Why Entrepreneurs Can't Sleep


For those of you that know me well, you know that I have terrible, horrible insomnia.  In high school, I would go to sleep around 3am and then struggle to get up at 6:30 am.  I would drink a dozen Mountain Dews everyday just to stay awake.  In college, my schedule shifted further so that I was falling asleep around 6am and sleeping until 2pm.

It massively affected my life.  I once slept through the finals of a doubles tennis tournament.  My 4 alarm clocks and the repeated calls from my partner didn't wake me up.  I remember once, in college, having an important meeting scheduled for 8am.  I had to stay up all night to ensure that I would be there.  Because I was so nocturnal, I couldn't take any morning classes.  In 4 years of college, I took 1 class before noon.  I probably missed 75% of the class sessions and barely passed.  There were all sorts of fascinating classes that I would have loved to take but couldn't because they weren't afternoon classes.  

And I really tried to fix it.  I tried everything.  I saw sleep doctors and spent the night in sleep labs. I tried melatonin, ambien, lunesta, cutting caffeine, exercising everyday, meditation, sleep rituals, etc.  It was so tough.



And I've now, finally, 100% fixed it.  



I have delayed sleep phase syndrome.  I still have it, but I've totally managed it.  I don't let it run my life.

Last year, I wrote a blog post explaining exactly how I did it, entitled Become a morning person.  How to end insomnia for $520.99.   The post explained that delayed sleep phase syndrome is solved by regulating light.   Light at night (specifically from the blue spectrum) pushes our circadian rhythm later, causing us to go to bed later.  Bright light in the morning (bright enough to be over 5000 lux) pushes your circadian rhythm back, helping you wake up earlier and go to bed earlier.

This light manipulation is just mimicking our more natural state when the sun was our primary source of light.  Now, with interior lighting, back-lit computers, and 52 inch TVs, we get far more light at night than we should.  With shades blocking our windows in the morning and with spending all day inside, we get far less light during the day than we should.

My blog is about startups and all this sleep stuff doesn't have anything to do with startups or MBAs sucking.  But, as of now, that blog post has gotten over 130,000 views.  On Hacker News, it has generated 110+ comments.  A year later, hackers still mention that post to me quite frequently.  At the time I wrote it, I knew intuitively that hackers faced insomnia at a high rate.  A bunch of my friends in the startup world are night owls just like me.  And it seems to be delayed sleep phase syndrome that specifically hits entrepreneurs the hardest.  


What's the connection?

Why do so many entrepreneurs have insomnia?


I've got a few theories I want to share.  These are all based on observation and personal experience.  I would love to hear your thoughts. For those of you still in school, I would love love love to see what actual research has been done.  Please leave any good research finds in the comments here or on Hacker News.


Theory 1:  It's Genetic.

The same set of genes that makes for an entrepreneurial predisposition also causes insomnia.  Just by using the word 'genetic' I can say confidently that we're beyond my pay grade.  Go to it grad students!  Who has research to support or refute this claim?!?!  I have some thoughts that it's related to hypomania, but that's for another post.


Theory 2:  Insomnia makes 'normal' careers too difficult

I wonder what my life would have been like if I could have gotten up at 6am.  I remember my one normal internship as a consultant in college.  We were due in the office at 7:30am and it was an hour commute.  I was a zombie that entire summer. There were many reasons that I didn't like that career direction, but I do wonder how many times smart, driven people have shied away from a career path because the mornings were just too painful.  Have any of you had this experience?  With the traditional 9-5 jobs so physically challenging, the ability to work later in the day as an entrepreneur become almost a necessity.


Theory 3:  Entrepreneurs create a self-perpetuating night owl culture

Normal 'office hours' in our startup are 11am to 3am'ish.  At my buddy's startup, they started offering really good lunches to encourage people to get out of bed and come into the office.  Want time with the founders?  Join them at 11pm when the office is in full gear.  

We have one guy on our team that has really bad delayed sleep phase syndrome.  When he's around, everyone else also shifts a few hours later in the day.


Theory 4:    Entrepreneurs need to focus.  Night is simply more productive.

When we were building FlightCaster, we were dealing with some gnarly shit.  As an engineering team, our guys couldn't really focus on tough stuff until everything settled down.  Even with 'wired-in' rules, quiet rooms, and no meetings, there's still lots of commotion during the day.  At night, no one bothers you and you can focus for 8 hour chunks.  

One of the reasons I didn't care about the morning start time was that our guys were being so damn productive at night.  And more productive than normal people.  In fact, for a period we tried a normal schedule and it destroyed our productivity.



So, those are my theories.  I usually try to offer stuff with this blog, but this time I'd love your collective help.  Insomnia affects a huge number of us.  Please do include any research you find in the comments and on Hacker News.  I know that for me, learning about delayed sleep phase syndrom and the effects of blue spectrum light has vastly improved my quality of life.  If you're struggling with getting up in the morning and going to bed earlier, check out my original post and give it a try.

