or got to college I don’t see this changing.
    I wonder about those that need significantly less though. My husband operates fine on 6 hours a night. However, I have noticed that he takes more and longer built in breaks during the day. On weekends, he will lounge in his chair for 30 minutes here and there sometimes with his eyes closed. Although he is not sleeping., he is resting. And he has explained to me that at his workplace he often has long lulls where he is not working. I have to wonder if this is contributing to his requiring less sleep. On the other end of the spectrum I have a friend that swears she needs 9-10 hours. If she doesn’t get it at night, she will need a nap during the day. She is incredibly productive even though she has far fewer waking hours than the average person.
    I guess I wonder if some people truly need less sleep, but have built in little measures to cope with less (beyond the catching up on weekends).

  2. My husband thinks I sleep too much and that it is unhealthy. I love to go to bed at 8pm; I can wake up at 6 to 6:30am and feel wonderful – and it lasts all day! If I go to bed at 10, I feel foggy and horrible at 6 am and it affects my mood all day. I read that Stonewall Jackson required 10 hours of sleep a night, and that’s one thing that makes me think I don’t have something wrong with me – I just need more sleep than others in order for me to feel good. When my grandkids are over for the weekend we stay up to 10, 11 or even midnight the first night. I still feel good the next day I think because of my built up sleep. But the next night I am ready for bed at 8 (of course that doesn’t happen). But after they leave I go to bed super early like 7pm, and later in the week I take a nap on a day off work.

    1. Dear Cathy, sorry for the explicitness but I think if sleeping 10 hrs makes you a happy wife, your husband shouldn’t complain :). I go to bed around 9 (hubby finds this boring) but I do morning shift with our kids from 6am onwards while he sleeps in. Same story I think. Have a great life!

  3. I love your sleep posts, especially when you talk about how you manage when young children throw wrenches into your plans to sleep.

    My baby was sleeping 10-12 hours a night until a week or two ago, when she started sleeping 6-8 hours a night… until last night, when she slept for about 4 hours. Praying that this is just a phase, because it would mean a world of difference.

    1. @Christine- I hope for your sake just a phase! My little guy has a cold, which I don’t think is helping matters. Last night was a near newborn schedule: up at 1 a.m., up at 4:30 a.m. (and that time for good).

  4. This makes me want to cry 🙂 Not only do I really need 8.5-9 hours of sleep (more during the 4-month solo parenting stints I do 1-2x a year), I am a night owl. That means while I can easily fall back asleep at any point — 3 am or 8 am — I really have a tough time getting to sleep before 11, even if I go to bed early. No matter how tired I am. It’s tough right now in this small-kid stage, and I cope with it (not gracefully) by working fewer hours daily and working weekends, and still working less overall. Even when I am able to wake up before 7, it takes at least an hour before I am alert, and right now my days are exhausting enough that I’m not very productive or creative after 8pm anyway, so I save that 8-10pm chunk for things like listmaking and reading. It’s not ideal, and I am not happy about postponing some things for some nebulous different future.

    1. @Meghan – I don’t naturally want to go to bed early either. I have been trying two things. One is having a very stern conversation with myself in the evening that 75% of what I’m doing in the last hour before I go to sleep (reading magazines or stories online) can be done in the morning with the baby awake and watching Dora. Whereas I cannot sleep with him awake. So I should make the appropriate choice. Second: melatonin. It makes it much easier to fall asleep, and if I know I’m probably not going to be lying awake long it makes it seem less wasteful to go to bed early.

      1. Hm, I’ve not tried melatonin yet — I’m not really a supplement person, so I’ll have to think more about it. I’m curious, though. I guess I could read fiction in the morning instead of the evening, but at that point, why bother switching up my bedtime/wake time? My kids are finally past the up-before-7 am stage, so I don’t have to get up. I don’t know — some things to consider, for sure, and I’m not going to try to turn this into a personal time consult in the comments 😉 Maybe I’ll just throw in the towel and just keep going the way I’m going, but stop feeling bad about it, and be glad I set my own work hours, more or less!

        1. I second the melatonin recommendation. I’m also a night owl who needs a lot of sleep and can fall right back to sleep if I wake up any time before 10am. I don’t use it all the time, but for times when I need to get up early and function, say a work conference that starts at 8am.

    2. Yesss this is me too, and I work in an early bird industry! So I am always struggling with this dilemma: do I go in at 6:30 or 7:00 like my peers (I won’t be productive), or go in at our ‘official’ start time (8:00), and stay later if needed? The answer changes all the time. I hate the ‘for appearances’ thought but it’s really more of a gray area: early meetings for me or my supvr, expectations of others that I’ll be there to answer questions.

