#SleepRevolution: Arianna Huffington on Why Sleep Should Be Your #1 To-Do
Why should we fundamentally change the way we think about sleep? In her latest book The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington succinctly sums up the arguments around the importance of sleep that she has been making in books and speeches for almost a decade now. “Come for the job-enhancing benefits,” she says, “stay for the life-enhancing opportunities.”
Huffington really pushed this point in our conversation last week. I learned that her sleep revolution isn’t just about convincing people to sleep more so that they’re more productive and healthy (although that’s partly the point, because every day a new scientific paper comes out connecting sleep deprivation to poor decision-making and serious, even life-threatening ailments and illnesses). The Sleep Revolution is about recognizing that we’re sacrificing ourselves too much. We’re not living the right way, and as a result of too much work, too little sleep, too much stress, too little nourishment, we’re suffering.
So Huffington’s revolution is about changing the way we think about our days and our lives. Instead of sacrificing our health to cram in more hours at the office, we have re-organize and re-prioritize how we spend our time. That way, we can work our best and still have time to take care of ourselves, get a full night’s sleep, and, you know, be happy.
Anyway, I’m really excited to put this edition of the Blinkist podcast out there. If you’re at your desk and don’t have headphones with you, you can read the transcript of the interview with Huffington below. You’ll find out Huffington’s sleep ritual, what to do with your alarm clock, and why the sleep revolution is so important to her (and to us!).
A conversation with Arianna Huffington
Ben Schuman-Stoler: This is really really cool that we could make this happen.
Arianna Huffington: I love what you’re doing with Blinkist!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Cool, ok, we have like 20 mins and we’re doing an edition of our magazine on sleep, which is obviously in your wheelhouse.
Arianna Huffington: Great, fantastic!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: To start, I wanted to tell you this little story because this thing that you’ve done is pretty strong. I was reading your book this weekend and you have this quote: “Each night the sleep train would pass through my life, headed for the sleep gate, and I would do whatever I could to make sure I wasn’t on it.”
Arianna Huffington: Yes.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: And so last night I was pretty exhausted and I knew I was going to be talking to you today, so I wanted to get a good night’s sleep and so my girlfriend was messing around, brushing her teeth, doing whatever, and I said, “Lilli, hurry up and get into bed before my sleep train leaves!”
Arianna Huffington: Oh my god!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: I ended up going into this long thing about sleep/wake homeostasis, primary sleepiness zone, the sleep gate, all this stuff.
Arianna Huffington: Oh my god I love that, that makes me feel so good, because the sleep gate and catching the midnight train, as I call is it, is a very important part of my life and my transition, so I’m glad to hear that it’s become part of yours too. And maybe, you know what, if you want to write about it, we’re trying to collect at HuffPost (and we can publish it in German too) stories from people and how they’re making changes in their lives. Because when people read it, it helps them.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Yeah yeah yeah, that’s a great idea. So can you take us through the journey of how you got to here?
Arianna Huffington: Yes, so it starts in 2007 because that’s when I collapsed from sleep deprivation and burnout. And that was my wake-up call to realize that the way I was living my life – buying into the collective delusion that burnout is the way to succeed – was not sustainable and was actually undermining both my health and my productivity and actually my happiness. So that’s when I started reading a lot about the latest scientific findings on sleep and burnout and beginning to change my life and writing first Thrive, my book about redefining success, and then The Sleep Revolution, delving into all the ways in which through the industrial revolution we started devaluing and scorning sleep and how all the latest science makes it so clear that actually sleep is not negotiable, it’s one of the three pillars of our health. It’s actually the first pillar, followed by nutrition and exercise. Without sleep, it’s like trying to have a good life on a two-legged stool; sooner or later you fall off.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: That’s great. I’ve read Thrive and we all like it in the office. But there’s something about the sleep book, as if something inside of you is driving you, like this is so important. Almost like you’re afraid we’re going to destroy ourselves or something.
Arianna Huffington: Yes, actually, I do feel that way in the sense that there’s a lot of suffering in the world and there’s a lot of suffering that we cannot immediately do anything about. But this is suffering that we actually bring on ourselves. It’s self-inflicted. And I use the word suffering deliberately because it has such a profound effect on our health, it literally affects every aspect of our health, from obesity and diabetes to cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer’s and I’ve explored all that in the science chapter because I want people to really change their minds about the importance of sleep, profoundly. Not just pay lip service – “Oh, yeah yeah when I get enough sleep I feel much better” – but actually recognizing the damage they’re doing to our health. Both immediately, we all know anecdotally that when we’re run-down and haven’t slept we are more likely to catch a cold, or we are more likely to overeat, but now we have the science that shows that actually, when we’re sleep deprived, all these hormones are activated that actually make us crave all the wrong things, like bad carbs and sugars. It’s kind of ironic that there are people who get up super early to go to the gym and one of their goals is to lose or maintain their weight and they’re surprised that, in fact, they’re overeating during the day to try and power through and deal with their sleep deprivation.
