Jeff Bezos has always been one of those people whose ideas and thinking make a lot of sense to me. When he talks, I listen.
So when I recently came across a fantastic interview with Jeff Bezos, I jumped right in. The entire interview is great and I really think watching the whole thing is worth your time. But there was one section that really stuck out to me: his prioritization of sleep, calm, and quality.
8 hours of sleep a night. He goes to bed early and wakes up early. He thinks better, has more energy, and his mood is better when he gets the right amount of sleep, all of which contribute to making him an effective decision maker. The opposite can hold true too — being tired or grouchy can lead to bad decisions.
Puttering (yes, this is an official Bezos term). Bezos’ morning routine isn’t manic or hectic, it’s quite the opposite — he putters around, taking his time and slowly ramping up. This is his time to read the paper, have coffee, and eat breakfast with his kids. It’s really important to him that he have a slow, calm start to the day, which is also why he insists on no meetings before 10 a.m.
High quality decision making. He likes to do his “high IQ” meetings before lunch because that’s when he’s sharpest, and he knows by 5pm he’ll be wiped. Anything that’s important that pushes late into the day gets rescheduled for 10 a.m. the next day. He recognizes that he “only” needs to make a few key decisions a day, not thousands of small ones. If he can make three high quality decisions a day, that’s plenty good.
This is astonishing and inspirational for all the right reasons. For all we hear about how awesome it is that people are constantly “hustling”, working 20 hour days, sending 50 emails from bed, and squeezing every minute of the day for max productivity, we have in front of us Jeff Bezos — one of the most successful business people in the world— puttering.
Sleep. Calm. Prioritizing. Quality over quantity. Recognizing limits. These are the kinds of principles that have made him a wild success in the long run. I think we’d all do well to mimic these practices.
Tim Masters describes himself as “just a mattress maker,” but that belies the business acumen he’s gained over decades of building and selling beds. Tim’s store in the Chicago suburbs, Quality Sleep Shop, opened in 1969 and has held its own against the proliferation of private equity-backed mattress corporations and chain stores. As Big Mattress has grown more complex, churning out endless permutations of confusingly named products, Tim has embraced simplicity.
WAILIN WONG: Hi everyone, it’s Wailin. We have some news about The Distance that we’ll share at the end of this episode, so please stick around for that. And here’s today’s show.
Think about some of the most miserable experiences you’ve had as a consumer. You might say air travel, or trying to cancel your cable service. And then there’s mattress shopping. Where I live, in the Chicago area, there seem to be mattress stores on every corner, sometimes across the street from each other, and they’re selling products with long names that make it difficult to comparison shop. Like “Simmons Beautyrest Recharge Signature Select,” which is somehow different from the “Serta iComfort Blue Max Touch 3000.”
TIM MASTERS: They’re showing you beds like two, three thousand dollars and it’s like, what makes that bed cost two or three thousand dollars? I don’t know. I look at ’em and I think, that’s not a two or three thousand dollar bed. And then they walk you down from there, but I think it’s by design that they want you to be a little bit confused, overwhelmed or impressed with this lingo that you don’t even know what it stands for.
WAILIN: That’s Tim Masters, the owner of a store in the Chicago suburbs called Quality Sleep Shop. He’s been a mattress maker for over 25 years, and he’s not a fan of the tactics you see from traditional, corporate mattress manufacturers and stores.
TIM: I wouldn’t want to be in the market to buy a mattress today; I’ll tell you that. I’m keeping it simple, like there’s not that much to it. It’s soft, medium, firm. What’s your price point, is it low, medium or high? We try not to confuse you.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Tim Masters has fended off the big mattress companies by staying small, simple and honest.
