Quitting the 9-to-5 and becoming an entrepreneur feels great. To get the freedom to do the work you love is very rewarding and gives you a feeling of purpose and achievement. However, often it comes with a very unhealthy side effect: sleep deprivation.
You might always have been the kind of sleeper who would fall asleep almost instantly once hitting the pillow. If asked what you do to get to sleep so effortless, you would shrug and say: “Nothing, I just go to bed, close my eyes and doze off.”
However, this might drastically change when you start your own business. Becoming an entrepreneur is for many people a turning point in their ability to get regular restful sleep. In fact, for many self-employed people, it is the start into a restless life as an insomniac.
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If you find yourself working hard, struggling to wind down for the day, or having difficulties to fall asleep, read on. It’s time to take action before your sleep problem becomes so severe that it ruins your most crucial business asset: your mental and emotional well-being.
What is entrepreneurial insomnia?
The discussion about the health risks of entrepreneurs usually refers to issues like circulation and joint challenges, stress, depression, anxiety, or hypertension. While these are serious conditions, they are often symptoms of another risk which is often overlooked: insomnia, the difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep.
All of us – no matter if we are running our own business or not – will experience some form of periodic insomnia in our life, usually caused by a stressful life event. In most cases, we return to a normal sleep pattern once the stress has passed.
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However, as entrepreneur stress is always a big factor. The challenges of managing your business, plus the demands at home never really seem to be going away. As a result, you sacrifice your sleep not realizing that sleep is precisely what helps you to cope with the overwhelm in your life.
Constant exposure to stress and a lifestyle without a good sleep schedule are the two main factors for developing entrepreneurial insomnia. The good news is that just like any other important decisions you’re making in your business, you can choose to stop your sleep neglecting behavior. Rest assured, making sleep to one of your daily priorities will be one of your best business decisions ever!
Why are we bragging about lack of sleep?
Let’s talk a bit more about prioritization: Do you appreciate the value of sleep? Really? Think about it for a moment: Where do you put sleep on your daily priority list? If we are really honest sleep often comes at the bottom, if at all.
Take me for example: For most of my life, I believed that sleep was overvalued, almost a waste of time. After all, there is so much to do and experience that I could be missing out on something important if I sleep. It needed me to become an insomniac to start valuing sleep.
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Talking about sleep in business life is more like talking about a burden, an obstacle to getting more stuff done. Why choosing to sleep when we have more important things to do? Having not slept is seen as a badge of honor. You hear people boasting about how little sleep they got but still ‘crushing it’ – everyone with his own recipe for radically cutting down their eight hours of sleep.
I honestly think, the reason why someone keeps on bragging about not sleeping, is not because he or she is too busy to sleep – it’s rather because of their inability to prioritize time. Probably not the best prospects for becoming a successful entrepreneur.
Why do we see sleep as an unfortunate necessity?
But where does it come from? Why do we glorify a culture of staying up late at night working instead of enjoying eight hours of restful sleep? Seeing sleep as an unfortunate necessity is based on the Protestant work ethic attitude saying that loss of time through sleep is worthy of absolute moral condemnation. Instead, getting it all done without sleep is something to be proud of.
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With advancing industrialization, the daily routine of the people was increasingly dictated by productivity and efficiency with the target of spending less time doing the things that don’t bring profit, e.g., sleep. Operating at peak efficiency that you’d only need to sleep – in other words ‘being inefficient’ – for four to six hours became mainstream which sadly lasts until today.
How does sleep deprivation affect your brain?
Our body tells us another story. Going with little sleep affects your health in profound and surprising ways. You certainly know that lack of sleep makes you grumpy and fuzzy. But did you know that it makes you dumb?
Sleep plays a critical role in your thinking and learning. Lack of sleep impairs attention, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving – all the kind of mental function you need as an entrepreneur. Harvard Medical School Professor Charles A. Czeisler says that sleeping only four or five hours a night for one week has a similar impact on your cognitive processes as having a blood alcohol level of .1%. In other words, not getting enough sleep is like being legally drunk.
Do I need to say more to convince you that sleep is your best-kept asset?
In our rational, solution-based way of thinking, we assume that we can go with little sleep. But remember that our modern work-until-your-brain-melts culture has been existing for only a tiny fraction of human history. Our bodies haven’t adapted to less sleep, and it’s highly unlikely that they are going to adjust any time soon.
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Cutting sleep may sometimes be an unfortunate necessity, but you shouldn’t make it a habit – and definitely not to something to be proud of.
Why can stress ruin your sleep – and your business?
Running your own business is stressful. It means entering a world where work doesn’t stop when it’s dark. Whether you start long before the sun rises, or stay up until late at night, the pile of unfinished tasks never seems to get smaller. Maybe you have your to-do’s well organized, but then there are a million distractions competing for your attention. A new email, an interesting article on social media and you dive down the rabbit hole to learn more about it, not noticing that you spent another night surfing, clicking, chatting and not getting enough sleep.
Even when you move from your computer to your bed, your mind won’t stop running. You lie awake with thousands of ideas spinning around your head. At some point you may doze off, when abruptly jerked awake, sitting up with your heart pounding: ‘What was that one important detail I have to remember?’ Or, in the dark of the night, your business future suddenly doesn’t look so promising anymore, and anxious thoughts start flooding your mind.
When your bed becomes a place of distress and fear
You may end up spending a lot of time in bed awake and worrying. As a result, your mind starts to make the connection that the bed is a place to be awake and worrying. As frustration about poor sleep sets in, you may even feel increasing anxiety as you approach bedtime; going to bed isn’t anything you look forward to anymore, and your bed can become a place of distress and fear.
