The cult of sleeplessness

I’ve written about the cult of early and how early risers get cultural credit just for starting their day earlier than other people, even if they also finish earlier and get exactly the same amount done.

This is a problem because attributing extra productivity and moral worth to a person for something which has nothing to do with their actual productivity or moral worth is unfair and stupid. It’s a problem because a culture that disproportionately praises early birds is a culture in which many night owls are forced to adopt the wrong circadian rhythms for their bodies. Fighting your body to become an early bird boosts your productivity and job satisfaction about as much as wearing the wrong size shoes.

But it’s also a problem because it overlaps with an even more problematic cultural issue: the cult of sleeplessness. When Margaret Thatcher boasted of only needing five hours’ sleep a night while she was Prime Minister, her message was: “I am stronger than you, I am better than you, I am made to be a leader.” And people responded admiringly or disbelievingly, rather than shrugging and asking what on earth her sleep requirements have to do with her ability to run the country.

But just look at the kind of people who find it easy to wake at dawn, the kind of people who “naturally” don’t seem to need much sleep.

  • Babies
  • Toddlers
  • Older people who have retired from work
  • Some older children
  • (Presumably) the binmen who have cheery conversations with each other outside my house at 6am once a week
  • (Presumably) the early starters I know in blue-collar jobs

What do these people have in common? Freedom from responsibility. These are not people who have to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. They are not spending their waking and working hours planning, juggling and worrying. They either don’t work at all or they have their workday mapped out by someone else. I’m not saying that doing a full shift lifting recycling boxes isn’t hard work; I’m saying that it’s relatively stress-free hard work because all the difficult decisions are made for you in advance.

Some research suggests that decision-making depletes your willpower, and that, as the New York Times puts it, “we have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” In other words, if your day involves a lot of decision-making, you need to rest in order to refill your mental reserves.

Most white-collar jobs involve planning your own time, negotiating with clients, colleagues and bosses, making work-related decisions and justifying those decisions as well as a thousand other smaller decisions like “do I go for a run at lunchtime?” and “how do I interpret this email? Is this person being aggressive or does it just come across that way? How do I respond neutrally?” And if you have other responsibilities on top of that, decisions merge with each other in a messy, stressful way. “If I go for a run at lunchtime tomorrow I’ll have to remember to bring a packed lunch because the only good place to run is in the opposite direction to the shops, so I’ll have to buy the stuff for a packed lunch today, but that’s difficult because I’m going to an after-work PTA meeting and when it’s over all the shops will be closed except my local corner shop and that’s a Tesco and I’m trying to boycott Tesco… but I could solve the problem by driving to work tomorrow, then I’ll have the car at lunchtime, but it just seems so wrong to drive to work in order to go running, but it’s not my fault we don’t have good public transport here, but I guess it is partly my fault because there was that meeting about it and I missed it…” You’re exhausted before you’ve even put your running shoes on.

The more responsibility you accept, the more rest you need. If you’re the kind of person who sees broken things in the world and wants to fix them, you need more rest than the person who ignores them because “they’re not my problem”. People who don’t need much sleep, by and large, are the kind of people who either don’t have much responsibility or refuse to worry abut the responsibility they do have.

Of course a toddler is keen to start the day if awake-time means cuddles, attention and worry-free play. And of course Thatcher didn’t need much sleep when she was Prime Minister, because as far as I can tell without ever having met the woman, self-doubt was not a problem for her. Her agenda was to dismantle and destroy: the welfare state, the NHS, the unions, the UK’s manufacturing industry. She didn’t lie awake worrying about it any more than your average toddler lies awake worrying about bashing the furniture.

Imagine a game where Team A just has to run around breaking everything they can while Team B has to prevent them from breaking things and take responsibility for fixing or putting up with whatever’s broken. Clearly Team B doesn’t get to stop unless Team A has stopped, and even then Team B is still dealing with the consequences of what Team A has done. Team B is anxious, Team A is just fine (especially since it’s Team B who has to bring the half-time oranges). In other words, Team A has lots of fun and power, while Team B has lots of responsibility but is forced into a reactive position without enough control over the situation or time to do what needs to be done. Which team is going to need more rest at the end of the game?

Being a selfish, destructive arsehole with little or no understanding of responsibility is much less tiring than behaving responsibly. If someone doesn’t need much sleep, it’s probably because they’re not doing their fair share of the worrying or the real work. They’re not to be praised or admired for it. Thatcher was basically a giant guilt-free toddler with a wrecking ball, having too much fun to go to bed. Is this at the root of the left-wing obsession with when she’ll finally be laid to rest?

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3 Comments on “The cult of sleeplessness”


  1. […] a lot of the time and choose my own hours. Yes, being responsible for planning my own workload is mentally tiring, but I fully acknowledge it’s a privilege. I’m judged and paid on the actual work I do, rather […]


  2. […] say that most workmen are part of the cult of early. Starting your day at dawn for no reason is a blue-collar behaviour, just like the insistence on parking as close as possible to the site of your work, even if it’s […]


  3. […] what I said about Thatcher just under a year ago, and I stand by all of […]


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