JASON: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Jason, an iOS designer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
TIM: Every year, I buy the best seller of that year and I take them apart and I dissect them, like how was this made, like how far apart are the stitches, what are they doing, how are they securing their cover, what filling material are they using, why is this bed so popular? Is there anything I can make similar or what can I improve on with it? And in 2014, I bought a Tempur-Pedic. I paid $1,630 for this twin size bed but it was a best seller and I’m so excited. I go pick it up and I bring it back to the shop, I’m like, here it is and I get the thing apart and I was so deflated, like it had an nice like one-inch piece of memory foam on top and had three inches of actually really nice quality foam under that, but the supporting foam, the six-inch supporting base, is like a general grade. And I was so, I’m bothered by it because I’m like, why would they have such a good company, you know what I mean? Such a good name, and then fill it with just like average or below average filling material? You’re gonna hurt your brand. And it’s like, I don’t think they get it and I see that a lot with the major brands. It’s like, don’t you get it? It doesn’t have to just look pretty on the outside. It’s got to be the inside of the bed that counts.
WAILIN: So what’s inside a bed? Tim makes both innerspring mattresses and latex ones, and he uses a combination of cotton and foam. Cotton breathes well, lasts a long time and wicks away perspiration. Foam is pressure relieving and more lofty, giving the impression of a thicker mattress. At Tim’s business, all the mattresses are built to order in a suburban factory.
TIM: We’re not a marketing company that has someone else build the beds and ship them out. We have total control over what the customer’s getting and it’s successful for us. We build 400 to 500 beds a month. But that’s a lot for a little company. There’s only six or seven of us that work here full time and it keeps us busy all the time. We do our own maintenance on our equipment, we’re the builders on the beds, we do the packaging, we do local deliveries, so yeah, we’re pretty proud of where we’re at today. We’ve always had like steady, slow growth. We don’t want to have big influxes of business ’cause I worry about production, like I still like to be so hands on with what’s being built, how are things going through.
WAILIN: Tim’s showroom has just a dozen or so models for sale, and they’re named for people: The Scot, after the store’s first employee, or the Leona, after the wife of the man who started the business. Some of these models have been around for decades and they haven’t changed very much.
TIM: We don’t carry products that are real trendy, that we don’t have a lot of experience with, that we don’t know how they’re going to react with customers. But what we do carry and what we produce are mattresses that are really time-tested and well-received.
WAILIN: Tim’s been at this for so long that he’s developed a kind of sixth sense for whether a customer is a side sleeper or stomach sleeper, just by looking at the person.
TIM: A lot of times, we get customers that come in: “I want a firm mattress.” And you look at their body type and you determine, okay, are you a side sleeper? And then I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to build you a firm mattress. I’ll build you something real supportive, but not too hard. Your legs will go numb, your arms will go numb.” I learned that years ago, we would make mattresses and a lot of these older guys come in: “I need a firm bed.” And next thing you know, they’re calling you two weeks after they get the bed, “Can you make it a little softer?” A lot of people, when they ask for a certain product, it’s like, “I’ll show you that, but this is what’s going to be a better fit for you and this is the reason why.” Sometimes, though, I’m not the guy for the customer, like I’ll try, I can always make our beds feel a little firmer, a little softer if the customer wants something a little bit different than what we offer. But there have been times where I tell them, “I’m not the one for ya.” Like it’s—for your needs, and for the softness level that you want, I can’t make that bed because I don’t feel like I can stand behind it the way you want us to make it. Twenty years ago, I kept running myself through the wringer, well I’ll make it firmer, I’ll make it softer, what do you wanna do? I kept changing things and I’m like, it’s not getting any better and I’m getting pretty worn out from this whole thing.
WAILIN: Tim’s store, Quality Sleep Shop, was started in 1969 by a former foam salesman named Robert Brixie, who traded his house for the store’s first building. He and his family lived in an apartment above the shop. Now he lives nearby and still pops in once in a while.
TIM: Mr. Brixie, the original owner, what a great guy. I started with him in 1990 after school. I loved him. He was such a perfectionist. He’s an old Navy guy and just a big man, and he had this big booming voice and he’d always say, “You can’t cheat ‘em! Believe me, these old people would bang down the front door saying give me my money back if you make a mattress that doesn’t hold up!”
