Apr 27 • 6M

eight eight eight

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Jd Michaels
Life’s lemons into rich, dark chocolate.
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I just read an article that said getting six hours of sleep a night was as bad as not sleeping for two days straight. There was research, in a laboratory, with subjects and pencils and numbers.

I’m proud when I get six hours of sleep. I’m not saying that I “get six hours sleep”, like, every night or anything. I don’t know where you even heard that, that’s incredible, what an imagination you have. No, I’ve always felt that I physically REQUIRE six hours of sleep a night to achieve what I’m going to call “Basic Human Functionality”.

But this research revealed that only those who slept eight hours a night were “properly rested” or whatever (the smarmy jerks), while my noble Sixers faltered on the 10th day, breaking down in tests doing things like…cognitive stuff. Vocabulary things. Maybe memory stuff too; I don’t really recall.

So much modern talk mentions a “work / life balance”, and we live in a world of such stunning convenience that surely it is nearing Utopia: bon bons on chaise-longues in self-driving cars while wearing VR helmets. In this world of absolute wonder, I can definitely get two more hours sleep every night, right?

Going to sleep isn’t staying asleep. And if I roll the wrong way, I snore loud enough to be heard on the street. In Brooklyn. With our windows shut. And at 3:30 AM I’m up for no apparent reason (they say it might be stress but who are they and why should I listen to them whoever they are and what do they know?), and no matter what I do the cats always wake me at exactly 5:30 AM to be fed. No, I tried that. Yep, I tried that too.

The article vexed me because I really thought I had cracked the life/work balance code with the six hour thing. I was proud - I had my Apple Watch all set for my bedtime and wake-up time. More than I used to get… I used to be exhausted ALL THE TIME. I got home from work at 8:30 and to bed by 11:30 and then up again at 5:30. Oh. Wait. That’s six hours too.

Anywise, 8 hours of sleep a night seems to scientifically be the answer to everything, which isn’t surprising. We’ve heard that our whole lives.

Somewhere around 1817, a Welsh gentleman named Robert Owen promoted a revolutionary idea he called “the workday: 8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest”. He owned a factory, so he tested this hypothesis on his employees as one of his first efforts to create a “utopian society”.

He never really hit that mark, but he did became an originator of the trade union movement, which later adopted this theory: “8 hours work. 8 hours rest. 8 hours for what you will”.

You’re doing the math in your head, aren’t you? 8 and 8 and 8 is 24? Really? I could really sleep for 8 hours and then go to work and have 8 hours left? Every day?

Of course not. Clocks were more… theoretical in 1817. And the sun was younger, and more forgiving.

When’s the last time you had 8 hours of sleep, then had a super productive 8 hours at work, then partied for 8 hours? Never, is the answer, because it doesn’t work that way. 8 - 8 - 8 is a beautiful numerical fairy tale that has inspired civilization, but QUITE LITERALLY doesn’t add up.

You know what hadn’t been invented in 1817? Commuting. That’s an extra hour on either side of work. Then they must not have had any errands to do, that’s an hour, and two more for morning and evening ablutions and eating meals. At least an hour for some kind of home maintenance or reading the mail or the news or anything else that’s necessary instead of a fun choice…that’s 16 hours of work a day.

Sounds more like it, right? We’re getting there. Because now it’s 16 hours of work, with 8 left over to try and get some sleep and watch a couple of YouTube videos.

The “weekend” was an idea that occurred to several people at the beginning of the 20th century: a mill in New England offered Saturdays off to its Jewish employees along with Sunday, then Henry Ford tried it, but in England it was a gift from John Boot, whose pharmaceutical factory in Nottingham was experiencing a significant surplus, so to slow production, but keep staff employed, he gave them two days off without reducing their pay.

The 40 hour workweek, along with the weekend, was formally adopted the USA in 1937, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, under the New Deal, and it wasn’t so people could get more sleep, it was all a numbers thing of keeping people employed and factories open and numbers up or down or whatever.

And the weirdest fact about all this is that humans used to sleep in two four hour chunks, back before we had artificial light.  They’d wake up in the middle of the night for an hour or two, get some stuff done then go back to bed until morning. But candles and street lamps changed all that; then of course electricity, and Johnny Carson.

Even if I have a couple of hours for “what I will” I usually spend it decompressing. Decompression is the time it takes to get over the time directly before it. If I don’t employ some discipline, I end up using all that time to scroll through one thing or another on my phone, which is never productive.

“What” I should “will” is to read a book. Or write music. That’s a good thing to will. Or maybe a little pilates, I should be willing that. But if I only have 8 hours that I’m not working, should I spend all of that time sleeping? Really? I mean, what do I know, I’m a just a six-er, you eight hour sleep people have all the answers, you tell me –

– oh, sorry, I didn’t see you were… I apologize.
Just give me a call when you wake up.