But this is kind of the obvious stuff that we can all recognize from our lives. But then people really haven’t known until very recently the connection between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s, how it’s actually during sleep that there is this frenetic activity in the brain of cleaning up all the toxic waste that has accumulated throughout the day and if we don’t give our brains the opportunity to do that, all this toxic waste accumulates and that’s the build-up that leads to Alzheimer’s.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: There’s this wrong idea that when we sleep nothing is happening, right? That sleep is wasted time.
Arianna Huffington: Yes, exactly.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: But in Chinese Medicine, for example, they’ve known for thousands of years that it’s as important as eating, it’s nourishment. So how do you convince people? How do you battle the short-termism? I can imagine a startup founder saying, “If I get four hours of sleep for two years, but get that funding, then I’ll be rich and then I can sleep.” How do you make that argument to people, against this short-term thinking”Arianna Huffington: That’s why I’m saying it’s so essential that people read the science and understand the science first. Because if they’re not absolutely convinced of how imperative and non-negotiable sleep is, it’s going to be much harder for them to change any of the habits I suggest we need to change in the book. So the first step is to recognize that it’s not only their health that is impaired but their productivity and creativity and decision-making, which are of course absolutely essential for good founder decisions. Ok let’s say, “I don’t care about my health, I’ll pay the price, short-term, to build my company,” but all the evidence shows that the prefrontal cortex, where a lot of these executive functioning and decision-making is housed, is dramatically degraded when we’re sleep-deprived. And the fact that three-quarters of startups fail should actually be a warning that maybe if we got enough sleep and made better decisions we’d have better results with our startups.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Right, to me this is such a money quote from your book: “A CEO who’s bragging about getting only four hours of sleep a night is essentially saying that he or she is making decisions while drunk.”
Arianna Huffington: Yeah I just instagrammed that today, actually!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: It’s so good. So what happens if a congressman or woman were to ask you, “Hey Arianna, I really want to bring this up on the Senate floor.” How would you craft that proposal? Or even if a CEO were to say, “Hey, let’s make this reality, let’s give this to our HR department.” What are the steps that these big organizations should take”Arianna Huffington: Well this is sort of two very different aspects of what we’re talking about. One is policies, which can include family leave for times when you give birth or you have a sick member in your family, and that’s incredibly important. A living wage is incredibly important because, of course, financial problems keep people up at night. So there’s a lot that needs to be done at the policy level.
But my new company Thrive Global is focusing on what can be done at the corporate level. Because the question is, how do you go into workplaces and change the culture so that self-care and getting enough sleep, having breaks for renewal, taking real vacations, establishing a sustainable relationship to technology and our devices, are primary in the way we handle the business? And then, what happens when we do that is that we realize that it’s not just the employees who are healthier, more productive, and happier but the bottom line of the company is affected and we have a lot of evidence to prove that. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, one of the largest healthcare companies in the world, for example, introduced a lot of wellness programs into Aetna, and brought Duke University in to track the impact in the first year and they found 7% reduction in health care costs and a 62-minutes-per-week improvement in productivity. So what I think is key here is to measure the result and impact, because that’s when it’s more likely to take programs like that out of the HR department and actually into the CFO department because they affect the company’s bottom line.
And increasingly, a lot of companies have problems recruiting and maintaining the best and most creative millennials because they begin to have very different values in how they want to lead their lives. So one of the incentives for companies to introduce changes in their workplaces is recruiting talent.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Yeah, cool, so that’s the stuff I like about the top-down approach, but from the bottom-up or individual approach, what about stuff like, basic things that my listeners can use in their daily lives. The book is absolutely full of them and I’d definitely recommend that people go out and get it but I’m curious about a couple little things, like alarm clocks. Do you like alarm clocks? What’s your alarm clock situation”Arianna Huffington: Well, first of all, I don’t like alarms. I think that the natural way of waking up is incredibly important because just think of the word “alarm,” what does it mean? It means that something isn’t right. It means that we wake up in a fight-or-flight mode with the cortisol stress hormone flooding our bodies. So I have an analogue, old-fashioned alarm so that if I want to put an alarm on because I want to be sure that if something happens and I don’t wake up – which actually has not happened because the truth is that we can overeat but we cannot oversleep unless we have sever depression or are narcoleptic – I think it’s always good not to have to worry about it (that there will be an alarm there to wake you up if for some reason you oversleep) but it has never happened to me when I’ve allowed myself to get eight hours of sleep, which is my optimal number.