      One thing that helped a bit was going on thyroid meds (even though I was always in the normal range, I was on the high end of it) – I was finally able to drop my ‘no engineering before 9am’ rule!

      This whole subject is why I found Laura’s blog originally (from her what successful people do in the morning book – wanting so much to be productive in the morning!) And it was a great message but I’m also glad the blog covers real world obstacles like this one.

      Love the comment ‘of physical limitations one could be dealt, this is not a bad one’.

  5. I’ve been fighting fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue for over 20 years now and I really need over 9 a day without exception. I’ve had stints where I was busy and made it on 7 but couldn’t keep it up for more than a few weeks at a time. Lately I have serious crashes (losing at least a half a day to sleep) if I’m not consistent on a regular basis. Exercise makes it so much worse. A marathon shopping trip, gardening morning or a theme park day can cause a crash that will last 2 or 3 days with excruciating pain. Dropping gluten helped, but didn’t make it go away. I’ve had to drop my expectations for life and I’m over the grief of that. I do what I can, when I can and it’s ok. I still have three main focus areas for my life’s work but I only do what I am truly passionate about or am driven by the Holy Spirit to do. No more volunteering for this or that because it sounds like it might be fun. That hurts sometimes, but I still get to do the core passions of my heart most of the time. Thanks for writing. I do appreciate your books and posts. They remind me that I still have some control over what happens in my life, even when it may be less than before.

    1. @Tricia – thanks for your comment. If high sleep needs are connected to other physical challenges then yes, this is going to add a lot more complications to solving these issues. It sounds like you’ve made some very wise choices on how to use the time you have for what matters to you. Thank you so much for reading!

  6. I feel like I need 7.5-8 hours a night during the week and then catch up with 9 hours a night or a nap on the weekend. My husband thinks I just love naps; however, I feel terrible if I don’t get in a long nap at least once on the weekend. Admittedly, I need to exercise more which would probably improve my energy.

    I try to be super efficient with the hours I have, but I’m pretty useless after 8pm. I just read and fold laundry until 10 and then hit the hay. I would say, “I’ll get up early and get more done”, but my body hates me if I get up before 6am. It just doesn’t happen.

  7. I have a problem similar to Meghan. I need a good amount of sleep, but am a night owl. Fortunately, I’ve been able to adjust my hours at work, so I don’t need to be there until 10:00 or so. It has made a big difference in my well-being and productivity. I used to waste most of my first hour in the office when I was there earlier – usually in a zombie-like daze.

  8. Once I got past the sleep deprivation from having babies/young toddlers, I realized that I need 9 hours. I can function on 6 better than I can with 7 or 8, interestingly, so it must be a sleep cycle thing.

    I am also a night owl, but I have trained myself to shift my schedule. On great days I’m up and out of bed by 5:30am. But most days I am asleep by 9/up at 6, which is still an hour before I’m required to be on Mom duty.

    One thing I’ve really concentrated on to get to sleep earlier is “sleep hygiene” – no caffeine after lunch, no alcohol, no screens after 7 (hard!), take a shower or bath at night, and read for 30 min before bed. That kind of routine makes it much easier for me to fall asleep.

    I prioritize sleep over working out. I’d rather get 9 hours of sleep and then figure out how I’m going to squeeze in some walking later in the day than sacrifice an hour of sleep to walk. Granted I’m not in great shape — and maybe, if I were in better shape I’d need less sleep, so there’s that.

    But I am MUCH happier, smarter, and much nicer when I’ve gotten my full allotment of sleep.

    I’ve noticed on days when I’m up before 6, I am pretty much useless by 8pm anyway so if I let myself stay awake, I’ll just be pointlessly surfing the Internet. So I think it’s a better use of my time to just go to bed, and then have an hour or more in the am when I’m firing on all cylinders to really get some good stuff done.

    Something I learned from Laura was to have a “reward” for waking up early so instead of hitting the gym, I make tea, write in my journal, meditate, or work on some kind of crafty thing. After that I’ll try to walk for 30 min.