WAILIN: Tim had just graduated from high school when he went to work at Quality Sleep Shop.
TIM: One of my sisters actually dated a guy that used to work for Mr. Brixie and I needed a part-time job and he goes, “Go see Mr. Brixie, he’s a good guy to work for.” So I started there and I knew it down to my shoes that this was what I was gonna do, yeah, loved building these beds. The mentoring from Mr. Brixie was great, but I really enjoyed the physical building of the product too. Mr. and Mrs. Brixie lived upstairs and i’d be working in the shop downstairs. We had a showroom in the front of the store, and every day, Leona or Lee, would come down with like pie or hot tea. She’d always make something for ya in the middle of the day. What a nice thing! You’d get to sit down and eat something homemade. Yeah, they really treated you so nice. It was just before the mattress shop on every corner type of environment and we were competing with the Sealys, Stearns and Fosters, and there were some independents. Like there were more independents, but they kept going bankrupt. And I asked Mr. Brixie, the original owner, I’m like, “Mr. Brixie, are you nervous about going out of business?” And he said, “No!” And I’m like, “How can you be so confident?” He goes, “I never cheated. These other mattress companies, if they get short on money, they would start putting in subpar filling materials. I never cheated. If we were low on a certain SKU, whatever that product was, we’d always upgrade it. We never would go down. You always do one better, even if it hurts you a little bit there, it helps you in the long run.” But that’s why he was so confident not to go out of business. So it took out all the guys who weren’t as healthy, but the ones that do a good job stayed.
Mattresses years ago used to have buttons in them. It was called button tufting. We did them inner tufted; we would put rows of buttons on the interior of the bed. A customer, a lady says to me, “How do I know you’re gonna put those buttons in there?” It never crossed my mind not to put a button in, like I couldn’t complete a bed, like if our button tufter would give us trouble, if it was missing one button, it would not get sewn together. When I first started working there, he says, “Never lie to a customer. You never tell anybody anything just because they want to hear it. It’s gotta be the truth.” So when the lady asked about those buttons, I was like, “I don’t know how you would know if the buttons are there are not, but they’re there.”
WAILIN: In 1994, Tim was 24 years old and considering a change.
TIM: And I say to Mr. Brixie, “Mr. Brixie, I gotta get a real job.” And he said, “If you quit, I’m gonna go out of business.” and he goes, “My kids don’t want it; I’m ready to retire. Give me one more year, your same pay rate,” which I was making nine bucks an hour and so I’m like okay. So one more year comes, I’m 25 years old and in September 1st of 1995, I bought the company from Mr. Brixie and I was so scared. I borrowed a third of the money from him, a third of the money from my parents and a third from the bank. And the bank loaned me the money at nine percent interest and Mr. Brixie goes, “I’ll loan you a third at eight percent,” and my mom and dad go, “We’ll do eight percent too.” I remember at the closing at the bank, it was around lunchtime, a little bit after lunch and I go to my dad and my mom, “Wanna get some lunch?” My dad goes, “No, you’ve got a lot of mattresses to make,” so it’s right back to the shop I went. And I never took a day off. All I did was work. I was so scared to fail or not pay anyone back.
WAILIN: Tim moved into the apartment above the shop, where Mr. Brixie had lived, and kept making mattresses the way he’d been taught. But he did make a few changes. He expanded the shop’s delivery radius into the city of Chicago. He made a lot of deliveries himself, and sometimes his girlfriend, Cindy, would tag along. Another big development came along in 2006. By then Tim and Cindy had gotten married and had a daughter, Emily.
