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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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.