No Rest for the Weary: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

 Scott Todnem
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

A ridiculous notion built on conceit, mixed with one part ambition and two parts testosterone.

Unrealistic, to say the least, this mindset may stem from good intentions, but it lacks intelligence when it comes to stress and the human body.

You see, too much work and a lack of recovery are actually disastrous for one’s personal well-being. While it may look tough on paper or sound self-assuring out loud, the motivational message is lost… like that of a dream in the fog of sleep deprivation. Cloaked as aspiration is just stupidity and probable burnout.

No rest for the weary? No hope in the long-run.

It has been chronicled in the past half-century that there are people in this world who are literally working themselves to death.

With research specifically set in Japan, working oneself to death is a tragedy so common that a medical term has been coined for it: karoshi. Since the 1970’s there are estimates that around 200 Japanese deaths a year come from long hours of work in combination with short hours of sleep. Besides depression and an increased risk of suicide, studies list heart attacks and cerebral hemorrhages as a result of karoshi. And at significantly young ages.

Studies in the U.S. and other countries are still incomplete, but it begs the question: how much of our worldwide illness has historically had a direct connection to stress without the necessary recovery?

Sleep deprivation is also a well-known torture device, having been used as an “enhanced interrogation technique” for centuries now in attempts to gain useful information from opposing prisoners of war. With sleep deprivation, the immune system is in particular distress as it cannot perform the much needed regenerative functions during rest. And because the human mind can develop delusions and hallucinations in a state that closely mimics dementia, sleep deprivation is also a method of significant mental harm. In the end, depriving a person of sleep actually serves much less interrogative help than anticipated since delirium sets in, causing a temporary break from reality. A sleep deprived individual can’t maintain coherence, and therefore will not be of any use to interrogators, let alone be the hard working “go-getter” we would consider a successful entrepreneur.

Hardly the image of ambition the initial quote portrays, right?

All this considered, being smart and efficient with work, sleep, and time management does not mean a person lacks drive or initiative.

Once we find a passion, once we get enamored with a job or a task, we can pour ourselves into it. The brain is then subconsciously loaded with purpose; the energy of desire used as extra oil for the midnight burning. But while this can result in working long hours without food or sleep, it isn’t month to month or year to year. It occurs every so often as an important idea hits, and then time efficacy takes over. Successful people know that doing otherwise would cause the flame to flicker out well before the oil runs low.

• • •

I have found myself embedded in multiple jobs and several time-consuming obligations for years now. In some cases I was roped in under the weight of my own “can’t-say-no” personality, and in other cases I was a founding organizer– in any case, only one man to blame. Be busy and be happy. It’s how I lived. I knew no other way. At one point, besides parenting, I would go though three paid positions in a single day’s time. Teaching, coaching, and more coaching took up much of my twenties. 9 to 5? More like 9 to 9… and then some. Combined with late night website work and planning for educational tour trips, I was a wreck. And I was just 30.

In my mind, in order to get ahead I had to plow forward. I had to move dirt. I had to deflect debris. I had to stay the course or knock out a gear tooth trying. Come hell or high water, my mission was both tunnel-visioned and near-sighted.

I was stupid, but I was me.

After some serious self-reflection and amid personal life changes it was obvious that things needed to change. And fast. It hasn’t been easy, but it is now a conscious effort to limit my work demands in the active attempt to be smarter with my time and more effective in the career(s) I do have. Focusing on too many jobs caused me to lose focus at every job.

After all, you can’t do justice to anything if you half-ass everything.

I find myself in a battle against deep feelings of always needing to do more work. Incessant work. Somewhere along the way I learned that this was living. Maybe it has roots from previous relationships, or maybe it’s a carryover from teenage years of procrastination– if you submerge yourself into something the job will in fact get done, and sometimes it’ll even get done with detail if the obsession to finish has taken control. Last minute binge working can get results, but it’s just a quick fix. And it most certainly causes stress.

So, I am coming to terms with working smarter, not harder. What that looks like will have to depend on the task at hand and the hours in a day.

Yet even now, while typing these very words, I am fighting back sleep.

Which means, dear dreamers, that it’s time to put a wrap on the work and live to see another day.

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