The No-Excuse Approach to Sleep and Work Performance for Entrepreneurs

Discover how to improve your sleep to set yourself up for success.

learn more about Tracy Gapin, MD

By Tracy Gapin, MD

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Admit it. It's the first thing to go when you're under the gun: a good night's sleep.

You're on deadline. You've got to get this project done. You're in the middle of a launch. There's just too much to do to fit all in your regular hours. So, you burn the midnight oil. When your head finally hits the pillow, it takes you forever to go to sleep, because your brain won't shut down.

But hey, it's worth it, right? You'll rest when the emergency is over. As a doctor, I've heard it all. I know the logic. I've used it myself. The thing is, when entrepreneurs do this, they shoot themselves in the foot. Worse, they could be setting themselves and their businesses up for failure.

Sleep-deprived entrepreneurs are killing themselves slowly

You already know how you feel when you don't get a good night's sleep, but you power through it. That's what entrepreneurs do.

You're not alone. In a survey of Inc. 500 CEOs, nearly half (48%) said they sleep six or fewer hours a night. The recommended amount is 7-8 hours. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) survey of more than 180 leaders also found that four out of 10 (43%) said they didn't get enough sleep at least four nights a week.

I see this in my practice all the time. Business professionals who are running themselves into the ground "for the business." They tell me, "I can do it, Doc." and "I'm used to it." Sure. Then I find that their blood pressure is up, they've put on weight, their blood sugar levels are climbing, and they're on their way to pre-diabetes, heart disease and more.

It's not surprising. Studies show over and over again that chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of all these conditions, as well as colorectal cancer and early death. "I'm fine," they say. Okay. But there's one thing I can't test in the doctor's office that's super important to entrepreneurs: their cognitive health.

You need your brain to make this business succeed. What you may not realize is how much your brain needs sleep.

Related: 8 Reasons Sleep is Crucial for Entrepreneurs and Leaders

Sleep-deprived entrepreneurs are at a greater risk for failure

Here's what a lack of sleep does to your cognitive performance. Most of the time, these deficits occur after just one night of poor sleep:

  • Impairs attention and working memory (your mind is wandering)

  • Affects long-term memory and decision-making

  • Makes it harder to focus and stay vigilant on a task

  • Impairs arithmetic ability (get the calculator out)

  • Alters blood flow to parts of the brain

  • Slows reaction time

  • Degrades more creative, divergent aspects of cognition (forget coming up with creative solutions to your business problems)

During sleep, your brain goes through a "cleansing" process that sets it up for a new day of thinking. In a 2019 study, researchers noted that cerebrospinal fluid clears metabolic waste products from the brain during sleep. If you don't get enough sleep, you're essentially operating with a dirty, clogged brain and can't expect to make good decisions for your business.

Sleep deprivation affects your emotions

Researchers reported in a 2018 study that sleep deprivation and sleep debt led to the emotion of anger. Did you blow up at your star programmer and damage your relationship? Yeah, blame that on the fact that you didn't get your seven hours the night before.

Indeed, researchers have found a connection between sleep quality and daily abusive supervisor behavior in the workplace. No surprise such behavior resulted in decreased employee work engagement — a definite bad outcome for the business.

Another recent study found that sleep-deprived individuals experienced an overall reduction in positive emotions and showed less ability to regulate their negative emotions. And forget good communication. According to a 2017 study, those who were sleep-deprived had a harder time accurately recognizing emotions in others. In a sleep-deprived state, you're more likely to misinterpret cues from others, overreact to events and express yourself in negative terms.

All of these symptoms affect every part of your business, from how you communicate to what decisions you make to how quickly you come up with solutions to problems. Getting the sleep you need, on the other hand, could be the key to business success.

Related: How a Better Night's Sleep Can Help Entrepreneurs Stay Calm and Focused at Work

Entrepreneurs who prioritize sleep perform better at work

A recent study out of the University of Central Florida found that entrepreneurs who shortchange their sleep may be hurting their efforts to succeed.

Researchers surveyed 700 entrepreneurs from around the world about their sleep habits. Then they created several business plans and had an independent expert panel rank the success of those plans from best to worst. Finally, study participants evaluated the plans and ranked them in the same way.

The results showed that entrepreneurs who reported sleeping well consistently identified good plans more than those who didn't. "The evidence suggests that less sleep leads to less accurate beliefs about the commercial potential of a new venture idea," said lead author Jeff Gish.

Entrepreneurs who get a good night's sleep are also more likely to come up with new insights. In a 2013 study, happy sleepers were more likely to discover a hidden shortcut to a task than those who weren't sleeping well.

Of course, sleep improves complex decision-making, which is key to steering your business in the right direction. In 2014, scientists found that sleep improved performance on a complex decision-making task, adding evidence to the adage that "sleeping on it" is a good idea.

Related: Regaining Control of Your Sleep Life…from a (Recovering" Insomniac Entrepreneur

But what if I can't sleep?

You know you need to be getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night, but maybe you're struggling.

Again, you're not alone. Researchers have found a link between entrepreneurs and insomnia and other sleep problems. Among entrepreneurs, a lack of sleep created ADHD-like tendencies that seemed to help individuals push forward in their new ventures. But the benefits were short-lived.

If the sleep problems persisted, they left the entrepreneur without the "cognitive and emotional competency to be an effective entrepreneur in-practice," according to study author Jeff Gish.

Some of the issues that can affect my sleep are:

  • A tendency to be on my phone or computer late into the night (the blue light messes with your melatonin and disturbs sleep patterns)

  • Continuing to work even after I go home

  • Difficulty shutting my brain down

This inability to separate work and home life is common and can really weigh on entrepreneurs. Scientists reported in 2018 that work-related stressors substantially affect how entrepreneurs, in particular, recover and detach from work during non-work times, and consequently, how they sleep at night.

Below are some tips that helped me. Here's hoping they can help lead you to a good night's sleep as well. If not, do your best to sleep on the problem — you'll be much more likely to find a solution!

  • Have a specific shut-down time when you turn off all gadgets — TV, phone, computer, laptop, etc. Make sure this time is at least two hours before you go to bed, and stick to it no matter what.
  • Keep all technology out of the bedroom, including televisions.
  • Have a before-bed routine that includes the following: a relaxing activity, dimmed lights and a quiet atmosphere.
  • Avoid coffee and alcohol at least four hours before bedtime — more if you're sensitive to these substances.
  • Keep a notebook by your bed — if your brain is running, take five minutes to journal about your ideas, then try again to sleep. If you can't, write down what you're thinking until you've spent your brain out, then try reading a good book to get your mind to relax.
  • Use white noise and/or music to help yourself fall asleep. Meditation apps like Calm may also help.

If these and other good sleep habits don't help, be sure to talk to your doctor. Your business and your health depend on it.

Tracy Gapin, MD

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Founder, Gapin Institute for Men's Health

Tracy Gapin, MD is a board-certified urologist, men’s health and performance expert, best-selling author and professional speaker. He has over 20 years of experience helping executives realize their full potential so they can be the husbands, fathers and leaders they're meant to be.

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