How to function on little sleep for an extended period

How to function on little sleep

How to function on little sleep for an extended period

Over the last year my non-work life has been an adventure in the original sense of the word: an unusual and risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome. For a number of personal reasons I’ve had to survive on four to six hours of frequently-interrupted sleep while continuing to work and maintain a normal family schedule.

What follows is advice for how I’ve maintained some level of sanity and productivity in the face of such a challenging constraint. Hopefully it will be useful to someone else facing a family crisis, medical issue, or some form of voluntary insanity like trying to write a book, ship a version 1.0 of a product, or simply work at a startup.

Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor some sort of sleep scientist.  These are things that have worked for me.  I have not done all of these things 100% of the time; these are lessons learned. Please consult your rabbi, personal trainer, one of George Foreman’s kids, and your local plumber before trying out these techniques for yourself.

Reset your expectations

If you aren’t getting much sleep you need to reset your expectations about what you can physically accomplish. Physical exhaustion leads quickly to mental exhaustion. I halted work on my book and barely limped into writing a chapter in another due to decreased energy, lack of extra motivation, and a creative down period.

On the physical side you need to manage your exertion carefully. The amount of recovery needed greatly increases if you aren’t getting the bare amount of sleep your body requires. Recovering from one hard workout can take days – now is the time for slow walks not marathon training.

Some simple rules about your diet

Physical health is a core requirement for any higher level forms of health. Since you are not fulfilling one of your body’s basic needs you need to be very nice to it in other areas.

Simple things to avoid: alcohol, caffeine, crappy food. I’m not free of sin in these areas but I regretted each drink when I was completely exhausted and found that fast food made me feel worse. Eating clean foods (i.e. foods that don’t have commercials) allowed my body to survive on less sleep.

When many people are sleepy they feel hungry (my body easily confuses the two). You might think since you are awake and moving around more that you might need a lot more calories.  Drink extra water to keep your digestive system thinking it is full and avoid an extra meal.

Random side note: Make sure you are getting enough B6 and B12 in your diet; lack of these combined with lack of sleep made everything much harder.


On the subject of caffeine I’ll offer the following tip: don’t or be very careful. The normal expected reaction to getting less sleep in the USA is to just drink another coffee or pound a Red Bull or Mountain Dew. These substances are additive, taste like garbage, and may or may not contain cat tears.  Ironically these substances are normally B12/B6 overloads laced with caffeine and a series of things that increase blood-flow.  Just eat the real stuff and avoid the unknown side-effects of mind Viagra.

Too much caffeine can also hurt you when you want to go to sleep but you drank something four hours ago and your body won’t let you.  Caffeine intake cannot match the pace of the lack of sleep you are dealing with – this is a slippery slope in which you end up four years from now with stomach surgery and a reputation for being cranky and smelling mildly of tar.

I’ve found that a well-executed nap replaces caffeine in the afternoon. An additional tip I picked up from an ultracyclist (somebody who rides their bike for days at a time) is to drink coffee or caffeine and then take a 20 minute nap during the 20 minutes it takes for your body to absorb it. I call it ‘slingshot napping’ because it feels roughly like slingshoting the moon while riding a unicorn shooting rockets out of its mouth while you both shred a guitar.

If you do need to stay up just drink a lot of water instead. Drinking water keeps your metabolism moving and makes you get up to use the bathroom a lot. A simple, sort of silly, method that is very effective.

Sleep routine

When you have the opportunity to sleep you need to get to sleep fast and consistently.  All the normal advice for how to get a kid to sleep applies here – sleep in the same place, as much as the same time of day as possible, using the same ‘go to bed’ routine.  I’d add that avoiding “screens” of any kind near when you wish sleep is ideal – no phones, TVs, or computers in your bedroom.

One additional tip for managing the weekends – if you have the opportunity to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday take the additional hours as naps and not all as extra morning sleep.  When you are truly in a massive sleep hole 3+ additional hours for 2 days in a row will wreck your body’s natural rhythm and make you miserable on Monday and Tuesday of the next week.  Getting an extra hour in the morning and then taking a short nap Saturday and Sunday afternoon keeps the schedule going but let’s your body rest.

Surviving at work: your mind and memory

You will be a dumber version of yourself when tired – not able to learn as effectively, not able to make connections or recall information that you surely know, not able to problem solve as effectively, etc.  You need to account for this.

Manage your energy and not your time.  If you are less tired in the morning, try to shift all of your difficult work to that time of day.  If you end a task at 4PM but need to stay at work until 5 and are getting tired try to find something that doesn’t require deep focused concentration if possible.  Try – and this is a delicate balance – to do ‘easier’ work during your time of sleep deficit if possible.

Automate as much of your mind as possible. Have a bit of trouble at times remembering appointments? Occasionally forget to perform some small procedure at work (like doing your TPS reports every Thursday)? Under the compromised position you occasionally will turn into always. Use a reminder service or some foolproof system to make sure things get done.

Monitor yourself

Once you get deep into lack of sleep you lose your sense of direction. After a few weeks you are a low-functioning person capable of making terrible decisions and missing important details. The difference between sleepy and it is dangerous to operate heavy machinery is hard to detect due to your friend Mr. Adrenaline.

Learn to detect your level of energy:

  • How moody are you?
  • How long would it take for you to fall asleep if you just sat down?
  • Are mental challenges that shouldn’t be hard taking forever?
  • Are you forgetting a lot of things?
  • Are you willing to take shortcuts to complete something because you feel like you just want it ‘done’?

There are roughly three energy levels when sleep-deprived that require you to modify your behavior:

Well rested: After a string of days of little or interrupted sleep you suddenly get a few extra hours. Do as much as you can the next day. Tackle hard problems; use your focus for good.

Compromised: You have a string of days of less than ideal sleep and have a few hours of great energy everyday followed by rough afternoons or nights.  Do the most important stuff during the hours you can think clearly.

DestroyedYou feel like you are going to fall asleep at red lights and the idea of getting out of this chair to get a glass of water feels like an epic quest. Take a nap; avoid important things until you get back to ‘Compromised’.

Decision-making and mood

Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t make big life decisions when you are on a plane? I have no idea if that is garbage or not, but I know you shouldn’t make huge life decisions while lacking sleep. Your mood is affected by your body’s exhaustion level – you will tend to favor short-term decisions as the thought of harder and longer-term work efforts is harder to imagine.

One additional thing to note is that if you get some extra sleep you will feel so much better that you might be tempted to suddenly change course or commit to new things. Ten hours of sleep after you are used to almost none will send signals that you are, in fact, Superman and should signup for the 2020 Olympics in a sport you just heard about.


The main takeaway should, of course, be that you should try to get some sleep and be healthy.  Some of the things listed are just good ideas all the time.  You think better, feel better, and can be more effective when you are well-rested.  Now that the intense period of sleep deficit is over in my life it has been quite refreshing to see how my mood, effectiveness, and life have improved.  You should sacrifice sleep only for things that you deem in the short term to be more important than your health: your family’s health and well-being for example.