Richard Reeves

Now They Tell Us: Sleep More!

WASHINGTON -- I get up early, and I'm usually at the typewriter -- at the computer now -- before 6 a.m., sometimes before 5 a.m. When my wife and I lived in Paris in the late 1980s, I often watched the city awake in what was practically afternoon for me -- 9, 9:30, even 10 a.m. This was on weekdays, or as Americans say, workdays.

So, between 9 and 10 each morning, the steel shutters of the apartments across the Rue de Rennes from my home office would creak open, revealing men and women, always in bathrobes, yawning and stretching their arms into a street that was still quiet, at least by the standards of a New Yorker. I kidded myself that this French sleeping-in was another clue as to why America was running the world.

Of course, I did have this nagging feeling that no matter who was in charge, those folks seemed to have a higher quality of life than most of us -- to say nothing of Italians and Spanish at siesta. The American rationale was that sleeping was for lesser folk. That great American Richard Nixon once talked long into the night with his personal physician, Dr. Walter Tkach, about whether sleep was actually necessary, telling him that he thought many people just used it as an excuse to avoid responsibility, to put things off.

The 37th president, like most powerful people, was obsessed with time, constantly trying to figure out how to get more of it and how to maximize the use of it. That's ironic, because in fact he was a man whose performance noticeably and often unpleasantly suffered when he did not have enough sleep. The 42nd president, Bill Clinton, who projects around-the-clock energy, actually is fumbling and grouchy for long morning hours if he has had a bad or short night's sleep the night before -- at least if you believe the testimony of his White House staff.

I think most people begin to understand as they get older that sleep is much more important than we like to admit, especially in the United States of Work, where sleep is associated with babies, the old, the ill and the slackers. The things Americans are most likely to lie about are how much sex they get, how much sleep they need, and how long it takes them door-to-door from home to work and back.

But now sleep is coming back into fashion. The Wall Street Journal reports that among well-paid corporate Americans, "a good night's sleep is the ultimate perk." The National Sleep Foundation is getting a great deal of press attention with a survey that indicates only 35 percent of Americans get eight hours of sleep a night. Daniel Slegal, the clinical director of the Sleep Disorders Center in Dallas, says: "There's a reason why we spend one-third of our life asleep. Trying to trim more and more time off that just interferes with normal operations of the body."

Slegal also hits on a dirty little secret: "There is a direct relationship between how many hours we work and how many hours we sleep. We're working more hours now than we did in the 1970s, and if that's happening, we're sleeping less."

Most adult Americans sleep six hours and 58 minutes each day, according to the Sleep Foundation. I don't know how they got that number, but it sounds right to me. Or, rather, I think that is about how much sleep I get, even though my children would tell you, "He sleeps all day."

Not true. I am among the blessed who can fall asleep anytime anywhere, and I usually work at home, which means I can always grab a nap. And I do. More often than not, I go to bed -- and immediately drop off -- at 11:30 p.m. and get up at 5:30 a.m. I go immediately to work because I have learned, at long last, that my own energy and focus curves slide down from 100 to near zero in a smooth 45-degree decline. By early afternoon I lose focus if I do not sleep again for an hour or 58 or 45 minutes. Then I can ride a lower energy curve for a couple of more hours.

So now they tell me I'd do better if I grabbed another hour sometime. I'm sure they're right. I'm going to lie down for a bit.

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