I work in my sleep now. I fall asleep most nights writing and rewriting opening lines and first paragraphs in my head. And every morning before I wake, I am somehow still writing sentences in my head, twisted into my sheets while comparing arguments and searching for counter-arguments that could undo a whole story. This is probably not a good habit to be in, but taking work along to bed has become commonplace in the age of the self-funded permalance entrepreneur. A 2008 survey found 51% of small business employees saying they work in their sleep, and of those close to 70% try and apply the things they’ve dreamt about to their jobs the following day.
This obsessive interest in getting things done at all times has become a hallmark of the tech industry, with Marissa Mayer admitting to 130 hour work weeks at Google and sleeping under her desk. Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey claims to work 16-hour days while sleeping only four hours a night. It isn’t enough to be a worker in today’s economy, accepting eight hours of daily labor as a compromise with the greater good. There is no greater good, only the perpetual sifting of branded widgets and magical products on the verge of being announced. The future always seems to hold more than the past on the Internet, and so there is always one new potential sale incoming, one transformative piece of information waiting to be found, one last edit to make. Sleep only postpones the future and all the productivity it could hold.
The irony of this increase in working hours is that it usually comes in service of extraordinarily bad ideas, the majority of which end in failure. While the tech industry is the subject of special fantasies of how exponential profits can spring from just a few people working together on laptops, three out of every four startups fail. Could it be that the myth of the obsessive careerist whose dedication to work follows him to bed every night is actually a grand farce of worst practices and general dysfunction? It may be that accepting the normalcy of non-stop work is encouraging a culture of unusually bad thinking, painstakingly propped up by those charged with turning thought into real product.
Historian Roger Ekirch has estimated that 100 years ago, the average American slept 12 hours a day, usually split up into three and four hour sessions throughout the day and night. A 2013 Gallup survey found the average American sleeps 6.8 hours a night, with only 34% of respondents sleeping the recommended eight hours or more. The effects of sleep deprivation on one’s mental and physical health are well documented, possibly leading to hallucination, psychotic break, seizure, and death when taken to extremes.
There are also subtler degradations in thought capacity and performance that can come from less extreme kinds of sleep deprivation. A study in Sleep, the journal of the American Sleep Disorders Association, found significant declines on “divergent” thinking, a category of mostly creative brain functions. The study found double-digit declines in tests for fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought using the Torrance Test, a standard measure of the different categories involved in creative thought. Another meta-survey of sleep deprivation research found a strong correlation between weakened long-term memory, impaired decision-making abilities and lessened visuomotor performance, while people living with chronic sleep deprivation took significantly longer to return to normal than those who’d been subject to extreme but limited forms of sleep deprivation. This year, researchers at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania found that going without enough sleep can kill brain cells and lead to permanent damage to neurons associated with alertness.
How can any work ethic connected to such dimming of cognitive function produce anything worth having? Any culture that celebrates the loss of sleep as a virtue must inevitably become a backwater of degraded thoughts and fragile idealism that can’t survive without the struts of venture capital, eager to inflate market value to the point of IPO or acquisition before moving on to the next dim widget that seems like it’s come from two years in the future but arrives seeming like salvage work from five years past. Google has become a factory of bizarre miscalculations, confusing the technically possible with the genuinely desirable in gambits like Google Glass and the just-announced Android Wear. Both are underwhelming solutions to the problem of having to reach into one’s pocket, which might otherwise seem a welcome obstacle to the compulsive desire to check one’s phone every 46 seconds.
Such bad ideas are not anomalies but endemic boondoggles that define the frenzy of a culture in which hastily chasing half-thoughts is a currency unto itself. From Facebook trying to launch an operating system for phones and Twitter trying to launch a streaming music service, to iOS apps that chart the decibel levels of moaning during sex and a treadmill connected to virtual reality glasses—bringing failure to life is what drives the sleepless workaholism of startups and tech oligarchs. If technology is to become, or, if you like, to remain the definitive industry of the 21st Century, its adherents might do more to cultivate the values of slowness, prolonged thought, and exhaustive reconsideration that can only come from someone who’s had their fill of sleep and been able to live a life separate from their work before returning again to think about why someone should have an email machine strapped to their wrist. But we don’t, and are instead drawn like fireflies from one rapidly dying spark to another, a process which proves the only sure way to get some rest is to commit to an undertaking that can’t help but fail and dream about the day when it one day will.