Burnout: The Enemy of Sleep

Arianna Huffington explains how banishing glowy devices and going to bed earlier lead to healthier work practices.
Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

ASPEN, Colo.—Seven years ago, Arianna Huffington went on a college tour with her daughter, whose only request was "Mommy, no Blackberry" for the duration of the visit. Huffington consented, and after each long day of strolling through manicured lawns and stately lecture halls, the pair would have dinner and return to their hotel. Then, at about 10 p.m., Huffington would hop on her laptop and commence working, and she would keep at it until 2 or 3 in the morning. She'd then sleep for two or three hours, and then wake up early and start working again. 

"The Huffington Post was two years old at that point, and I felt it demanded my constant attention," she recently explained to an audience of hundreds at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-organized by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. 

When she returned home to New York, Huffington was standing in her living room one day when she collapsed, hitting her head on a desk on the way down and breaking her cheekbone. The accident, which she said was caused by exhaustion, served as a "wake-up call," she said.

"That’s really what started me asking some of these big questions that we so often stop asking after we leave college—like, what is a good life, what is success?" she said. "Because while by conventional definitions of success, I was successful, by any sane definition of success, if you wake up in a pool of blood, and nobody has shot you, you are not successful."

That realization eventually became Huffington's most recent book, ThriveThe Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

"The book is really three things converging. It is my own personal journey, it’s all the science with 55 pages of scientific endnotes," she said. "I want to convince the most stubborn skeptic that this is not some new-agey California, flakey idea, that this is really grounded in neuroscience and the latest findings."

Huffington's new big idea is that in pursuit of ever-elusive markers of success, we are working ourselves to the point of burnout—that we've created a "sweat shop," with ourselves starring as both the ruthless foremen and the aching workers.

She points to studies showing that Americans sleep less now than they did a few decades ago. She recommends that we recommit to the idea that life isn't all about accumulating all the money and power you can. 

What could a woman who already has money and power possibly want?

More sleep.

Here's how Huffington gets it, as she described in her speech:

  • "I went from four to five hours to seven to eight hours. And now, I am pretty religious about it. I also learned that if I am going to keep to this, it means learning that 'no' is a complete sentence. And it often means saying no to good things. But I don’t like anymore the feeling of walking through my day like a zombie."
  • "Start by getting 30 minutes more than you are getting now. Everybody has 30 minutes."
  • "Have a 'thrive buddy'—someone who can help you if you are tempted to binge-watch Breaking Bad [in lieu of sleeping]. You can call your thrive buddy and they can talk you down."
  • "At the end of each day, think of something that no longer serves you. It could be a grudge you are holding against someone, someone you’re angry with, or it can be a project that you started in your head, but you’re not really going to do anything about it. It is very liberating to realize you can complete a project by dropping it." 
  • "At the end of the day, pick a time when you turn off all of your devices and gently escort them out of your bedroom. It’s terribly important. Because otherwise, if you have it charging by your bed, and you wake up in the middle of the night for whatever reason, you're going to be tempted. You allow your daytime with its challenges and problems that we all have to deal with to intrude into your recharging night time."
  • "When you get up in the morning, one thing that has made a big difference in my life is not to immediately go to my smartphone. Take, like, one minute." 
Ruben Sprich/Reuters

She's also waged war on multitasking—HuffPo meetings are now device-free—and she's cut way down on her TV time. ("And also, it’s so wonderful to have a little silence in your life.")

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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