Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honor


Forgoing sleep is like borrowing from a loan shark. Sure you get those extra hours right now to cover for your overly-optimistic estimation, but at what price? The shark will be back, and if you can’t pay, he’ll break your creativity, morale, and good-mannered nature as virtue twigs.

Now we all borrow occasionally, and that’s okay if you fully understand the consequences and don’t make it a habit. I did that the other night. We pushed an update to our single-signon system for Basecamp, which had me working until 1:30 AM. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t because I got woken up at 5 AM to help deal with an issue that arose. But the costs the following day were typical, numerable, and high:

  • Stubbornness: When I’m really tired, it always seems easier to plow down whatever bad path I happen to be on instead of reconsidering the route. The finish line is a constant mirage and I’ll be walking in the desert for much longer than is ever a good idea.
  • Lack of creativity: What separates programmers who are 10x more effective than the norm is not that they write 10x as many lines of code. It’s that they use their creativity to solve the problem with a tenth of the effort. The creativity to come up with those 1/10 solutions drops drastically when I’m tired.
  • Diminished morale: When my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, it loves to feed on less demanding tasks. Like reading my RSS feeds for the 5th time today or reading yet another article about stuff that doesn’t matter. My motivation to attack the problems of real importance is not nearly up to par.
  • Irritability: If you encounter someone who’s acting like an ass, there’s a good chance they’re suffering from sleep deprivation. Your ability to remain patient and tolerant is severely impacted when you’re tired. I know I’m at my worst when sleep deprived.

These are just some of the costs you incur when not getting enough sleep. None of them are desirable. Yet somehow it seems that the tech industry still celebrates a masochistic sense of honor about sleep deprivation. At times it sounds like bragging rights. People trying to top each other. For what? To seem so important, so in need, so desired that humanity requires you to sacrifice? Chances are you’re not that special, not that needed, and the job at hand not that urgent.

Software development is rarely a sprint, but mostly a marathon. Multiple marathons, actually. So trying to extract 110% performance from today when that means having only 70% performance available tomorrow is a bad deal. You end up with just 77% of your available peak. Bad trade.

This is why I’ve always tried to get about 8 1/2 hours of sleep. That seems to be the best way for me to get access to peak mental performance. You might well require less (or more), but to think you can do with 6 hours or less is probably an illusion. Worse, it’s an illusion you’ll have a hard time bursting. Sleep-deprived people often vastly underestimate the impact on their abilities, studies have shown.

So get more sleep. Stop bragging about how little you got. Make your peak mental capacity accessible.


I originally wrote this post back in 2008 (and a version feature in REWORK). But after a couple of kids arrived, I remembered just how silly it is to voluntarily subject yourself to sleep deprivation. When you’re responsible for another little human, you have no choice. When you’re just trying to ship a new feature or a product, you absolutely do. Go The Fuck To Sleep.


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