TIM: My daughter Emily was born with severe eczema and all kinds of allergy issues, like, I felt so bad for Em when she was born, like her stomach was so distended and her skin was so dry and cracking all the time. And my wife said, “Why don’t you make her an organic crib mattress?” So I was like, “Yeah no problem,” like I would make organic mattresses every now and again, like onesie twosies. Never thought much about them, but it seemed to make sense for our family. After I made that, I’m like, “Cindy, we’re not the only family with these health issues and we should offer these to our consumers.” We would spend like an hour, hour and a half every night, well more like two or three nights a week, for a year, working on a product line one, and then how do you describe it to the people and how do you put a website together. The rabbit hole gets really deep: Okay, where’s the wool sourced from? What’s the wool washed with? Is it treated with anything? t gets pretty complicated and it was a learning curve for sure on our end. Now, all our distributors, everyone that we work with on our end, I physically visit the plants and make sure that what they say is what they’re doing and I follow each product through.
WAILIN: Tim sold his new line of organic mattresses in his showroom while he and Cindy worked on the website. In 2007, they launched a new brand called My Green Mattress and started shipping nationwide. Like other mattress-in-a-box companies, Tim’s organic mattresses come rolled up and unfurl when they’re unpacked. The crib mattress is called the Emily, after Tim’s daughter, whose eczema eventually cleared up.
TIM: Our philosophy is let’s build a bed that’s really nice, very durable and that’s so approachable on price, like we’re right there with the major brands with their traditional built beds for the organic, so it’s a really good model. How we stay affordable is every morning I’m at the shop, I’m working on equipment, everybody’s doing their part here, we’re all working really hard on building these beds, but then it all goes direct to the consumer. There’s no middleman.
WAILIN: This business model has helped insulate Quality Sleep Shop from the competitive threat of corner mattress stores. Where Tim has ceded some business is in twin and full beds. He thinks a lot more people are shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco for those smaller mattresses. But Tim still sells a lot of queen- and king-sized beds, and he recently hired a director of marketing to lead a bigger push for My Green Mattress. In selling online, Tim has the potential to reach a much broader audience for his organic beds, but it also puts him in competition with the many mattress-in-a-box startups that have raised venture capital and gotten a lot of press.
TIM: I think those companies are great. They simplified it. It’s a memory foam bed, they all seem to be at the $800 price point, not much variation in those mattresses, but I think it fits a need for the millennials, for the people who don’t want to shop. With My Green Mattress, we’ve shipped mattresses since 2007. What do I know about anything really? I’m just a mattress maker, but it always amazes me that someone would buy a mattress online — I wouldn’t be able to do it, but so many people do.
WAILIN: Tim might describe himself as just a mattress maker, but his principles as a business owner have served him well. Keep it simple, never cheat. It’s a quiet but powerful contrast to Big Mattress, which pumps out hundreds of virtually indistinguishable models, all marked up a hefty amount. It’s a good business for the large mattress companies and their private equity investors, but Tim wants no part of it.
TIM: For whatever reason, we’re doing well. Like even the small independent bookstores, like I feel bad for a lot of those bookstores that have gone under. There’s so much knowledge you get from, you know what I mean? Those little places. I’m starting to think of my company as like a microbrewery. You can get some really good beers from someone, you may never have heard of it, but you can’t wait to have another one of those beers, and it’s kind of like our mattresses. You may not have heard of us, but once you try it, you’re like, “That thing is awesome.”
WAILIN: And me, Wailin Wong. Hello. And also good-bye, because this is actually the second-to-last episode of The Distance.
SHAUN: Now this is a super awkward good-bye, like when you say good-bye to someone on the street, but you keep walking the same way.
WAILIN: That’s exactly what this is like.
SHAUN: You’re going to hear us again in two weeks.
WAILIN: You are going to hear us again in two weeks. And we’re working on a new show, so don’t go anywhere. We’re working on a new show, and we’ll bring you more updates in a couple of weeks. Is there anything else we should say?
SHAUN: Yeah, our illustrations are by Nate Otto. And we are a production of Basecamp.