    It has been really amazing to start my day with stuff *I* like than getting jarred out of bed by children fighting in the bathroom 😉

    1. Yes, this is 100% my experience. Thanks for the reminders about how great it can be to have that breathing space before the kids wake up. It’s just so hard to train myself to actually push through that first 15 minutes when all I want to do is climb back in bed. I was doing great until last Wednesday. Anyone interested in an accountability group? 🙂

  9. Hi Laura, I really appreciate this post, and I owe you thanks for helping me to get my sleep back on track. I never realised how little I was getting until I first tracked my time for a week. A year ago I was getting less than 7 hours on week nights, and lying in a bit on weekends but not catching up properly. I have since become more aware of my habits by wearing a fitbit. I cut down on evening relaxation time and TV (hard at first!) and now average 8 to 8.5 hours most weeks. I truly believe this has been one significant factor in helping pull myself up out of depression and anxiety without turning to medication, so THANK YOU. I have learned that the price I pay by sleeping too little is really NOT worth it.

    I totally agree with your suggestion to do short, intense exercise too. I used to feel it was not worth it to work out for less than 30 mins, or that I wouldn’t get a “proper” workout. But as a morning exercise routine is just not going to work for me, I now will go for just 10 to 13 mins on a treadmill at lunchtime at my work gym or do an intense 15 min workout DVD at home some time during the day. Even if it’s not perfect I feel so much better and it gets done without shortening my sleep window.

    Feeling your pain with your lovely littlest one. Hang on in there!

    1. @Cate- wow, you just made my day. I’m so glad that getting more sleep has been so positively life-changing for you. And yes, on the exercise front, something is so much better than nothing. Last night I did a quick 20 minute walk outside during my son’s wrestling practice. It was quite nice (I’ll bring better shoes and go longer next time) and all I gave up was 20 minutes of phone scrolling.

  10. I agree that our bodies tell us how much sleep we need. With a newborn at home, I definitely don’t get enough sleep at night, but I do make time for a nap during the day. I never used to be able to nap, and I’m grateful to have required the knack of it: my body seems to wake itself up after a certain number of minutes, and I feel so refreshed. Yesterday my post-nap writing session (while the baby was still napping) was incredibly productive.
    I also like the trick of drinking a cup of coffee and then lying down for a nap. I wake up even more energized, and it keeps me going until bedtime.

  11. One suggestion I came across for napping recently was to set a timer for 26 minutes–it takes the average person 6 minutes to fall asleep, and then 20 minutes is enough time to get sleep and feel refreshed without falling into REM sleep (if you need longer, go for 90 minutes for optimum sleep cycles). I’ve tried it a few times and it works for me.

    Exercise helps me a lot, as does cutting back on sugar and carbs. A few years ago I felt exhausted and sluggish most of the time and went through a battery of tests. Eventually I figured out that a lower carb/sugar intake works best for me.

  12. I’m so tickled you responded to my comment!:-) Thank you! (And, can you tell I catch up on my favorite blogs in batch processing mode every few weeks?:-))

    Thank you very much for addressing this issue. You are right, as far as physical limitations go, it’s not a bad one, and that is a good way to frame things. I also wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion for shorter workouts; I also find I tend to want to combine exercise with normal life (e.g. bike to work) to maximize efficiency. I will say, in general, this need of mine has resulted in my being super efficient with the use of my time, and this is probably a strength I need to remember to be grateful for on the days when I’m frustrated by my sleep needs.

    The aspect of this being a competitive advantage in the business world in real, too. I have a pretty successful career, but I also realize I probably couldn’t do anything more high-powered than what I currently do. (I also always knew I couldn’t survive residency, so being a doctor was out:-() I think a hidden criteria for making it to higher levels of leadership in my field is the ability to handle lack of sleep, sleep disruption, and jet lag well. So far I don’t think my bosses realize I’m at my limit as things currently are; I’m kinda curious what’s going to happen as my career progresses (or doesn’t).
    One other comment I’ll make for people who may be reading this with high sleep needs – I’ve noticed that when I need to leave an evening thing early, it is far far better if I just a) leave without saying anything and send the host a thank you the next day, or b) say “Sorry to leave, I’ve got an early appointment”, rather than my overly earnest “I’m heading home now, I’m tired”, which seems to somehow invite conversation and push back.

    Thanks again for addressing this issue!

    1. @Megan – thanks for raising the issue! It was a topic that resonated with a lot of readers. I agree that it’s an interesting question in terms of competitive advantage in the business world. I really don’t think it’s that some people can live on 4 hours of sleep a night (which is kind of ridiculous). It’s that there is a legitimate and real difference between needing 7 and needing 8.5 (or some such). These are both within the normal range, but one places more limitations on life than the other. It’s something I’m going to keep pondering…

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