I’m more or less perpetually awed by how poorly we academics take care of ourselves much of the time. Sometimes I think that, almost by definition, the typical scholar-teacher is a neurotic who routinely puts work before his or her own health. Unnecessarily. Perhaps this is why I frequently find myself writing about self-care issues, because I’m worried about the ways in which many of us routinely neglect our own physical, mental, and emotional health.
Obviously enough, ours isn’t the only line of work in which people give their careers precedence over health and comfort, but I do think that it’s a common problem in our profession. Credit it to selflessness if you like — caring about students, intellectual inquiry, the institutions we serve — but putting one’s career before one’s health is not a winning lifestyle over the long term.
I recently had to re-address one of my own health-neglecting tendencies. I had to become a lot more conscientious about my sleep, and in particular about getting enough hours of quality sleep to, well, function. In my usual beginning of the semester effort to avoid falling behind, and in an attempt to fulfill all of the ambitious promises I made to myself after the fall semester (a predictable cycle for me), my work began to cut into my sleep.
I normally get and can function well on about 6 hours of sleep, assuming that about twice a week, but not necessarily on weekends, I get a good, solid 8 hours. About once a month I might go on a 10-hour sleep bender. But in the beginning of the semester rush, I began to fatigue early in the evening, earlier than usual anyway, and it took me about a week to realize why, even though the reason was obvious. I had been clipping my 6 hour nights down to about 5, and sometimes 4. And my "long" nights were only about 6-7 hours.
The effect was creeping and cumulative. After about 4 weeks of this reduced-sleep routine, which I had embarked on without ever intending to, I began to crash. It caught up with me, in a big way. I couldn’t focus on my work, I was fatiguing earlier in the day, and I was definitely more irritable than usual. Failing to exercise regularly has the same effects on me, but I had been keeping up with my workouts.
During every major phase of my adult life — college, my first job after college, graduate school, and now as a junior faculty member — I have had to relearn the simple fact that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to burning the midnight oil. Especially when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks, I can get more done in one well-rested hour than I can in three sleep-deprived hours.
The solution is simple, but sometimes difficult to allow ourselves: get more sleep.
Napping, if your professional and family life can accommodate it, is one way to make up for sleep deprivation. I myself am not an accomplished napper. It takes me too long to fall asleep. In my own friend group, the best nappers I know were all in the military. I had a college friend who was in the National Guard and who could, in a living room full of rowdy guys playing videos games, simply decide to go to sleep. It was as if all he had to do was throw a switch and he would be out for an hour, falling asleep immediately, waking almost precisely an hour later, with nary a grain of sand in his eye, refreshed and recharged. I envied him this talent, and still do. Another friend of mine works two jobs, one from about 5 in the morning until noon, and the other from 4 in the afternoon until 9 at night. He never seems tired, in part because he takes a nap just about every day in between his two different jobs.
Allowing yourself a night of extended sleep after several too-short nights, while less ideal than getting regular, reliable amounts of sleep, can also help make up for the deficits. When the semester is at its worst, I have to actually schedule sleep, as a way of conscientiously compelling myself not to over-schedule and set aside the time that my brain needs to recharge.
I’m no expert on the science on circadian rhythms, but I know that mine have changed as I’ve aged. During college I was most productive in the late evening. I could hang out with friends and then return to my room, refocus on my work, and work until a large task was completed. Things have completely shifted. Now if I have important or cognitively demanding work to get done -- and I do all the time -- it’s better for me to turn in early and get up early as well, addressing my hardest work before the routine demands of the day interrupt my ability to concentrate. If I don’t write in the morning, I probably won’t get a chance to write all day. And the writing I do in the early morning is almost always better writing than the writing I do at other times. Managing my sleep has required that I protect my morning writing time, which basically means going to bed early instead of sleeping in.
I simultaneously love sleep and resent it. I love it because it feels so good. But I resent it because of how much time it takes from other things. I might wake up one morning and think to myself, “Wow, what a great night’s sleep. I feel really good.” But in a month I won’t remember that particular evening’s sleep. What I will remember in a month is the great bike ride that I took in my waking hours, or a particularly excellent class discussion. The point is that we all require different amounts of sleep, within a range, to function at our best, but as overworking educators many of are inclined to cut our sleep time before anything else. That bill comes due eventually.
I imagine that many readers are thinking to themselves things like, "This jerk obviously doesn’t have kids," or, "6 hours of sleep, I’d kill for 6 hours of sleep." I know, I know. This is easy advice to give, and it probably does a poor job of accounting for the demands of your particular life. But I stand by my point. You have 6 hours of grading to finish? Well, maybe it you get a couple extra hours of sleep tonight your 6 hours of grading will, in a more mentally rested state, really only be 4 or 5 hours of grading. Maybe even less. We all need sleep.