This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Thanks for sharing your expertise on sleep, the topic of our cover story. Thomas Edison called sleep “an absurdity” and “a bad habit.” Is that idea ingrained in our culture?
I think it’s deeply ingrained, but we’re at a moment of transformation. What stops people from prioritizing sleep is the fear that somehow they’re going to miss out. We have so many phrases that confirm that—“You snooze, you lose,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But now there are role models, people who are prioritizing sleep and are supereffective.
You’re known as hard-charging. Did you have a moment when you said, I’ve got to change what I’m doing?
Yes, in 2007 when I collapsed from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and burnout. Being a divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I had bought into the delusion that this was the price of success and of managing all aspects of my life. It was after I collapsed that I started studying this epidemic of burnout. There had been a lot written about the importance of nutrition and exercise, but sleep was still underrated and dismissed. And so I wrote the book.
Will getting enough sleep ever be prioritized in our culture?
Its importance is becoming more recognized. Of course there are holdouts, people who still brag about how little sleep they get, but they’re increasingly like dinosaurs. One of the metaphors I use is that sleep is like the laundry. You’re not going to take out the laundry 10 minutes early to save time. You have to complete all the cycles in the washing machine. Our sleep cycles have to be completed too; otherwise we wake up and we feel like wet and dirty laundry.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.