BBC Capital

Successful executives and the four-hour sleep myth

About the author

Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based business writer and editor. He writes about personal finance, wealth issues and other money topics for BBC Capital and also contributes to the New York Times, CNBC, CNNMoney, Canadian Business and the Globe and Mail. He’s written three investing and personal finance books, too. Follow him on Twitter @bborzyko. 

Successful executives often 'snack' on sleep (Thinkstock)

Successful executives often 'snack' on sleep (Thinkstock)

For Gregory McKee, getting a good night’s sleep is as important as eating right and exercising regularly. If he doesn’t get eight hours of shuteye, the founder and managing director of La Jolla, California-based STS Capital Partners will have trouble functioning the next day.

Two months ago, McKee took an overnight flight across the country for a meeting. He barely slept. By mid-afternoon he was disengaged and he kept leaving the room to get more coffee and soda. He couldn’t make out a word of his sleep-deprived notes when he reviewed them later that night.

“They were useless,” said McKee, whose international investment banking specialises in mergers, divestitures and strategy.

On the flipside, Darren Witmer can’t imagine sleeping for eight hours. He goes to bed at about 3:00 and wakes up four hours later. The chief executive officer of Cary, North Carolina-based business consultancy Reset My Business swears he’s perfectly fine the next day. No drowsiness, no excessive coffee drinking, and no problem reading his notes at the end of the day.

“It’s a little weird,” he admitted. “My wife’s a physiologist and she’s been watching with intrigue.”

Exactly how much to sleep is a question many busy professionals struggle with. Despite research studies exalting the value of a full night’s sleep — ideally between seven and nine hours each night — many people eschew a few hours of sleep in favour of extra time to work, rather than taking that time from family and personal interests.  

And it’s hard to ignore images of successful businesspeople like Martha Stewart and Donald Trump, who boast that they sleep only three or four hours a night. The implication: big success can’t really be achieved unless you give up sleep — and lots of it.

So is less sleep, or more, better for your career?

Most people, no matter where they live in the world, need about eight hours of sleep to perform at the best of their abilities, said David Dinges, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading sleep researcher in America. Less than 5% of the world population are naturally short sleepers, meaning that their body clocks simply operate on a shorter sleep cycle of four or five hours per night. Still, many people sleep less on purpose and may feel fine the next day.

Hidden impacts

For most people, though, missing out on a good night’s rest has an impact in the morning. Eric Olson, the co-director of sleep medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says that attention, dexterity and vigilance to details can suffer when people sleep less than seven or eight hours for more than a day or two in a row. Too-short sleepers may also have trouble remembering details and find themselves susceptible to numerous health issues, including obesity and even premature death.

What’s more, many short sleepers use the extra awake time to work, but it isn’t always prime productivity time. Witmer admits that his late night hours — he often works between 21:00 and 2:00 — aren’t as productive as when he works between 8:00 and 17:00. “I’m not at my peak performance at 2 a.m.,” he said. “But even 50% productivity is better than nothing.”

Still, many short-sleepers believe the amount of time they spend working at something is the key to getting ahead.  So, is the fact that Donald Trump sleeps three or four hours a night really behind his successes? Probably not, Dinges said.

The Trumps of the world are often more productive because they don’t have to worry about every day issues like paying for education or saving for retirement, he said. High-powered executives and other wealthy people also typically have teams of people taking care of mundane life tasks like laundry, paying bills and shuttling children to activities. That frees them up during the most productive hours of the day to focus on the work that makes them successful.

Snacking on sleep

Even people who boast of never missing a full night’s sleep — or barely needing any — may be miscalculating exactly how much rest they really get, according to Dinges. People who sleep less often avoid exhaustion by making up some of those hours — many sleep longer on the weekend, for instance. Busy executives may rest on long plane rides or while being driven in a car to a meeting.

“They snack on sleep,” Dinges said.

Witmer sleeps for a nine-hour stretch several times a month. Lawyer Richard Bobholz, another four-hour sleeper, often takes 45-minute naps in the afternoon. “When I wake up I’m ready to go again,” Bobholz said.

Research also shows that the average typical sleeper overestimates the number of hours of they sleep. Dinges says they’re likely in bed for closer to six-and-a-half hours, rather than the eight they report.

Ultimately, getting eight hours of sleep is ideal, mostly from the perspective of better health, Olson said. For those who sleep far fewer hours, there may be a bit of foolery going on, he said, because too little sleep — even if you feel just fine the next day — usually saps productivity.

“These people may be busy,” said Olson about the four-hour sleeper, “but they’re not being as efficient as they should be.”

These people may be busy but they’re not being as efficient as they should be. — Eric Olson