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Note to my sleepy self: Do something about it

In the past year, there has been a slew of local articles about sleep, the health risks of sleep deprivation, the need for work-life balance, as well as letters calling for action to improve students’ sleep.

Getting enough sleep is vital for so many reasons. Photo: Thinkstock

Getting enough sleep is vital for so many reasons. Photo: Thinkstock

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In the past year, there has been a slew of local articles about sleep, the health risks of sleep deprivation, the need for work-life balance, as well as letters calling for action to improve students’ sleep.

While there appears to be genuine recognition that something needs to change, the needle has not moved much on a societal or policy level. In this instance, instead of waiting for government action, change can and should actually begin with individuals. Here are five pointers to get us to the tipping point.


Writer Laura Vanderkam’s illuminating piece, The Busy Person’s Lies, cited a survey showing that 61 per cent of Americans felt they did not have enough time for things they wanted to do. Yet, when she ran a year-long time-use audit on herself, she was surprised by the opportunities she had to repurpose her time.

“A life is lived in hours,” she wrote. “What we do with our lives will be a function of how we spend those hours, and we get only so many ... Life is full and life has space”.

Our subjective assessment of time-use is often distorted. For example, it is well known that we have a natural tendency to over-report physical activity and under-report food intake. Consumers in South-east Asia also appear to underestimate daily smartphone usage by about 50 per cent. Evaluate your own time use and discover how you can repurpose some time for sleep.


We are all too familiar with deferring what we need to get done to a later time because we feel we cannot do a good enough job now. University of Zurich social scientist Veronika Job discovered that when students believe that willpower is limited (as they might if sleep deprived), they are more likely to procrastinate and eat junk food when under stress.

Such persons go on the lookout for signs of fatigue to justify their bailing out of completing difficult tasks.

Although training to increase willpower worked in her study, it does not get rid of the root problem for sleep-deprived persons: A real loss of cognitive capacity and increased negative mood.

Relatedly, research conducted by my group has shown that sleep deprivation increases “effort discounting”, when a higher reward is required before we will choose to put in the same level of mental effort, compared with performing the same task when well rested. Sleeping sufficiently in the first place would be an obvious remedy!


Those who participate in cross-geography conference calls will be familiar with having to do them late into the Singapore night. It pays to hold your ground and to negotiate for more sleep-friendly times for such calls. Draw some boundaries on evening networking events. Downtime matters. Be deliberate about setting aside time for family and sleep. Doing so will force one to be more focused while at work.

My European and Australian colleagues are some of the most innovative and productive scholars despite shorter official working hours. They have shown that a working culture that avoids intruding on personal and vacation time is possible. In contrast, many Singaporeans accede to being contactable at all times, even when on vacation. This may be necessary for mission-critical positions or situations, but should be resisted under more routine conditions.


Individual choices influence broader collective norms. Young Asian adults currently sleep one to two hours less on average than their counterparts in Europe and Australia. Are we biologically that different?

Research has shown that older adolescents sleep and rise later (the trend reverses in early adulthood). Now that we have single-session schools, there is every reason to start school later.

There will be teething pains but these can easily be justified by long-term improvements in health, mood and cognitive outcomes. And what better country in Asia to lead the charge than Singapore?

There is accumulating evidence that short sleep is a contributor to higher rates of diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers and mood disorders. It is timely to advocate for sleep promotion for economic reasons — to reduce healthcare costs.

We need to overturn the unfounded fear that disrupting the status quo will upset what appears to be a tried and tested economic success formula. While many people are aware that overtraining in athletics is detrimental to performance, few realise that the same applies to sleep.

Productivity is important but longer waking hours to attain it has diminishing or negative returns. In the United States and China, studies have found that later sleep time is associated with lower economic productivity. A Norwegian study showed that adolescents sleeping around 10.30pm did academically better than those sleeping later or earlier.

Arianna Huffington, the hard-driving owner of the Huffington Post, pushed herself to exhaustion before she realised that her disregard for sleep was harmful to herself, her family and her business. She went on to write a book and now appears on national television to talk about her revised view on sleep.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck observed that individuals who believe that intelligence is fixed view failure as a threat and avoid difficult tasks — such as making a personal change in lifestyle.

In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset view intellectual assets as evolving over time. Failure, rather than being final, is a stepping stone. We need to adopt the second mindset if we are to outperform other nations.

Living smarter, not harder, has to be part of that strategy even if it means stumbling along the way to find fresh solutions. If you are perennially tired from insufficient sleep, make adjustments now. Lead change instead of waiting for someone else to lead. Encourage others to do the same. Life will be better.

About the author:

Michael Chee is a professor with the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders Program and director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. His twin research interests are the neuroscience of sleep deprivation and cognitive ageing.

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