Why capitalism doesn't want you to sleep
Rest VS Capitalism
Stop feeling guilty about wanting to sleep more
I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately. That’s because I’m a chronic insomniac, which led me to discover Dr Michael Breus’ amazing book The Power Of When. Dr Michael Breus is a sleep specialist, and his book gathers an impressive amount of research on “chronotypes”. Each person has a “chronotype”, which dictates their biological circadian rhythm, including when they release certain hormones, how long they need to sleep and at what time they need to do… well, practically anything!
Reading the book for me was an incredibly liberating and eye-opening experience. After years of torturous sleeping issues, I discovered that I am a “dolphin” - a neurotic, anxious type that has a low sleep drive. Yup, sounds about right! Ironically enough, although it’s been on my reading list for years, I finally hunkered down to read the book after debilitating sleep inertia from too much sleep. It turns out, I only need about 6/6.5 hours of quality sleep. The operative word being quality.
So yes, I feel great when I sleep only 6 hours - quite a bit less than the recommended 8. And it got me thinking about how many people might actually be jealous of this “ability”, and desire to only have to sleep so little. So that they could do more, of course. Most probably, work more.
Particularly in entrepreneur and business culture, we are constantly bombarded with sensationalist rhetoric about the few hours of sleep that successful people “need”. The most recent example is Elizabeth Holmes, who reportedly only got 4 hours a night, and has become my personal avatar for everything fucked up about corporate culture.
And yet, as we all know, medical advice suggests that we need between 7 - 9 hours of sleep for optimum health - which is largely true. “Dolphin” chronotypes like me are just 10% of the population. “Bears” on the other hand, who are regulated by the rise and fall of the sun and need 8 hours, make-up a whopping 50%, which also means that their patterns dominate how our society is structured.
We’ve all heard that sleep is good for us, but, like, it’s really good for us. Every night your body goes through cycles that contribute to:
Controlling your body temperature and energy use (metabolism).
Keeping your immune system working.
Controlling your brain functioning and restoring your memory.
Keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy.
Repairing tissues and stimulating growth in children.
Regulating your appetite and weight and controlling your blood glucose levels.
Plus, as the Dutch say, it’s really lekker! So why on Earth would anybody want less of it??
Because of this magic word: “p-r-o-d-u-c-t-i-v-i-t-y”!
But I don’t mean this word in the modern context of simply increasing your personal efficiency. No, I mean it in its Marxian sense of “producing capital”.
I’m far from a Karl Marx expert, but my basic-bitch understanding is thus: human labour (our everyday work) is used to produce capital (something of value) for large, privately owned organizations. It gets much more complicated than this, of course, but the key thing we need to remember is that almost everything that we do is, ultimately, in the service of someone else’s wealth. For example, you do work for a bank, and you get wages in return. The wages that you receive may not be of equal value to the work that you generate for the company. That’s exploitation.
So, how does this relate to sleep, you may ask?
In the opening of his book, Dr Breus quotes Thomas Edison on the invention of the lightbulb; “Everything which decreases the sum total of man’s sleep increases the sum total of man’s capabilities… There really is no reason why men should go to bed at all, and the man of the future will spend far less time in bed”. He wasn’t wrong about that last part. The implication here is that sleep is an inconvenience to the evolution of man. Or rather, sleep is an inconvenience for capitalism, as it is a whole 8 hours of unproductive time. Time when capitalism could be making that extra coin, honey.
As a result, we feel guilty for not being “productive” every minute of our day. Of not, in essence, using our time to make money, to make capital. Of not maintaining our focus for the full eight hour work day, for taking longer than 5 minutes to wolf down our lunch, or staring out of the window for a few extra moments. And we feel shame when we hear that “successful people” get up at 5am, and work through till bedtime when we can barely get ourselves in the shower.
But that guilt is not from within you. We may perceive it as just our own personal failings, but in reality it is internalised expectations from something much larger. It’s from that overarching structure of capitalism, faceless and inhuman, that only wants more fuel to its voracious forest fire and it doesn’t care what it burns up on the way.
“But I’m self-employed, I earn money for myself”, you may counter-argue. Aside from the many ways in which self-employment still operates within capitalism, the exploitation doesn’t even end when you finish work.
In his 2013 book 24/7, Late Capitalism and The Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary describes how modern culture (particularly with the advent of smartphones and social media) attempts to capitalise on almost every minute of your waking life. So many of our leisure activities are actually hidden passive ways of capitalising on us. Scrolling through social media; your likes, comments, and even just views (reach) are capital. Watching TV? Yup, capital. Creating content, be it a blog, video or even just posting an image? Well, that’s just full on digital labour.
When we encounter adverts, when we go shopping, when we meet someone for brunch - we are participating in the capitalist economy. In this culture, then, one of the only significant periods of time that you cannot be exploited is in your sleep. And if capitalism had its way, humans wouldn’t need to sleep at all. (Crary opens his book with a description of the research being done by the US Defense Department on a species of sparrow able to stay awake for up to seven days, with the aim of applying this to human subjects. A scary thought indeed).
So I think I’ve shat on capitalism enough for one blog post. But what now? Burn it all down? Go live in a hippie commune in a Bolivian rainforest?
Don’t worry, I’m not actually a communist, I like stuff too much. But we can begin to combat the emotional influence that capitalism holds on us, and it starts with awareness. Be aware of the actual work that media consumption requires of you. Be aware that shopping, or eating out, aren’t just benign leisure activities. But most importantly, be aware of when you need to rest. Embrace your desire for time off.
Going back to my chronotype, I may only need 6 hours of sleep but that doesn’t mean that I suddenly have 2 extra hours for that to-do list. The “dolphin” chronotype has an “inverse” rhythm to everyone else - where most people’s cortisol levels (the stress hormone) drops at night, for the dolphin, it rises. And stays alert through most of the night, finally petering out in the morning. This means that I get extra alert and anxious just before I’m about to go to bed. Very helpful!!! To combat this, I need to take around 1.5 hours calming down my system in preparation for bed; no screens, no mentally engaging activity, dimmed lights etc. Inversely, I require around 2 hours after waking to be anywhere near functioning in the mornings.
And I really enjoy this routine. It feels really great to “disconnect” at night, or feel free about taking my time in the morning, giving myself the gentle freedom to just read a book if I want to.
We each have our own needs, and they need to take precedence over producing capital. So, feel free to stare out of the window sometimes. If you need a rest, here are some things you can do that are free from “production”; read a book, go for a walk, meditate, take a bath, cook, exercise in the park. And of course...
Get. Enough. Sleep.
Snezhana is a sobriety coach in-training, and the co-founder of Flolab, the wellness-first coworking space. At FloLab, we believe in a holistic, stress-free approach to working life. We encourage our members to participate in wellness activities like communal lunches, meditation, afternoon walks, and a generally mindful approach to their professional goals.