Writer and broadcaster

Twenty winks. It’s never big or clever to cut back on sleep. Published in The Guardian

The last time the world cried as one, at the last American elections, I remember George Bush saying he wasn’t getting much sleep. This despite the fact that he slept with Shakespeare by his side – so he must have know that Shakey said sleep was the “chief nourisher in life’s feast”. (And clearly he hadn’t read his own University of Chicago’s report that even baboons and chimps need 10 hours sleep a night.)But admitting to lack of sleep has always been seen as a bit of a badge of pride: it hints at a hardness, at someone so busy or so full of responsibilities that sleep is a luxury, a time of the day that can be borrowed from for more important things.

Before I understood about politics, this was something that really irked me about Margaret Thatcher – her supposed ability to run the country on less than four hours sleep; often repeated as if this was something big and clever to be proud of. It’s not.

Too little sleep for too many nights wrecks your memory, gives you hypertension, impairs your judgment, causes accidents, not to mention makes you a crashing bore while you tell everyone how bloody tired you are. Now, if anyone trumpets the fact that they sleep less than six hours a night, I give them a wide berth. Immediately after I’ve asked them to lend me some money.

Last week a thinktank declared that employees should be given the chance to have siestas because it will enable them to perform better (on the continent they have known that for ages). A Demos report found that nearly 40% of people felt they were sleep deprived. (Surely there are more than that but they must be at home, too exhausted to go out and be polled.)

Sure, some employers just might, as a gimmick or in return for pay cuts, give their staff hammocks to sleep in after lunch. But not many will. And it doesn’t really address the problem of good night-sleep.

Why do we feel we can make time for almost everything but sleep? Sleep is vital. Without sleep we can’t learn. If we think of our brains as a shop, the time we are awake is taken up with “front of shop” activities – being social, taking in what is heard, read and seen etc. When asleep we tend to the “back of shop” duties. Filing and sorting through all that we’ve learned, repairing any damage, and generally making sense of the day.

If anything, the more important you are, the more sleep you should need, because the more you learn and do during the day, the more sleep you need to consolidate it all (which may explain Thatcher only needing four hours). So unless you’re a new parent (who can lose some 700 hours of sleep in their baby’s first year) or have a medical problem, there is simply no excuse for being sleep deprived. Just be big and brave: turn the telly off and go to bed earlier.

First published in The Guardian.