Whitney Tilson: The Consequences Of Sleep Deprivation

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Whitney Tilson’s email to investors discussing why companies can’t stop overworking; the importance of sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation; my hypomanic episodes; can’t sleep? here are some surprising strategies that actually work.

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Q1 2021 hedge fund letters, conferences and more

Why Companies Can't Stop Overworking

1) Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times had some insightful thoughts over the weekend on the longstanding problem of overwork and burnout in banking, consulting, and, increasingly (thanks to COVID-19), other professions: Why companies can't stop overworking. Excerpt:

Overwork and burnout aren't just issues at investment banks. For many, the pandemic has essentially erased the boundaries between work and home: white-collar workers feel stretched to their breaking point. And when offices reopen in earnest, few expect overwork to vanish or burnout to be relegated to the past.

Research suggests all of this excess work isn't good for anyone, employers included. So why are so many companies still encouraging it? And when companies do claim they are trying to reduce long hours, why do these efforts so often fail to make a difference? ...

The Importance Of Sleep And The Consequences Of Sleep Deprivation

2) I have personal experience with very scary things that can result from sleep deprivation. But first, a little background...

In my August 14, 2020 e-mail I included an excerpt from my forthcoming book (due out next month!), The Art of Playing Defense, about a new revelation for me: the importance of getting at least eight hours of sleep every night. Failing to do so can lead to all sorts of terrible long-term consequences, as I wrote:

For most of my adult life, I used to feel guilty about getting anything more than six hours of sleep each night. I know a handful of people – like my friend Wendy Kopp, with whom I worked starting Teach for America in 1989-90 – who perform at super high levels yet only sleep four hours a night. How I envy them – I would pay a lot of money for a pill that allowed me to do this!

A few years ago, I tried to train myself to function on six hours of sleep, staying up until midnight and setting my alarm for 6 a.m., but it didn't work – it just made me tired all the time and I could tell my brain wasn't functioning 100%.

So I went back to my usual seven to seven-and-a-half hours... and feeling guilty... until I saw a 19-minute TED Talk last year by Matt Walker called "Sleep Is Your Superpower."

In it (and in his book that I subsequently read, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams), Walker shared the results of numerous studies, all of which show the critical importance of getting at least eight hours of sleep – and the terrible consequences of sleep deprivation.

Premature aging ("the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life"). Early onset dementia like Alzheimer's. Reduced ability to absorb, process, and remember things. Impotence. A suppressed immune system, resulting in higher cancer risk. Increased chances of auto accidents, suicides, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks.

Walker concluded:

Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. It is your life-support system, and it is Mother Nature's best effort yet at immortality.

And the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children.

It's a silent sleep-loss epidemic and it's fast becoming one of the greatest public health challenges that we face in the 21st century.

Walker's wisdom changed my life – seriously! Instead of strategizing how to get less sleep, I now try to get more. Rather than viewing it as a wasteful luxury, eight hours of sleep is now the minimum I try to get each night – and nine is even better!

While I am, of course, only a sample size of one, I can tell you that ever since I started getting more sleep, I feel more energetic and stronger, both physically and mentally.

What I neglected to discuss in my book, however, was the effect of short-term sleep deprivation. Even one or two nights of limited sleep – like pulling an all-nighter to complete a deal – leaves most peoples' brains the equivalent to being legally drunk. Think about that before you get behind the wheel when you're tired...

And more than a few nights of sleep deprivation can trigger a "hypomanic episode" – I know, because it's happened to me three times in the past decade, all during periods when I've been under great stress and had difficulty sleeping (getting just two to six hours per night over a week or more).

The most recent was a year ago, when I was volunteering all day every day at the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in Central Park at the same time that the stock market was cratering. Basically, I was juggling two full-time, highly stressful/emotional jobs – and it pushed me to the edge...

This website's description of hypomania almost perfectly describes the state I was in:

Hypomania is an abnormally revved-up state of mind that affects your mood, thoughts, and behavior...

A hypomanic episode commonly manifests with unusual gaiety, excitement, flamboyance, or irritability, along with potential secondary characteristics like restlessness, extreme talkativeness, increased distractibility, reduced need for sleep, and intense focus on a single activity.

Hypomanic episodes are very dangerous for at least three reasons:

  • They can grow into full-blown mania and/or be a sign of bipolar disorder,
  • They can lead to terrible business decisions (e.g., making overly optimistic sales forecasts) and/or destructive behavior (e.g., breaking the law, blowing up important relationships), and
  • The person experiencing the hypomania might not want to end it. During my episodes, I was incredibly productive (that's what having four extra hours a day will do, going from eight hours of sleep to four!) and creative (in my frazzled state, I had far more outside-the-box ideas than usual – some were bad, but others were great).

Fortunately, I have a wonderful, endlessly patient wife, plus a great shrink. My nightly check-ins with him, along with the medicine he prescribed me (and Ambien), brought me back from the edge a year ago – far more quickly than in the previous two episodes.

Hypomanic episodes are scary and I don't ever want to go through another one, so my wife and I now carefully monitor both my sleep and my behavior for warning signs.

Can't Sleep? Here Are Some Surprising Strategies That Actually Work

3) This Wall Street Journal article, Can't Sleep? Here Are Some Surprising Strategies That Actually Work, has some excellent advice for those who are looking for more, better sleep. Excerpt:

How are you sleeping?

After one year of a pandemic – and a lot of disturbed slumber – it's clear that our usual sleep strategies aren't working. Scientists say many of the things we do to chase sleep are actually hurting us, and recommend a counterintuitive approach instead: Stay in bed for less time, not more.

I've been battling insomnia lately. I know I'm not alone. Approximately 40% of the population has had sleep problems during the pandemic, according to a meta-analysis of 44 studies from 13 countries published online in February in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The pandemic has been a significant source of stress and worry. Our daily routines have been disrupted, affecting our circadian rhythms. And social isolation has led to mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Best regards,