Your sleep habits influence more than you might realize. Getting ample sleep each night is correlated with higher levels of alertness, concentration, cognitive ability and memory. On top of that, chronic sleep problems can interfere with your physical and mental health in other ways, influencing the onset of depression, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, among other conditions.
These are facts we all know, of course. But the answer to a “better” night’s sleep may not be as straightforward as you imagine. The conventional solutions are to go to bed earlier, get more in each night and wake up consistently at the same time. But some of the most successful people — in business, politics and other endeavors — have managed to rise to success with much stranger habits in place.
1. Winston Churchill napped every day.
We tend to associate napping with lazy people, or those who are overworked. But if harnessed properly, napping can be a powerful way to boost your energy midday.
Winston Churchill, even at the height of World War II, made it a point to nap for at least an hour each afternoon, giving him enough energy to work well into the evening. In the first volume of his six-volume memoir The Second World War, Churchill wrote, “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”
2. Margaret Thatcher got by on four hours of sleep each night.
What would you do if you had 20 extra hours of productivity to spend during the day? At least some of Margaret Thatcher’s political success can be attributed to the fact that she slept only four hours per night. But before you set your alarm for a four-hour sleep schedule, you should know that Thatcher may have had a specific gene responsible for allowing her to get by on such little sleep.
In other words, you can’t rely on sheer force of will to remain productive on a sleep schedule this brutal; most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
3. Honore de Balzac slept twice and filled in the gaps with coffee.
French novelist and playwright Balzac was famous for drinking 50 cups of coffee a day; reports on this vary, including some accounts that the real number ranged between 20 and 40 cups and some that the number was as high as 300 cups per day.
Wherever the truth lay, it’s certain that Balzac loved coffee and used it to get through his day. The playwright also had a strange, two-phase sleep schedule which he described as, “I go to bed at 6 or 7 in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I work until 8; at 8, I sleep again for an hour-and-a-half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until 4.”
Though he got the conventionally recommended 7 to 9 hours, he broke it up in an unusual way.
4. Thomas Edison believed too much sleep was a bad thing.
Edison, famous for his countless inventions and brilliant thinking, wasn’t ahead of the curve when it came to sleep habits and physical health. He saw sleep as only a semi-necessary indulgence, writing, “People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 percent. Most people overeat 100 percent, and oversleep 100 percent, because they like it. That extra 100 percent makes them unhealthy and inefficient.”
Edison went on to claim that he never slept more than four or five hours per night, but declared his repose to be “real” sleep.
5. Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla became ubermen.
Legend would have it that the great artist Leonardo da Vinci kept to a strict polyphasic sleep schedule, which meant he slept for more than two periods in a given day.
Instead of committing to one long period of sleep, at night, da Vinci followed the “uberman” schedule, taking six 20-minute naps throughout the day at regular intervals and thus, never sleeping for more than two hours a day.
Scientist/inventor Nikola Tesla attempted a similar schedule, attempting to spend more hours awake throughout the day. The idea behind this schedule is to force your body into the deepest and most important cycles of sleep during these concentrated periods, so you’ll “waste” less time sleeping.
However, there isn’t much empirical evidence to support the uberman schedule, and there are just as many anecdotal examples of failure as there are of success.
Should these successful people influence you to try a similar atypical sleep schedule,or experiment with a novel schedule of your own? Not necessarily. While these anecdotal examples worked out successfully for the individuals involved, there isn’t much empirical evidence to back the benefits (or side effects) of unusual sleep routines, especially those conducted over a long period of time.
So, the upshot then? Experiment all you like, but pay close attention to how changes to your sleep habits affect your physical and mental health. Because your health is your priority.
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