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The Sleep Habits of Successful Executives

December 1, 2016, 4:25 PM UTC

This morning we focus on an issue to which you almost certainly pay too little attention: yourself. If I had asked you five minutes ago to list the top issues on your to-do list – even if I had specified that they be issues for your organization – I’ll bet you wouldn’t have included your own well-being. That omission is a big mistake, but if it’s any consolation, you’re in excellent company. So I urge you to read Cliff Leaf’s article on Arianna Huffington’s new company, Thrive Global, which launched yesterday and which aims to make money by helping people feel better while also making their employers more successful. If it succeeds, that’s a win-win-win. But for now let’s focus on the most important winner, you.

Huffington is the media entrepreneur who built the Huffington Post, sold it to AOL for $315 million in 2011, and stepped down as editor in chief this past August. Well-being is the subject of her two most recent books, Thrive (2014) and The Sleep Revolution (2016). She’s passionate about the subject because of a personal experience, when she collapsed from exhaustion in 2007, breaking her cheekbone and gashing her face. Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem, but she could: “Nothing was wrong, except everything was wrong.”

Huffington discovered that other top executives – Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, JP Morgan Chase U.S. Private Bank chief Kelly Coffey, United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz – had experienced their own frightening revelations about neglecting themselves. And she found that step one in reforming our views about self-care is simply accepting that it’s okay to sacrifice certain things in favor of our health. As she puts it: “The deep cultural belief that if you are a driven, smart person who wants to succeed you just have to sacrifice your health, your relationships, everything along the way is unbelievably deeply embedded—and it just isn’t true.”

That last part is the key. The conventional view isn’t true. Driving yourself maniacally doesn’t make you more productive or creative. It makes you less so. The supposed tradeoff is false. Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who sleeps eight hours a night, says, “We don’t need to maximize the number of decisions we make per day. Making a small number of key decisions well is more important than making a large number of decisions. If you short change your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion.”

In some organizations it’s still not culturally okay to talk like that. Let’s be brave enough to start turning the tide. Instead of bragging about how little sleep you get, brag about how much. Turn down meeting requests if they conflict with your scheduled exercise or yoga sessions. Change your view of dreaded downtime – seeing it not as waste but as vital fuel that makes you happier and better.

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Above all, accept that it’s okay to attend to your own body and mind. It will make you happier. And if you’re too conscientious and type-A for that to be enough, realize that it will also make you a better leader.