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News


And please come check out my new startup, 42Floors:  


We're fixing commercial real estate.  Forever.

Sign-up to learn more at 42floors.com,

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Sign-up now to among the first to participate when we launch.  It's cool shit.  Don't miss out.

I would also greatly appreciate introductions to potential advisors.  We're not fundraising until the spring, but I'm happy to 'get coffee' with people who are interested in getting to know us.


I'm Jason Freedman.  
I've got a sweet-ass new company: 42Floors.  
Previously, I did FlightCaster.
I welcome connections on Linkedin,  Facebook, and Twitter.



19 responses
Howdy Jason -

I'm in a pretty similar boat. I remember us setting alarm clocks to make it to YC dinners and office hours sometimes. :-)

My sleeping schedule isn't just nocturnal; it's completely erratic. One of the greatest pleasures of starting a company was finally not having to meet normal hours – which I'd struggled at for the previous 7 years.

Among your theories, which I assume all apply in varying degrees, one that I'd add is that it's not that I don't have a circadian rhythm, it's that the impulse of tiredness is relatively weak compared to the impulse of being in the zone and wanting to finish something. Once I'm "on" it's hard for me to stop until I get to a natural stopping point, even if that's 4 hours past when my body thinks I should have gone to bed. That combined with the fact that I'll often wake up in the middle of the night with my to-do list haunting me makes the sleep / wake cycles quite the oddity. There's a pretty massive dopamine tick to me for getting things done, which unsurprisingly keeps me awake.

The other thing that notably gets me, being from Texas originally, where the sunrise time doesn't vary all that dramatically, is living in northern Europe where the sun rises at 3:30 a.m. in the summer and 8:30 a.m. in the winter. I've never tried to pin that down further, but I know that the weirdness of my sleeping schedule took it up a notch when I first moved to Michigan for college.

The interesting thing is that while this may sound terrible to normal folks, in an environment where I don't have to fight it it's totally fine. I'm usually pretty rested, even if I slept at some bizarre time, or only for a few hours, or whatever. When I am working in an environment where I needed to maintain some semblance of reality, I did it by only sleeping 6 nights per week so that there was a built-in reset before every Monday.

It's funny--the reason my insomnia was created in the first place was because I am a procrastinator. Pressure makes me perform better, so I would force myself to work through the night before a deadline. Now, however, there's so much to do that I often feel guilty for sleeping. I think you forgot to add the guilt component. :)
"The post explained that delayed sleep phase syndrome is solved by regulating light." "... with interior lighting, back-lit computers, and 52 inch TVs, we get far more light at night than we should."

Theory 5 - Entrepreneurs spend more time in front of, and around artificial light sources, thus throwing the normal circadian rhythms out of balance. Combined with Theory 4, the two exacerbate each other.

I have DSPS too. It first started manifesting in high school as you described, and my current situation in college is pretty similar too (except I have no choice but to take morning classes since my school offers so few sections). What shocks me is how few health care professionals recognize or even know about the syndrome.

The only way I've been able to adapt is to "reset" my sleep schedule every few weeks by staying up from the afternoon until the evening the next day. Then I can get up in the morning for a few days until I start drifting back to my "normal" schedule, but that is really no way to live.

I've found your posts on the subject informative and helpful. I'm also glad to see that a person with DSPS can still be successful.

Entrepreneurs can't sleep because of habit. We have created a culture where we spend more hours infront of backlit displays like tv/laptops etc till ridiculous hours. This slows down natural melatonin production and so you stay up and mess up your internal rhythms/clock. Leading to unregular sleep where you get less deep sleep. Deep sleep is important on a biological level and how you feel the next day.

Solution = stick to a regular sleep & wake pattern, read a book (not on ipad) an hour before sleep staying away from all backlit displays and use melatonin at first to get you to sleep fast. Then let your body's natural rhythms take over and make you more alert and productive in the day.

Problem solved.. how nature intended us to function.

I've got DSPS also, but it started at the more traditional point in life that the DSM IV suggests - for me that was age 13. I spent years in psychiatry and therapy and other things because it's sufficiently rare that it's terribly hard to diagnose. Everyone thinks it's depression, which it certainly causes, because you feel like hell all the time.

I do manage light fairly rigorously. During the day, I either have a sun-tuned lamp on my face at all times, or I have actual sunlight hitting my eye. At night, my lights go off, and I use F/lux to retune the blue out of my displays. It definitely helps. If I could shut down at night, I would, but my schedule just doesn't allow it.

