As we speak, 44 million Americans are side-hustling. They’re going to their normal jobs, but in the margins of the day, they’re grinding on another business or passion project.
As tempting as it is to pursue that side project early in the morning or late into the night, the extra hustle may be what’s killing your next great idea. What you might gain in those extra working hours, you lose in sleep.
The loss of sleep is poisonous to three ingredients that make entrepreneurs successful: the ability to identify an innovative idea, the poise to pass on mediocre ones, and the insight to see non-obvious avenues for businesses to grow.
Don’t Let #Hustleporn Kill Your Business
Grinding isn’t just a part of entrepreneurial culture, it’s part of the entrepreneur’s identity, as Jeff Gish, Ph.D., tells me. Gish built a business, and hired 59 full-time employees before he sold it off to pursue a degree in management. When Gish was building his business, he and his fellow entrepreneurs used to casually throw around lines like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “sleep is for weaklings.”
Those two phrases are pervasive in internet startup culture, and indicateive of a culture sometimes called Hustleporn. If, like Gish, you haven’t heard of Hustleporn, look at these cucumbers in We Work’s watercoolers for a sense of what it’s all about. Like hustleporn devotees, entrepreneurs also wear sleep loss as a badge of honor, says Gish.
Though he’s now an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business, Gish still knows how to grind (he called me while waiting to board a flight — efficient!). But his research has shown him the high price entrepreneurs pay when they lose sleep.
Gish explains that our ability to innovate is severely hampered by sleep loss, as is our judgment of what ideas are good and bad. He saw this in his study published in the Journal of Business Venturing, where he evaluates the sleep habits and decisions of self-employed entrepreneurs who reviewed 14 different business pitches over two weeks.
Those who got fewer hours of sleep than usual were unable to consistently pick the best pitches (which were evaluated by a separate panel). They also ranked the “low quality” ideas as slightly higher than their well-rested counterparts did.
Gish explains that these sleep-restricted entrepreneurs underperformed because they were too focused on obvious factors that would make an idea work, but missed more nuanced aspects of what might make a business a success or a failure.
“They focus more on superficial features,” he says. “So they think: ‘Oh, well that’s made by child psychologists at Stanford, so obviously it will be good for kids,’ even if the business doesn’t make sense. Those things may not be important for the success of the business. They lock into them nevertheless.”
How Much Sleep is Enough? Know Your Sleep Equation.
Not everyone believes Gish when he speaks about the importance of sleep for entrepreneurs. One angel investor told him that he “doesn’t need to sleep more than three hours.”
This data offers a retort — more sleep is better, even if you can get by on three hours. “You’re better at evaluating opportunities when you get four hours of sleep, than when you get three,” he says.
Still, for that investor and for many people with busy jobs and big aspirations, the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night is a pipedream. Sometimes, you might have to go a week or so on less sleep that you’d like just to get the work done.
That’s sleep restriction — which means your getting less sleep than usual, but not necessarily pulling all-nighters. Sleep-restriction feels manageable in the moment, but builds up over time. It’s easy to say you’ll make up for that lost hour or two on the weekends (but, that’s probably not a great move). But during the week, those lost hours amount to small cognitive declines that take a toll on entrepreneurial decisions.
“Actually, when you’re totally sleep-deprived, your deficits aren’t as bad as when you’re sleep restricted,” Gish says. “I think that’s because people are really bad at recognizing when they’re sleep restricted or not. They think they can power through it when they actually have these cognitive deficits.”
The best way to avoid those cognitive deficits is to know your sleeping patterns. Gish describes it as a “sleep equation”: If you’re keeping track, you may realize when you’ve been out of whack for a while. If that big business move coincides with a night or (more) of bad sleep, then you’ll know that it’s worth asking for some wiggle room. Sleep on it — even for just one night.
“If you don’t understand what your sleep equation is, you’re going to go about your days making decisions as though the situation is normal, when maybe you had two hours less than you need,” he says.