But the reason for not having your smartphone as an alarm is because my one absolute rule in the second part of the book, where I talk about tips and techniques and best practices, is not to charge your smartphone by your bed. Because that’s when, if you wake up in the middle of the night for whatever reason and don’t fall right back to sleep, even with the best intentions in the world, you’re going to be tempted to look at your phone, to look at your data, your social media, your emails and texts. And that’s the worst thing you can do if you want to go back to sleep and really have a night that restores and renews you before you start your day again.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: So what’s keeping you up at night nowadays”Arianna Huffington: Oh, I’m very good at not having anything keep me up at night.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Really, nothing”Arianna Huffington: The only thing that worries me, but it’s mostly during the day, is my children. I do have these negative fantasies if I text one of my daughters and I don’t get a response within three seconds, but I’m working on it, I know it’s an irrational fantasy. But I’m very good about the demarcation line between my day and my night. You know every day has obstacles, challenges, problems, but I have a kind of sacred ritual that allows me to transition to my time for sleep and put the day behind. It’s like the day is done. And taking my phones out of my bedroom is the first step, having a hot bath that slows down my brain, wearing dedicated sleep clothes rather than the clothes I use to go to the gym in (which is what I used to do), reading real books that have nothing to do with work – you know, poetry, philosophy, novels – all those things help kind of slow down the brain and allow me to transition to another modality.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: And you really do that every night”Arianna Huffington: Thirty minutes before I turn off the lights. You know why? I love the way I feel when I wake up fully recharged. And I actually cannot stand myself when I wake up exhausted. I don’t like the kind of person I am, I don’t want to be around me, I’m more irritable, more cranky, I get more upset about little things. So it’s totally, totally worth it.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: I mean my experience is like, once you have a taste of it, why would you go back”Arianna Huffington: Exactly. I love that, it’s a great point. Once you taste it, why would you back. That’s beautiful. You have to write about it!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Alright last question: it’s morbid, but the role that death plays sometimes in your books, and one thing you said in Thrive is this idea of the eulogy, and I’m really curious about your eulogy has changed since 2007.
Arianna Huffington: Yes, well I feel it’s so important actually to bring death into our lives. I don’t think that’s morbid, I think it’s what every philosopher has advocated. You know, Socrates used to say, “Practice death daily,” the romans used to carve M.M. memento mori, “remember death,” on statues and trees, not because of being morbid but because when we remember that we are all going to die, that as The Onion headline puts it, “The death rate holds steady at 100%,” it makes it much more likely that we’re not going to be up at night worrying about things because everything is put into perspective.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: This connects back to this idea of “we are more than our resumes.”
Arianna Huffington: Exactly, if we think that’s all we are, then it must be a terrifying way to live our lives. Because we know for sure that our resume is going to die with us. We know for sure our personality is going to die with us so whatever remains, if you believe, as I do, that the soul remains, has nothing to do with our resumes. And that’s why I think, for me, it’s wonderful to bring death into our lives, it makes every moment much more joyful, it makes it easier to feel gratitude for our lives, and for all the people we love, and all the things we love in our lives, and to keep remembering that it will all come to an end and we have no idea when!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: So you must feel a certain amount of pride. Like I said, I really feel like you really care about this, helping people, you must feel good about getting this message out there.
Arianna Huffington: I care very much about this. I care very much about bringing it to young people, particularly, because I feel that my generation has given millennials just completely the wrong message about sleep and burnout and it’s our job to help correct that and that’s where we did a great sleep revolution college tour, we’ve reach 350 colleges, we reached thousands of students and it’s been amazing to see what they’ve been writing about how their lives are changed. And again, it’s that unnecessary suffering that we talked about at the beginning. There’s an epidemic of mental health problems in colleges – you know, depression, anxiety – and all the science shows us that when you scratch the surface underneath depression and anxiety, in 80-90% of cases is sleep deprivation.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Well, look, that’s 20 minutes. I really really appreciate this.
Arianna Huffington: Thank you so much! I loved our conversation. I look forward to staying in touch and to having you write about your insights, which will help a lot of other people, thank you.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: And think of us when your next book comes out.
Arianna Huffington: Absolutely!
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Alright have a nice day, see ya!