Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA, RSCC*D

During a workshop this winter, we asked a group of college students about their sleep habits and guided them through a scenario: It’s 10:30pm and you have a 7:00am wakeup call – what factors most regularly keep you from throttling down for a health night’s rest? The responses were as predictable as they are essential.

Many students did not fully understand how sleep-deprivation would impact their lives. It has become so common, that most were convinced that to “power through” grogginess was a professional expectation. That lack of understanding is directly tied to their motivation.

Motivation always includes an alignment with students’ motives. If a student does not understand that sleep-deprivation can lead to trouble concentrating, greater emotional reactivity, and increased errors in one’s work, then its impact on what they hold dear will remain unclear.

In this situation, where students lacked understanding and motivation to adjust sleep habits, but knew that “8 hrs is supposed to be good [sic],” students almost unanimously pointed the finger at a primary sleep-stealing culprit: social media.

“I’ll be in bed about to go to sleep and an hour will pass,” said one student, who admitted that he was “addicted” to Instagram. Another student, who seemed to take pride in her work ethic, added that she stays up late “too regularly, but [she] drink[s] coffee before class to make it work.”

None of this is surprising since, over the last few decades, sleep-deprivation has become the norm.

Questionable “Experts”

It is not always that the students are on social media late at night, but what they are watching and who they are listening to. A record number of “experts” are sharing advice these days. Often, these strategies fall into the category of self-improvement, self-help, and other abstract notions of salvation.

While some of those voices are valid, dispensing sound strategies with genuine intent, others should be met with skepticism. In benign cases, habits adopted from online “gurus” can be ineffective. In the worst cases, popular social media messaging can lead people down a path that undercuts their purpose, exacerbating health issues while promoting stress, anxiety, and depression. Specifically, the glamorization of sleep-deprivation is a major concern.

Famous and assumedly well-intended speakers often make heroes of those who are inclined to give up sleep and mock those who understand the value of rest. In one of the Internet’s most famous motivational videos, “How Bad Do You Want It? (Success),” narrated by motivational speaker Eric Thomas, nearly 47 million people have tuned in to learn that “If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to be willing to give up sleep. … If you really want to be successful, some days you’re going to have to stay up three days in a row, because if you go to sleep, you might miss the opportunity to be successful.” It is a dangerous message.

Some bad advice from a well-intended person.

Gary Vaynerchuck is one of the most influential people on the planet. His Instagram following alone (8.9 million as of 4/22/2021) is approximately the size of Belarus. His followers are not passive; they are deeply engaged with his content. Much of that content preaches accountability, self-management, and a bias toward action. For that he receives well-deserved praise. Still, much of his messaging is a concern. He admonishes school and the system of education, he advises young people not to listen to their parents, and (far too often) heralds sleep-deprivation.

BUT WAIT, say his followers, you haven’t heard his whole message. That may be true. After a significant amount of research and sifting through messaging which is often contradictory, it seems that Gary V. claims that he does not endorse sleep-deprivation. To find that truth, however, takes research – the very nature of social media (quick, headline-grabbing clips) limits the opportunity for a full explanation. He knows this.

Following the E.T. or Gary V. curriculum of sleep-deprivation for sake of success would lead to trouble concentrating, greater emotional reactivity, and increased errors in one’s work. In other words, the opposite of success. They have to own this.

It only takes a night or two of sleep-deprivation to realize that this self-destructive habit is not the best path to success. So why do people still follow this advice?

People follow these folks because they are master motivators. They possess the enviable ability to speak and to inspire – this is how they get their ideas in the door of one’s mind. Important to note that the minds he enters are often unlocked, belonging to those who are interested in improving and willing to try new methods… and often, sleep-deprived.

When people hear about the value of the grind, how they must sacrifice personal wellness for sake of their goals, they begin to accept that as truth, even if it contradicts logic.

Which leads us back to the understanding gap. If these rich, successful, “influencers,” are not prioritizing their sleep, it can’t be that important, right?

The Degraded Cycle

Too often, we hear stories of well-intended students who routinely prioritize work over rest. Some find themselves accidentally sleep-deprived, victims of attention-grabbing technology. The student who stays up too late – whether listening to Gary V. or studying for a test – will be sleep deprived the next day. That state of sleep-deprivation will influence what they eat; they might drink more caffeine than usual, throwing off the next night’s sleep. This begins an all-too-common phenomenon known as the degraded cycle.

Worse still, some have hypothesized that sleep-deprivation modifies production of dopamine (in the form of D2 receptor changes) and adenosine in ways that might inhibit one’s better sense, perhaps guiding them to familiar dopamine-bait dances of TikTok and other forms of social media. And the cycle continues.

To shake free from the cycle, we guide people toward the discipline of wellness. To the college students this past winter, we encouraged them to work hard toward their goals and maintain a mindset that will allow them to push through a day even when they do not get enough sleep. But be disciplined enough not to build a life around that standard. Set a bed time and stick to it.

We encouraged those students to neither fall victim to the late night social media trap, nor delude themselves into thinking that outworking professional “opponents” by waking up at 3:00 a.m. is the only way to be successful… no matter what their favorite social media influencer might say.

Students and professionals who pursue true understanding will realize that health and wellness depend on sleep. Sleep often depends on discipline. It might be difficult, but it will most certainly be worth it.

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