WAILIN: Basecamp is the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.
If you want to understand why so many startups become infected with unhealthy work habits, or outright workaholism, a good place to start your examination is in the attitudes of their venture capital investors.
Consider this Twitter thread involving two famous VCs, Keith Rabois and Mark Suster:
These sentiments are hardly aberrations. There’s an ingrained mythology around startups that not only celebrates burn-out efforts, but damn well requires it. It’s the logical outcome of trying to compress a lifetime’s worth of work into the abbreviated timeline of a venture fund.
It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge. Of course they’re going to desire fairytale sacrifices. There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.
The entrepreneurs who sign up for such pressures may have asked for it. If you, knowing their sentiments, ask Rabois or Suster for millions to fund your venture, then you probably should expect to have your vacations, weekends, hobbies, family time, or outings with the kids questioned.
But the pressures don’t stop with the person who signs the term sheet. That shit trickles down. In fact, it’s likely to amplify as it rolls down the hill, like a snowball gathering mass. Because once the millions have cleared, and the headcount has been boosted, it’s usually other people who actually have to make good on those exponential expectations.
The sly entrepreneur seeks to cajole their employees with carrots. Organic, locally-sourced ones, delightfully prepared by a master chef, of course. In the office. Along with all the other pampering and indulgent spoils AT THE OFFICE. The game is to make it appear as though employees choose this life for themselves, that they just love spending all their waking (and in some cases, even sleeping) hours at that damn office.
And if the soma-like inducements don’t work, there’s always the lofty talk about THE MISSION: We’re not just here to capture more attention or steal more privacy in the name of advertising, no, we’re connecting the world! Your single-track life has meaning! All your sacrifices are for a greater good!
Not only are these sacrifices statistically overwhelmingly likely to be in vain, they’re also completely disproportionate. The programmer or designer or writer or even manager that gives up their life for a 80+ hour moonshot will comparably-speaking be compensated in bananas, even if their lottery coupon should line up. The lion’s share will go to the Scar and his hyenas, not the monkeys.
And yet so many continue to go along, because they already went this far. Sunk cost is an easy theoretical concept, but it’s devilishly hard to put in practice. Which is why the yoke of the four-year vesting cliff, the short-exercise window for options, and all the other tricks and techniques employed by cap table-designing masters are so effective. Once the hook is in, the line and the sinker follows easily.
But it will be in spite of prevailing evidence on the power of sleep, recuperation, and sustainable work habits. Whether you’re a top-flight basketball player, like Kobe Bryant, whose off-season work schedule is limited to just six hours per day:
The Kobe Bryant workout routine features a hefty mix of track work, basketball skills and weightlifting. His off-season workout has been called the 666 program because he spends 2 hours running, 2 hours on basketball, and 2 hours weightlifting (for a total of 6 hours a day, six times a week, for six months).
Since athletes need more sleep than average people, eight to 10 hours of zzz’s a night is recommended, and that’s not just before game day — that’s every evening. After all, the more often and more vigorously you use your muscles, the more time it takes for your body to repair and rebuild them. Roger Federer and LeBron James famously snooze for an average of 12 hours a night, while Usain Bolt, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Steve Nash get up to 10 hours a night. Federer has said, “If I don’t sleep 11 to 12 hours per day, it’s not right.
After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk on the Sandwalk, a path he had laid out not long after buying Down House. (Part of the Sandwalk ran through land leased to Darwin by the Lubbock family.)
When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk around the Sandwalk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife, Emma, and their family for dinner. On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects; the controversial Descent of Man; and The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves.
Neither these athletes or these writers were giving up anything on whatever contemporaries that may have put in more time, more hours, or greater sacrifices. Their contributions to the world were in no way diminished by their balanced approach, quite the contrary.
So don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings. It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and wellbeing of others like cannon fodder.
