This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.
I have always been a night owl. In my college essay, I wrote about how being alone late at night was a space in which I felt peaceful and gathered my thoughts. My days were busy, so I liked these moments when my family retreated to sleep and I remained awake. I could unwind and let my thoughts wander.
Rereading these words is amusing to me now. In some ways, not much has changed. I still stay up way past what is considered a reasonable time to go to bed, but these nighttime hours are far from tranquil. As an overscheduled student with too few hours in the day, often I work until 4 a.m. to awake a few hours later in order to accomplish what must get done. Although it is not ideal, I can function on this schedule.
I am accustomed to this state of normalcy. Many of my close friends and tons of other students operate the same way, supplemented by 20-minute naps and unlimited coffee. All-nighters are nothing short of ordinary. When I come home to my apartment around 1 a.m., I am confident that at least two of my roommates will be awake and sitting at the kitchen table. There is some comfort in knowing I will have their company for moral support as we trudge onwards with our work. If I came home to a dark apartment, I would feel more strongly compelled to go to bed earlier, but we fuel each other's dysfunction. We lament our habits and often resolve to improve them, yet we see no other area in our lives that can pick up the slack.
"As an overscheduled student with too few hours in the day, often I work until 4 a.m. to awake a few hours later in order to accomplish what must get done."
A mantra exists that between sleep, good grades and a social life, college students must pick two and cut their losses on the third. It's not a matter of being inefficient or dawdling during the day; we just have too many things on our plates. If sleeping more means doing less--whether that involves cutting back on extracurricular activities, dropping a job or not going out--many, myself included, are unwilling to make the concession. Sleep feels like the most dispensable of the three. I can always sleep more when I'm older, whereas the chance to take advantage of the social and academic experiences of college feels fleeting. It is only when I go home on breaks and fall asleep everywhere, at all times of the day--most notably during Thanksgiving and on a safari ride driving around the savannah--that I really feel my exhaustion catch up with me.
Since sleep deprivation has affected me personally and I am interested in deconstructing this issue, I recently became involved with an event coming to Duke soon: The #SleepRevolution College Tour, the Huffington Post's sleep fair. It's designed to provide information and activities related to wellness, sleep and mental health. I would expect students to be interested in the event, but as I posted in groups trying to recruit attendees, I knew that ultimately many people would feel too stressed or busy to come when the date arrives. It's ironic that they won't have time for an event designed to promote health and stable habits.
"A mantra exists that between sleep, good grades and a social life, college students must pick two and cut their losses on the third."
From a personal standpoint, I would love to do yoga or learn to meditate, but when can I be expected to pencil that in? I would love to read for pleasure, but with homework that is never fully finished, where does that fit? The to-do list doesn't end, so it becomes difficult to justify adding anything that isn't urgent. On rare days when I do pursue that leisure time, my sleep still takes the hit. Getting extra sleep falls into the category of an enjoyable activity that can be done on a good day, alongside reading and Netflix.
The prospect of completing something tangible always seems to outweigh gaining one more hour of sleep. College students crave outcomes and results. We place greater value on things we can measure. How might we value feeling well rested or less anxious? With no numbers attached, this becomes harder to judge and therefore harder to care about. We need to incentivize ourselves to actually force us to shift our behavior. My roommates and I joke we could create a chart logging our hours so that whoever sleeps least that week has to do the dishes--the most dreaded task in our apartment--although we still question whether we would change.
"We face a Prisoner's Dilemma: while we could sacrifice our grades or social lives to get to bed earlier, we don't want to do so when nobody else does."
College students will remain unwilling to change our individual habits as long as the cultural norms that create this pressure remain unchanged. Cultural attitudes existing within the bubbles of college campuses become contagious and pervasive. We live in small but intense worlds. We face a Prisoner's Dilemma: while we could sacrifice our grades or social lives to get to bed earlier, we don't want to do so when nobody else does. If you can't beat them, sometimes you must join them, right? We need to keep up with the tide at its existing pace. Experts notoriously critique our generation, deeming us "Generation Stress," which undoubtedly has merit. But instead of criticizing those stressed students for not removing themselves from this unhealthy atmosphere, perhaps people should more forcefully challenge the expectations that create it.
This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.