Need More Rest? Try the Bedtimes of These Highly Successful People

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Elon Musk may have slept on the Tesla factory floor, but what about Ludwig van Beethoven and Charles Darwin?

The answer to that question might change your life — because it’ll help you think differently about what it takes to succeed.

Here’s the problem: Entrepreneurs often celebrate the extreme hustlers — repeating the stories of Steve Jobs emailing employees at 4:30 a.m., Marissa Mayer working 130-hour weeks at Google, and Mark Cuban not taking a vacation for seven years.

As a result, many entrepreneurs think that success requires endless sacrifice.

As editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, I am partially to blame for this! My industry amplifies these kinds of stories. Here’s just one of many examples from Entrepreneur.com:

Stories matter — they provide frameworks for how to understand the world.

But there is a massive downside to learning through stories — because not all stories get told. Instead, we tell the outrageous ones. As a result, we make the unusual sound usual.

Normal stories do not get told. But there are more of them.

Here’s the truth about other people.

People often ask me: “Do you ever sleep!?”

It’s a reasonable question. I have a big job and a lot of side projects (including the newsletter where I first published this essay you’re reading). But the answer is very boring.

Yes, I sleep just fine. The kids are down by 9 pm. My wife and I usually catch up and watch a show, then read in bed, and lights are out by 11. On weekdays, we wake up at 6:40 am to get the kids ready.

This isn’t just me. This is normal.

I once flipped through a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The author reconstructed the work schedules of famous artists, including when they slept. They were fascinating in their usualness.

For example:

Ludwig van Beethoven slept from 10 pm to 6 am.

Now imagine a story about that…

Not as sensational, but certainly honest.

And here are some other famous sleep schedules:

Maya Angelou slept from 10 pm to 5:30 am

Charles Darwin slept from midnight to 7 am

Charles Dickens slept from midnight to 7 am

Immanuel Kant slept from 10 pm to 5 am

Flannery O’Connor slept from 9 pm to 6 am

I know a lot of big-time CEOs. They’re in bed by 10 pm. I was just talking to a famous author, who told me she wakes up at 3 am to write and meditate — which sounded nuts to me, until she explained that she goes to bed around 9.

Live your normal story.

If you’re lucky, your life will be full of incredible and unusual things. You will do the stuff that others want to talk about. You will have experiences worth sharing.

But the foundations of your life do not have to be so unusual or incredible. They can be boring.

Some useful caveats: Are there times you must work hard, perhaps to the point of exhaustion? Absolutely. But it’s not sustainable, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. And this isn’t just about sleep — I mean, maybe you have a weird sleep schedule! That’s fine! I’m making a point about basic structures of your life, and how you prioritize.

There’s a great theory called Parkinson’s Law — the idea is that “work expands to fit the time allowed.” If you have a lot of time to do things, you’ll take all that time. If you have a little time, you’ll complete the task faster.

If we allow work to fill all hours of our lives, it will. But if we decide to live a regular life — and to confine work to mostly regular hours — then we will force a different series of normal, boring events.

We will ask ourselves things like:

  • How else can I get this done?
  • Who else can I turn to?
  • What things aren’t worth doing right now?
  • What things maybe aren’t worth doing at all?

I recently met a founder named Mike, who discovered this for himself. He used to sleep in his office, because he saw Elon Musk do it. Over time, Mike’s mental health suffered. He became irritable at work, and a worse boss. His marriage was strained.

Eventually, he stopped sleeping at the office. Then he realized that, with the right systems in place, he didn’t even need to work late.

“Now I get a full night’s sleep at home,” he said, “and my company still grows.”

He is happier. He is healthier. His relationships are stronger. These are all good and normal things. Maybe they’re not the stuff of legend. Maybe they’re not the stories that are told and retold. But they should be.

Now you can go tell that story.

Want more ways to work happier and healthier? My newsletter, One Thing Better, gives you one way each week — subscribe for free here.

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