Finally, as way of having my own skin in the game, we’ve been running a wonderfully successful business at Basecamp for some fourteen years now. One profitable since the get-go without demanding the total consumption of life force from the people working here. Neither from Jason nor I, nor from our employees.
Hell, right now, we’re working our four-day summer weeks until the end of August. This while servicing over a hundred thousand paying customers, stewarding Ruby on Rails, writing a new book, and ranting with a fervor against the extractive logic of many a venture capitalist. Forty hours or less has been plenty to do all of that since the beginning, and it’s likely to be plenty for you too.
Workaholism is a disease. We need treatment and coping advice for those afflicted, not cheerleaders for their misery.
Think back to the last time you had that really tough programming problem you couldn’t crack.
If you’re like me, you may have spent a few hours trying to brute force a solution. Then, in despair and frustration, eventually you gave up for the night.
And then the next morning, you wake up and the solution is clear as day in your head. You face palm yourself, rush to your computer, implement it in 15 minutes, and all is well in the world again.
Or this — I work a problem all morning to no avail. Lunch time hits, so I take my dog for a 30 minute walk. And somewhere along that walk I’ve figured out the solution. I get back home and fly through it the rest of the afternoon.
Look, I realize I’m not saying anything particularly new or profound here. But it absolutely bears repeating because I often forget this too:
Sleeping and walking are some of the best techniques to improve your work as a programmer.
(Pro tip: don’t take your phone to bed or on your walks. Your brain needs to be fully disconnected.)
I’m no scientist or expert on how the brain works, but there is plenty of science to back it. The basic premise is that free association and fixation forgetting (letting go of what you’re banging your head on) is crucial to problem solving. Your brain can put together solutions more effectively when it’s allowed to wander.
So the next time something isn’t clicking, leave it. Forget about it. Take a walk and go grab a donut. Get 8 hours of sleep. Your brain will do the heavy lifting and tell you when it’s ready to solve that problem.
If this article was helpful to you, please do hit the 💚 button below. Thank you!
We’re hard at work making the of Basecamp 3 better every day (by getting a good night’s sleep every night). Check it out!
A few years ago, Microsoft launched a Office 365 campaign with the slogan of #GetItDone. The basic premise was fitting more work into more places of your life. Well, not so much just fitting as shoving, cramming, and crunching it into every damn nook and cranny of your existence.
Like, why shouldn’t you check up on that Excel spreadsheet with the latest TPS numbers from the bathroom? Or take that conference call from your kid’s soccer game? Or fake presence with your spouse reviewing Word revisions while watch a show “together”?
Seriously. I’m not making these scenarios up. Microsoft’s campaign included all of them, complete with stats to alleviate the guilt of living such a shackled life. See, everyone is doing it! And Microsoft 365 makes it easier!!
Anyway, that was then. I kinda thought Microsoft would have wised up since. In 2013, you could at least excuse the company somewhat since the dancing buffoon was still in charge. But in 2016? No. No, you cannot excuse that any more.
Oh yeah, that’s just Microsoft putting a chipper fucking jingle to an ideal of work that’s literally presented as “14 hour days, 7 days a week, for decades”. Say what now? In what alternate universe is that an ideal you want to endorse?
Maybe that’s what the new Surface is all about. Perfect for sweatshops like Marvel to churn out yet another superhero rehash. Just so everyone else who’s working death shift after death shift for decades can escape the hell that is their life in make-believe fantasy. Swell.
But hey, THIS IS THE FUTURE OF WORK, right? The Surface Pro 4 is just here to enable the inevitable transition to this glorious paradise of productivity. Your life: 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, running Microsoft gear. Wouldn’t you want this too? Isn’t this aspirational? No. It’s death.
Sleep is good. Sleep works. Fuck companies and products that endorse skimping or skipping it as some kind of superpower. Fuck the Surface Pro 4’s marketing team. I seriously hope that this is just Microsoft temporarily slipping up, not a trend worthy of retracting forgiveness for.
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.