Unfortunately, my condition had progressed sufficiently that I need to take something for it also. I've been taking 150mg of Nuvigil upon waking for well over a year now. That, more than anything, has helped make me seem more "normal" to everyone. I wake up at ordinary wakeup times. I pop a pill. 30 minutes later, I feel how I would assume a typical person feels after a full night's rest.

I'm sure it's hard on my system, but the alternatives are really awful. Been living with it for more than two decades, and it really gets a lot worse if you let it. Lose a couple jobs and get kicked out of a few groups for being persistently tardy or somnolent in the morning, and you'll begin to get a sense of how bad it can get when left unchecked.

Much luck to us all.

I've had a similar pattern my whole life. I've been able to adjust it somewhat (having kids didn't leave much choice), but my natural pattern is to go to sleep around 3am and wake up around 10am. I sleep about as much as anyone else, but it's shifted a few hours.

I'm sure artificial light is partly responsible, but I once spent a year travelling by bicycle, and living in a tent. Relatively little artificial light and no screens whatsoever. My nocturnal nature was somewhat attenuated, but still clearly there.

My personal harebrained theory is that it's an ancient adaptation. When we were living in small groups and exposed to nature--sabre toothed tigers, etc.--tribes needed someone to keep watch. It benefitted everyone that there would be a few people in every group who had no problem staying up late. A few of us unlucky souls inherited the disposition--there's nothing left to watch, but we're still awake.

Though it's not all bad--your 4th theory is real. My most productive time by far is the 2-4 hours I'm up after everyone else is asleep.

Guilty as charged. Since high school, this has described me. I always hated the 9 to 5 life, and any time that my schedule was my own, I have drifted severely nocturnal. Now that my little startup is starting to gain momentum, I find that the only time I can work is after my live-in girlfriend goes to sleep. From about 10am-2pm, I am totally wired in. After that, I start wasting time and screwing around. I wonder if enforcing a "bedtime" would help? I really enjoy having a 2am-10am sleep schedule, but lately it's closer to 6am-3pm. needless to say, this makes socializing kind of awkward, but I explain to people that, as an entrepreneur, I have to work "third shift" most of the time. they just kinda shrug.

It's only as big a problem as you make it.

From - John McGrath:
"My personal harebrained theory is that it's an ancient adaptation. When we were living in small groups and exposed to nature--sabre toothed tigers, etc.--tribes needed someone to keep watch. It benefitted everyone that there would be a few people in every group who had no problem staying up late. A few of us unlucky souls inherited the disposition--there's nothing left to watch, but we're still awake."

Thank you. This made me smile, and will be the logic I use the next time I have to explain to someone that I really am more alert at night. It certainly explains why I had no problem with night duty during my time in the military, but have had problems with "normal work hours" since puberty.

The night light pollution issue is especially worrysome because sleep deprivation has been linked to unethical behavior. This Leading in Context blog post exploring interesting connections between sleep deprivation and corporate ethics. http://leadingincontext.com/2011/07/13/leadership-and-sleep-ethics/.
I just downloaded F.lux and bought a sunrise alarm. Thanks!
Love that sketch! Especially those sheeps. Can I use it in my weblog?
The same set of genes that makes for an entrepreneurial predisposition


first me, now my son. It's genetic
Your description perfectly fits both myself and my dad, who are both abstract, entrepreneurial thinkers. Also both ADD/Inattentive introverts, and in a large family where everyone else is "normal", and morning people.
Mom said that I was a night owl even as a small child, before computers came into my life (but I'd still stay up reading all night with a flashlight). Maybe I was up because at night my imagination comes alive, and it's already pretty over-active, so it becomes impossible to ignore at that point. And being ADD, I'm easily distracted during the day, so I focus better at night. It's like my mind expands to fill the dark void with new universes.
I would love to see a study of fMRI scans for "night owls" vs "morning people". Maybe the Amen clinic in San Francisco would get in on that, they do SPECT scans on ADD people already.
Without constant intervention, my sleep schedule is 6am-noon or 2pm.
I barely graduated school and was fired a few times for being late (I still maintain that 9am is an ungodly hour).
Maybe I did start my own computer-based business because it fit in with my nocturnal nature and inability to focus during normal business hours.

Hey Jason, you should talk to Tim Ferris about this. He devoted 2 chapters of "The 4-Hour Body" to this topic, but I don't remember reading anything about the amber glasses or blue light/Melatonin interruption.

If you really want to knock out, try Trazodone. I tried every other drug there is, and nothing else works. 25, 50, 100, or 150mg depending on how bad you are. Many doctors have no idea since it was not designed as a sleeping aid and is an old generic drug that is no longer actively marketed by pharmaceutical companies.

Or just learn to embrace it as many of us nocturnal entrepreneurs do.

Try not to call DSPS insomnia. It isn't. DSPS means you can sleep well, at a later time. I think you should put your wake up times for the last two weeks to give this blog credibility. I am betting you are not a morning person now.
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