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The world’s most successful* people get enough sleep

Credit: Getty

January 9, 2019   3 mins

Last month the business website, inc.com, put out the following tweet:

“The world’s most successful people start their day at 4 a.m.”

I think it’s fair to say that the response wasn’t one of universal welcome. Coming in the run-up to Christmas, when many people are stretched thinnest, the idea that one should wake up to further hours of cold, darkness and work provoked quite the reaction: “Oh, piss off” was J.K. Rowling’s pithy response.

Commenting on the kerfuffle for Slate, Rachelle Hampton argues that we should, in fact, be much angrier about a work culture that intrudes so deeply into our home lives:

“It’s completely insane that ‘successful’ people think that to be your most productive self, you must not only work through every waking moment but add more waking moments to your day, then work through those. Never to be questioned are jobs whose tasks cannot be finished within a normal 40-hour week or a work culture that romanticizes burnout. If never-ending chains of emails prevent you from actually doing your job, that is a problem that should be solved by your higher-ups, not by waking up before anyone can email you. If you’re getting bogged down by useless, menial tasks, your morning isn’t what needs to be restructured.”

One thing that I often hear from habitual early risers – apart from the thrilling tales of their gym routines and what they put in their smoothies – is that ‘there’s no one else around at that time to distract you’. To which I’m tempted to reply: ‘Better be quiet about it, then – or there will be.’

Because that’s the trouble with anything that extends the parameters of the normal working day – whether it’s a case of starting early, staying late or being always available via electronic means, the pioneers put pressure on everyone else, which managers are all too happy to exploit.

It’s not that the bosses are necessarily squeezing extra value out of their workforce. More often, I suspect it’s a case of managerial laziness – rather than tackling impediments to productivity in the workplace, the path of least resistance is allow work to spill-over into officially non-working hours.

Hampton makes the point that “if you can’t get your work done because Tim from marketing talks too loudly in your open office, the solution isn’t to get there two hours before Tim does”. Quite right too – the real solution in that scenario (apart from telling Tim to put a sock in it) is to question the logic of the open plan office – but that, of course, means unpicking decades of managerial (and architectural) theory. It’s much easier to rely on distracted workers finishing tasks in their own time. There’ll still be a price to pay, of course, but by families and communities, not employers.

What we’re putting in danger is one of the great social advances of the modern age — the miraculous reduction in the working week, working year and working lifetime. From the latter part of the 19th century to the latter part of the 20th, working hours declined massively as wages increased. In countries across the world today there is an inverse relationship between working hours and wage levels.

Whether or not the wage stagnation of recent years is being exacerbated by longer working hours is difficult to ascertain, because the tech-enabled additional hours that workers are putting in from outside the workplace are hard to measure – especially when they’re not being paid for in overtime.

All employment contracts should clearly state the real, rather than the official, working hours of the job – and also the true likelihood of it intruding into the home life of employee. If, in ‘exceptional circumstances’, those normal working hours are to be significantly exceeded (and work/life boundaries violated) then that should be formally recorded and explained by the employer. Employees should also have a duty to notify line managers about extra hours of work they undertake, especially those outside the workplace.

This would provide a basis on which employers could be held accountable for the working cultures, for which they are ultimately responsible.


*Note that by ‘successful’ I mean healthy, happy, sane – that sort of thing

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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