“If you understand what your sleep equation is, you’ll know that you need to ask for time to sleep on something — or just defer the decision until a night when you slept well.”
Don’t fall prey to Hustleporn. Sleep when your body tells you to, and your business may thank you for it.
Thanks for reading Strategy!
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on July 6, 2017
Not all 25-year-olds are the same: Just compare the carefully controlled power of Adele’s album 25 with the fun but frustrating Taylor Swift and her chart-topping 1989. Both artists released these albums when they were — you guessed it — 25, but each has a radically different take on what it means to live for a quarter of a century.
And yet, despite the stark differences between the two stars, there’s a growing body of research that suggests their brains underwent similar changes. Taken together, these shifts mark a peak in human cognitive development. Coincidentally, they also signal the beginnings of a slow and steady decline. Here’s what science says is actually happening at this turning point — whether you call it a quarter-life crisis is up to you.
3. Your Brain Hits the Brakes
Adolescent brains move fast: They can say “yes” to this and “no” to that, all without looking up from their phones. But that cognitive agility — specifically the brain’s ability to identify patterns and do it quickly — peaks around 25.
Earlier this year, researchers asked participants between the ages of 9 and 91 to play seemingly random games, like coin tosses and dice rolls. The results, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, show that after 25 the ability to identify these patterns begins to decline.
But as study author Hector Zenil, Ph.D., told Inverse at the time, slowing down isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As we age, he explained, we may be trading obscure tricks, like fast dice roll identification times, for something more important: real wisdom. While many cognitive skills may decline, wisdom doesn’t suddenly taper off in mid-life. Instead, it consistently increases well into our 70s.
2. The Prefrontal Cortex Gets Lit
Though your fast cognitive reflexes may be slowly eroding, at 25, your risk management and long-term planning abilities finally kick into high gear.
In May, scientists explained in Nature Neuroscience that the parts of your brain that control basic functions like eating, sleeping, and breathing are more or less formed in utero, but the prefrontal cortex — the seat of so-called executive decision making — takes a while longer to develop.
Scientists believe that the prolonged path to maturity explains why teenagers are the exasperating way they are, as National Geographic famously documented in 2011. By the time we’re 13, our brains have reached their full size, but they’re also undergoing a giant, expansive internal remodel. White matter grows thicker, synapses are pruned, and slowly — very slowly — the ability to think strategically about our needs and the needs of others develops.
This time-lapse video from the National Institutes of Health shows the dramatic change in grey matter in an adolescent brain between ages 5 and 20:
By age 25, the remodel comes to an end and brain development stalls. But, once again, it comes with a few positive side effects: By quarter-life, most of us have figured out how to control our impulses, plan and prioritize well, and organize our lives in a way that gets us to our end goals. We have, in short, grown up.
1. It Gets Harder to Change
But one of the downsides to all of these changes is that a developed brain is a hardened brain. While you technically can teach a 25-year-old dog new tricks, it’s only going to get harder with age.
In 2006, a meta-analysis of 92 personality studies published in Psychological Bulletin showed that our openness to other people and ideas tends to close off as we get older. The reason isn’t totally understood, but it likely has to do with the fact that once you’ve been around the block a few times, you become pretty certain about what you think and what you’ve seen.
Fortunately, research indicates that healthy minds have a lot of choice, even in old age. You can, in other words, choose to be open — if you want to. The same holds true for new skills, whether that’s playing the guitar or mastering Mandarin. Just because language acquisition really is harder after age seven and holding on to memories is more difficult, even for the fittest geriatrics, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to continue growing over the course of your life. It just takes more determination and, in some cases, a willingness to be more childlike in order to nail “Stairway to Heaven” or order a dish in a foreign language.
So, don’t take your quarter-life crisis too seriously. While it may seem that your brain has peaked (it kind of has), there are still plenty of reasons to live — and to learn.