A couple weeks ago during an icebreaker, I asked one of my classmates to share a fun fact about themselves. They responded, “Well, I don’t really have a fun fact … but I only get four hours of sleep a night.” I remember thinking to myself, “What about that is a ‘fun’ fact?” If anything, my classmate’s confession was a frightening fact—one that was made all the more concerning when I realized that this student is far from alone.
Sleeplessness is a big problem on campus. Try counting the number of head-bobbing, dead-eyed, groggy-looking students in your 8:40 and you’ll begin to get a picture. Add in an ungodly amount of caffeine, Adderall, and screen time, and it's a wonder that anyone on campus is able to sleep. But if you’re like me, you don’t need to be told that Columbia has a sleep problem—at some point we’ve all been one of those semi-conscious students hiding in the back of the class too.
When professors, friends, or parents see bags under our eyes, they tell us to get more sleep. Exasperatedly, we answer something along the lines of “You don’t understand! Between papers, readings, discussion questions, tests, clubs, internships, sports, and all my other commitments, how on earth am I supposed to make time for a couple extra hours of sleep?!” It often feels like we have too little time for something as seemingly frivolous as sleep.
Yet, we all know that we would be better off if we were able to sleep more. We’ve all been sent those annoying articles—usually by concerned family members—on “The Benefits of Sleep” and “The Importance of Sleep for College Students.” And, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us could cut back on some commitments if we chose to make sleep a priority. So why don’t we?
One reason is that Columbia students put a lot of value in work ethic. Staying late in Butler is even a point of pride for many Columbia students who want to prove their industriousness. Often this pride sneaks into conversations. Students asked questions in passing will tell you how little they sleep, how hard they work, or how they don’t have time to chat because they’re too busy or tired. While conversations like these may seem harmless, they can exacerbate Columbia’s stress culture, creating a kind of workaholic brinkmanship where everyone is trying to establish who's studying the longest and sleeping the least. Constantly listening to these conversations can intensify insecurities, leading one to ask: Am I working hard enough? Should I be sleeping less?
These questions about sleep arise from a larger social misconception: the idea that sleep is a necessary sacrifice to be successful. We are bombarded with articles on social media on a litany of CEOs, performers, and politicians who credit their success to sleeping less. Yet, the reality is that there are just as many successful people who do just fine getting a normal seven-to-eight hours of sleep. Albert Einstein claimed to require ten hours of sleep to work well. Lyndon B. Johnson and Winston Churchill preferred working past midnight, but took a siesta in the afternoon to clock their seven hours. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, not only gets an ample amount of sleep, but is a staunch sleep crusader. And for those who don’t get a good night’s sleep, sometimes it shows. President Donald Trump only gets four to five hours.
There are many more successful people that get a healthy amount of sleep, but that doesn’t make for very interesting clickbait. It is easy to be tricked into believing that the only way to get ahead in life, or at Columbia, is to work into the wee hours of the morning. But this is far from the only way to the top, and it certainly isn’t as enjoyable as “sleeping your way to the top.” Even if sleep isn’t a top priority, at least try to make it one of your priorities. After all, that extra hour of sleep could be one of the easiest ways to improve your current and future happiness.
Noah Kulick is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and American history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or concerns. Past the Present runs alternate Mondays.
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