Make Way For Sleep

10/31/2016 11:29am ET | Updated October 31, 2016

My junior year high school English teacher told the class not to turn in late papers, "because you do your best work in the middle of the night anyways, so just do it the night before."

Despite several warning signs -- this teacher wore the same thing multiple days in a row and always seemed frazzled -- I considered her a good authority on lifestyle choices.

I spent the rest of junior year falling in love with the middle of the night, which I utilized as a personal rebellion against the rigid structure of high school and which afforded me uninterrupted time to think. Plus, I appreciated the high of being half-conscious after five hours of sleep because it served as an effective antidote for my rampant adolescent energy.

However, by the time I finished high school, the sleep-deprived high I had once savored receded into painful zombie-hood.

When I arrived at college I promised myself I would sleep more and enjoy the place I worked so hard to attend. Luckily, my first-year roommate was an athlete and, like many athletes, had impeccable time management and got a solid 8-9 hours of sleep a night. I would come home at night expecting to do more work but the lights would be off and I decided that if my roommate was sleeping I probably should be too. I felt great!

The only problem was that I rarely finished any of my work during first year. I wanted to be a more actively engaged student but continue to sleep, so sophomore year I instituted a puritanical regiment of school and sleep. All seemed well--but I had no fun!

I wanted to do well in school,participate in my community and have fun, but I didn't know how to make it all work. A simple triangle diagram with "good grades" at the first point, "social life," at the second and "enough sleep" at the third solved my dilemma. The diagram was titled "College" and said "You can only choose two." I took this semi-literally and chose "good grades" and "social life" the spring of my sophomore year.

Serious students didn't sleep, and if I had gotten away with little sleep in high school I could do it again in college too, I thought.

Wrong. That semester was a blur. I processed little of the information in my classes, took five hours to finish a one hour assignment, drank an obscene amount of coffee, felt mentally unstable, was unable to be present with my friends, took random naps during the day and spent much of the nighttime hours trying to keep myself awake and justify my sleep habits by reading articles on the internet such as, "19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep."

Without sleep, I got neither "good grades," nor "social life."

I lamented that I could not get away with as little sleep as I was able to in high school, but realized I was doing some major revisionist history on the memories of my high school sleep habits.

In reality, each sleep-deprived night I had in high school I followed up by sleeping 9-10 hours and skipping my first period "Christian Morality" class in which we watched and discussed the moral dilemmas presented in movies such as "Schindler's List" and "My Sister's Keeper." Also, I slept 10-12 hours each weekend night, whereas at Midd I lose sleep on the weekends instead of catching up.

Towards the end of the semester I acknowledged that I had a sleep problem and asked a professor whose work-life balance I admire how she does it. Her answer: sleep a lot, wake up early, and don't drink coffee.

The next semester I did just that. I found I was naturally more efficient in the mornings and felt like I was cheating the day by somehow getting more time--at last, I acquired Hermoine's Time Turner watch! I went to bed early, had time for friends and fun, and stopped drinking excess amounts of coffee as I realized the buzz I got from coffee made me less focused and thus less efficient.

Going forward I hope that we can change our cultural zeitgeist around sleep on campus and understand, as Dr. David Gozal put it, "that similar to other healthy behaviors, sleep is not a tradable commodity but rather a life-sustaining physiological function."

At Middlebury we value exercising and eating healthy but don't value sleep to the same extent. Barbara McCall, Director of Health and Wellness Education, has long sought to evangelize the benefits of good rest and told me that our brains don't fully develop until 24-26 and so it is critical for college students to get at least 7-9 of sleep a night. She also noted that, because college is such a massive period of change and stimulation our brains need sleep more than ever to interpret and make meaning of what we experience during the day. Another of McCall's factoids was a surprise to me -- avoid drinking too frequently right before sleep because while alcohol may make you feel sleepy it actually disrupts sleep.

McCall also said to be conscious of the line between tired versus exhausted because, as she put it, "one of the signs of exhaustion is disrupted sleep so when someone is tired past the point of being able to cope it can actually be hard to sleep because the body is in stress mode because it's been so depleted."

The health and wellness center in the service building has free eye masks, earplugs and copies of Arianna Huffington's new book, "The Sleep Revolution." And McCall is always available to recommend ways to improve yours sleep, such as NASA tested 26 minute power naps and the app Flux, which makes the color of your computer's display adapt to the time of day.

Of course we'll all never be able to get the perfect amount of sleep, but I think we should try. Not just because it makes strategic sense for increasing the productivity of our schoolwork, but, more importantly, because we'll be more present for our friends and loved ones if we sleep more and will thus be a healthier and more vibrant community. I think that's something worth sleeping for.

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