The culture of competitive sleep deprivation has reached weird heights in recent years. This Guardian feature, detailing the times at which CEOs wake up, gives some sense of the extreme forms this can take. Concern for sleep pervades productivity culture, most obviously on sites like Life Hacker, with sleep routines given parity to software choices in their interviews with prominent creatives.
This emerging cultural politics of sleep is a really interesting aspect of what I’m trying to analyse in my new book as cognitive triage (or rather triaging strategies, driven by and in turn driving, the intensification of work). This ‘sleep deprivation arms race‘ tracks the ossification of opportunity structures across many careers, as well as an acceleration of personal resources being deployed for professional gain. As Lucy Rock observes,
Margaret Thatcher accelerated the sleep deprivation arms race when it emerged she ran the country on four hours’ sleep a night. From Donald Trump’s three to four hours a night to Bill Clinton’s five to six hours when he was president and Condoleezza Rice’s habit of getting up at 4.30am to go to the gym when she was US Secretary of State, minimal sleep has become a sign of your commitment to the job.
Angela Ahrendts, head of retail at Apple who was the first woman to top Britain’s executive pay league when she was CEO at Burberry gets up at 4.35am. She gets a headache if she sleeps for more than six hours. It is, she said, “my inspirational time, my time to find peace, to watch the sun rise”. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive takes between four to six hours a night; Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, a mere four hours.
Now we can be plugged into the world of work day and night, it feels more than ever that to work more and sleep less is the way to the top. Knocking off at 6pm? Hmmm… the boss will be answering emails until 9 and her boss until 11 and as for her boss, well, she only needs three hours’ sleep a night.
But where did it come from? One part of addressing this question involves analysis of the pleasures of acceleration. But another concerns role modelling. There’s a great paper by Ismael Al-Amoudi which I need to go back to in order to develop my analysis of this in terms of modes of reflexivity. But meanwhile, I just wanted to record this little extract from the end of the great Bill Gates biography I’ve been reading recently. From Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 10268-10287:
“He is the world’s busiest man, bar none,” said Charles Simonyi, citing one trip that included “Eleven meetings in five days in Europe—you know, like there were days there would be two countries. And he doesn’t fly a private plane, either.” Gates still managed a schedule as packed as anyone’s, but as he headed toward his forties, he seemed to be modestly tempering his legendary workaholism—and seemed vaguely defensive about it: Most people have an overblown view of how many hours they work. It’s hard: Working eighty hours is very hard. You can’t do much else if you’re gonna do that. So there’s lots of weeks I work eighty hours, but I think my average is lower than that. . . .On average I take every other weekend off. . . .I’m probably more like seventy average now. There are some weeks I work more than eighty. Like those weeks I travel to Europe: That’s all I’m doing, is working, sleeping, working, sleeping. So you can get weeks where I’ll put in over ninety. I mean, I assume you don’t count reading business magazines, the Journal or the Economist. Upon recomputing, he decided that an average of seventy-two hours was the proper figure. Though in recent years Gates had vacationed in the Dominican Republic, Thailand, and Australia with his girlfriend, he could barely contemplate the idea of a longer period of relaxation: “It’s possible I’d take a month off in the next three years. I don’t know what that would be like. I’ve never taken more than a week off with weekends on both ends.”
How much influence did the first billionaire boy-king of technology have in generating this ensuing arms race of competitive sleep deprivation? What does he think of the results? What did he personally gain from this? Was it good and/or necessary for the business? Was it good and/or necessary for his self? I’ve argued in the past that embracing acceleration, pursuing busyness as something desirable, can function in the same way as drink or drugs to help ‘blot out’ unwelcome internal conversation. This comment by an ex girlfriend certainly hints at this explanation in the case of Gates, from loc 10287 of the same biography:
“I don’t know what he would do if he had some time to spend alone with himself,” said one short-term girlfriend who tired of his strange blend of selfishness and selflessness. “He has a significant data storage device. But I don’t think he has a lot of wisdom.” And she didn’t think he was all that happy either. “So many times he complained about how he’s got to be here and got to be there. You say ‘Why don’t you say you’re not going to show up?’ but he won’t do that. He’ll stand up for everybody, but he won’t stand up for his happiness.”
But of course, the cognitive costs of living like this will continue to mount up. This is why I’ve argued for the importance of zones of strategic deceleration. Gates pursues this in a more individualistic way. From loc 9826-9846 in Gates:
Shortly before the Akers flap became public, Bill Gates had gone to the Gateaway complex for one of his “think weeks,” a tradition that had begun on the return from Albuquerque, when Bill would take a week off to spend time with Gam at her place on Hood Canal. Alone with his thoughts, he would strategize, read, play with competitors’ software, and “write a lot of memos.
However this is a form of temporising, compensating for but doing nothing to change the underling process. I’m not sure how, if at all, the holidays he took can be included within this analysis. But they’re notable nonetheless. From loc 8242 in Gates, as recounted by an ex girlfriend:
Winblad even convinced Bill to take a vacation now and then by coming up with “reading themes . . . We had a physics vacation once, a biotech vacation once, and we had an F. Scott Fitzgerald vacation.” Winblad was responsible for picking and packing all the reading material.
- cognitive triage
- Cognitive Triage: Practice, Culture and Strategies
- competitive busyness
- Corporate Culture, Elites and Their Self-Understandings
- Digital Distraction, Personal Agency and The Reflexive Imperative
- ossification of opportunity
- pleasures of acceleration
- sleep deprivation
- The Intensification of Work