If you interviewed the 100 greatest sleepers in the world and asked them about their sleep, the most striking thing you’d notice is this:
Great sleepers don’t try to sleep. In fact, they don’t even spend much time thinking about sleep.
Which means all these great sleepers would probably make for some pretty boring interviews. They wouldn’t have intricate sleep hygiene routines or exotic teas and supplements they ritually consume before bedtime. They wouldn’t have interesting recommendations for great books or podcasts about better sleep. And they certainly wouldn’t have any good referrals for expert sleep medicine doctors or therapists.
On the other hand, if you took the 100 worst insomniacs in the world and interviewed them about their sleep, you’d quickly see this:
Insomniacs try really, really hard to sleep.
They think about their sleep constantly, both at night and throughout the day. They’re always researching the latest sleep tips and strategies in an effort to find the perfect combination of hacks and medications to knock them out for the night.
After interviewing these two groups of sleepers, your broad conclusion would be that great sleepers don’t spend much time or energy on sleep, whereas terrible sleepers are obsessed with it.
Well, of course great sleepers don’t think much about sleep—they’re lucky to be good sleepers, so they don’t need to think about and work on their sleep!
While it’s tempting to look at great sleepers and see their lack of struggle as a result of being a good sleeper, what if the causality goes the other way: What if great sleepers sleep so well precisely because they don’t try to?
The Sleep Effort Paradox
In much of life, effort helps us solve problems. Want to ace your college entrance exams? Trying harder will help. Want to get your blogging career off the ground? Trying harder will help. Want to drop those eight pounds you gained since Thanksgiving? Trying harder will help.
But for a certain class of problem—what I’ve previously described as “paradoxical problems“—not only is effort unhelpful, it can actually be counterproductive and even dangerous. And there’s perhaps a no better example of this than the “problem” of sleep.
Quick foray into biology: Human beings have four primary modes of activity we shift in and out of throughout our days. They range from sleep on the extremely inactive end of the spectrum to relaxation, alertness, and finally arousal on the extremely active end.
Like gears in a car, each mode of activity has its place. Sleep helps us physically recover and learn, relaxation is for conserving energy and unwinding, alertness allows us to accomplish most everyday tasks, while arousal is a useful “turbo mode” to help us manage extreme challenges or dangers.
But there’s an interesting quirk in this system. While we can quickly go from relaxation or even sleep into alertness or arousal (there are important survival reasons for this), moving the other direction on the spectrum takes time and must be done sequentially. Notably, you can’t go directly from arousal or alertness into sleep—you must pass through relaxation first.
Sleep isn’t a mechanism we simply engage through will or effort. Instead, as the metaphor correctly implies, it’s something we fall into—something that happens to us, not something we do.
In fact, our bodies are exquisitely good at sleeping. Like breathing or pumping blood, we are capable of sleeping automatically and effortlessly. As long as our clever, problem-solving minds don’t interfere, that is.
As we mentioned earlier, most problems benefit from an “upshift” in our activity level. You wouldn’t want your neurosurgeon to be completely relaxed while cutting into your brain. But the problem of not falling asleep backfires spectacularly when we try harder to do so. The reason is that our brain will interpret any form of effortful, goal-oriented striving—either mental or physical—as a cue to upshift our activity level.
Take the common case of waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep. If you conceptualize this state of affairs as a problem to be solved—Why haven’t I fallen back to sleep yet? Is something wrong? Did I eat too late? How will my big presentation to the board go if I only get six hours of sleep?—you are essentially telling your brain to upshift into work mode (i.e. alertness or arousal). Ironically, this upshifting only leads you further away on the activity spectrum from relaxation, and certainly from sleep.
This is called the sleep effort paradox. The more effort we apply to sleep, the less likely it is to occur. And while applying effort to our sleep in any particular instance is unhelpful, it’s the larger habit and mind-set here that’s truly concerning.
We Need a Cultural Mind-shift Around Sleep
Increasingly, we’re all bombarded with advice, tips, suggestions, PSAs, and even tweets from Arianna Huffington about the importance of sleep. And while the intent behind all this pro-sleep messaging is undoubtedly well-intentioned, I believe it’s creating a society of insomniacs.
Armed with everything from sleep trackers and blue light blockers to Ambien and sleep hygiene checklists, we’re all trying harder than ever to get a good night’s sleep (and padding the bottom lines of a lot of corporations while we’re at it). Unfortunately, all this expert information we consume, money we spend, and effort we expend attempting to sleep better hasn’t seemed to help much.
And as convenient as it would be to blame our sleep woes on blue light or overzealous bosses, if we all stopped trying so hard to sleep, and started trusting our bodies to do what 100,000-plus years of evolution have already designed them to do just fine on their own, we just might find ourselves simply falling asleep.