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Your motivation is high, and there is so much you want to be doing. However, when you’re lacking sleep, this mood can easily change, and suddenly, everything feels pointless. You feel hopeless about your business goals, maybe even about achieving anything meaningful in life. Your emotional life is now more like a roller coaster ride with ups and downs that leave you wiped out and drained. That’s when your motivation hits a wall, and you feel like giving it all up.
Why late nights and lie-ins can turn you into an insomniac
There is another important factor regarding the poor sleep of business owners which has nothing to do with entrepreneurial insomnia caused by a busy schedule or over-thinking. Insomnia doesn’t always start in a period of stress, but sometimes by merely spending longer than usual in bed. Believe it or not, but this at first insignificant change in your sleep routine can grow into full-fletched chronic insomnia if you don’t pay attention to the early warnings.
Irregular sleep hours often begin in college, when starting your own business or during periods of unemployment. These are usually periods when it’s not absolutely necessary to get out of bed at the same time every day. Instead of a regular sleep schedule where you would get up at 6.30 am (which most of us have when still going to school or being employed), suddenly you don’t have a set waking-up time anymore.
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Having worked until late at night, you may frequently lie in until late in the morning to catch up some sleep. At first, this seems to make perfect sense because all you want is to regain some energy for the day ahead. The problem is that this is also a typical early response of someone who starts to develop insomnia: To fight their sleepiness insomniacs often try to ‘catch up’ by lying in bed much later than usual.
How does bed lounging affect your sleep?
Lounging around in bed without sleeping can reinforce the problem. You may either just lie awake or engage in things like watching a movie or browsing the web. Little by little, you start doing almost everything while in bed; eating, using electronics, reading books, writing, studying and working. Especially when you live in a small space, it is tempting to do much of your activities where you don’t need to get your feet on the floor in bed.
However, this behavior can affect your sleep pattern because you create a mental association of being in bed with being awake. Or in other words, if your bed is serving as your office, you are creating an association between your bed and your work instead of linking your bed to falling asleep. Especially in periods when sleep doesn’t set in quickly, suddenly worrying thoughts start flooding into your head like “Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t I turn off my mind? What is wrong with me?”
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Keep in mind that any time which you don’t spend sleeping can turn into a source of aggravation. In these moments, trying to sleep becomes your primary focus and a source of tension. Also, you may start worrying that your inability to sleep will reappear the next day. And you might be right: Sometimes it only takes one night of poor sleep in sowing the seed of doubt in your mind about your ability to sleep.
From then on your attempts to fall asleep can transform more and more into a nightly battle. And until you don’t give up this battle, it will become very difficult for you to doze off. Remember, sleep comes naturally; trying to force it will only result in pushing it further away.
The effects of flexible working hours on your sleep
It is incredible how irregular hours and the change in your sleep routine can grow into chronic insomnia. You might think that the greater flexibility of working hours will improve the chances of getting more restful sleep. But this hope can be a big mistake: If you don’t keep a regular sleep schedule, the freedom of your self-employment can turn you into an insomniac – and vice versa. I personally have met people who changed their jobs just to fit in with their insomnia.
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Being able to choose your own working hours is great. However, make sure that this flexibility doesn’t result in poor sleep hygiene. If you don’t stick to a regular sleep schedule, you are risking to develop a sleep problem. And if you’re already suffering from any form of insomnia, then keep in mind that the flexibility itself is not a fix for your sleep problem; it may only help you to avoid facing the real issue.
5 simply ways to overcome entrepreneurial insomnia
The most effective way to improve your sleep is to keep a regular sleep schedule. Fixed bedtime rules will help to control your biological clock, also known as the circadian rhythm. This 24-hour internal clock regulates your sleep-wake cycle and affects everything from your hormones to your eating habits and your mood. If you don’t maintain healthy sleep hygiene, you can easily mess up your circadian rhythm and increase the risk for insomnia.
Here is what you can do to maintain a healthy sleep routine and improve your sleep starting from today:
- Get up at the same time every day – also on weekends. No more lying in, so make sure to reduce your late nights drastically. Think this way: you will have more of the weekend to enjoy it if you get up early.
- Your bed: nothing but sleep. Keep in mind that everything has a function and beds are for sleeping, not for working or any kind of online entertainment. It is vital that you strengthen the association between your bed and your sleep.
- Make love in bed. Sex is perfect for falling asleep because it lowers the stress hormone cortisol and releases prolactin, a hormone which makes you feel relaxed and sleepy.
- Make up your bed right after you wake up – and leave it like this until the next time you go to bed at night. The goal is that going to bed will become a treat you can look forward to all day.
- Keep electronic as far away from your bed as possible. If you need music or any meditation to fall asleep, use the device only for that (turn your mobile phone into flight mode). The place for your laptop is your desk, not your bed.
One last advice when you experience unpleasant feelings or thoughts: Don’t try to get rid of them! That causes an unnecessary struggle and heightens your wakefulness. Instead, accept and welcome your thoughts in a playful way by saying something like ‘Hello, Mr. Worry, thanks for coming in’ or ‘Hi Frustration, it’s your again’. This will help to reduce the tension in your body and to fall asleep faster.
I hope you aren’t still insisting that sleep deprivation is a necessary part of being an entrepreneur. Self-employment and sound sleep is not a mutually exclusive choice you have to make. So, why not start today to implement a healthy sleep routine? Instead of being tired and exhausted, you can be proud and grateful to be well rested.