How much more will you achieve when you reduce your sleep debt?

Written by Jen Ying Zhen Ang

Time: 2 a.m. But it could have been 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., and you could care less. What you care about is finishing the homework that is due in a few hours, completing the report that your boss wants you to turn in, or having fun with all your friends around you. Sleep is the last thing on your mind. It is really not that important, a waste of time, and really, if you keep sleeping people will think you are just plain lazy, right?

Sound familiar? This is precisely the reason why many of us are constantly tired in the daytime, why five alarm clocks and ten snooze alarms are ineffective in getting us out of bed and why Dreamland beckons when we least expect it.

To make the long story short, each of us has a certain sleep requirement every night that we need to keep us functioning at our optimal level. When we fall short of the minimal sleep requirement we incur a sleep debt that prevents us from functioning at our best. This debt, if not adressed, can add up over time, very rapidly, and significantly alter our productivity, mood, and even our safety.

We can think of sleep debt like a growing weight over us that we have to carry around throughout the day. Unless paid back, the debt gets bigger and bigger while we're awake until...SQUASH!!! We're asleep!

For instance, if you need 9 hours of sleep every day, but you end up sleeping for only 6 hours each day for a week, you would have effectively incurred a sleep debt of (9-6) x 7 = 21 hours. If I did that for 2 weeks--just 2 weeks!--I would have incurred a sleep debt of a WHOPPING 42 HOURS!

So what happens when you have a high sleep debt? It starts taking over your life and your mind. It causes you to be moody and grumpy towards people around you. It consumes your mind with thoughts about beds, pillows and bolsters at times when you badly need to concentrate on what your boss is telling you. Most importantly, it shuts down your eyelids when you least expect it, putting you at risk for accidents (especially on the road) that can be fatal.

The comedic and cute video below, created by a group of Stanford students, demonstrates many of these degenerative effects of sleep debt, in this case on a college student:


The ultimate cost of sleep deprivation is a fatal accident. The ultimate cost of sleep debt is a driver falling asleep at the wheel. Eighty percent of these types of accidents end up fatal, and they happen far too often.

You wouldn't close your eyes while biking or driving, would you? No one in their right mind would do that consciously, but many people end up doing just that subconsciously when they are deprived of sleep. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving results in around 100,000 automobile wrecks each year--and that number is conservative, for fatigue often plays a major role in many accidents where it is not officially documented.

What can you do to prevent yourself from becoming one of those statistics? Well, readin this page is a fantastic start, but you really should also make sure you know the meaning of Drowsiness Is Red Alert.

Imagine the lives that could have been saved if each of these people had gotten more sleep. Imagine that anyone, including you, could have wound up a fatality statistic like them just because of not getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Sleep debt is like real-time debt on credit. It is cumulative, and it never dissipates over time. If you owed $5 a year ago and you never paid up, you can be sure that the credit card company will chase you down for every single cent of it (and the interest is all the productivity you lost in the meantime). It is the same with sleep debt; it does not disappear...

...until you pay it back. Yes, by sleeping more than the daily requirement, you are essentially reducing the amount of sleep debt you have. It is that simple. Sleep more. Lower your sleep debt. Live a full life. After reducing your sleep debt, you will feel your productivity increase by volumes (so much so that it outweighs the amount that you would have done otherwise slogging through the night in your sleepy state), your mood uplifted and a much more optimistic outlook on life.

Dr. Dement Writes About The Importance of Sleep

Dr. D's Sleep Book Says...

When information about sleep need, sleep deprivation, and sleep debt is presented superficially or ineffectively, most people come away with the idea that they are being urged to spend several additional hours in bed every night for the rest of their lives. This is absolutely not what is being recommended. The many nights of extra long sleep which are required to pay back a very large sleep debt should not be equated with a permanent, lifelong need for this amount of sleep.

"But I don't believe you", I hear you say, "I tried to catch up on my sleep by sleeping for 12 hours yesterday and I don't see any significant change." Well, that only means that you should sleep MORE. Assuming, for instance, that you had a sleep debt of 30 hours and your daily sleep requirement is 9 hours, an increase of 3 hours of sleep in one day would only reduce your sleep debt to 27 hours, which is still a sizeable amount.

The only solution is to try to catch up on your sleep more often, on a consistent basis, in order to reduce your sleep debt further. You will know it when you have reduced it enough because you will feel yourself being much more alert throughout the day than you used to be.

I used to be a skeptic of this theory about sleep debt. I did not believe that it was possible to "achieve more by sleeping less". I used to be a college student who felt that I did not have enough time to study and get good grades, let alone join student group or be social. I survived (miraculously) on 5 hours of sleep per night. I would drag myself out of bed every morning, entertaining thoughts of skipping class just for that day in exchange for more time with my pillow and bed.

However, over a recent holiday break, I tried catching up on my sleep, and it has worked wonders. I am taking the maximum course load right now, much more work than I used to have, but I am a week ahead in my readings, and I finish my assignments at least half a week before they are due. I feel so happy every single day doing my work and being able to concentrate on what I am doing. And I'm sure I am retaining a whole lot more of it than I would if I were glossing through it with sleepy eyes.

Eight hours of sleep as a zombie or a champion. The choice is yours.

Most importantly, I am getting my healthy 8 hours of sleep every day and am not prone to potentially fatal accidents that may be a result of my sleep deprivation!

You can be like that too! If you are still skeptical, I say try it for a week. Just sleep more than what you think your daily requirement (typically 8-9 hours) is. Do that for at least a week, make it two if you feel drastically sleep deprived, and you will notice the drastic change in your life - simply due to the simple yet beneficial step of sleeping MORE.

Of course, life sometimes makes it hard to get extra or sufficient sleep. But trust me, your life will thank you for it.

After all, why would you, or anyone for that matter, want to live a life where you are not operating at peak alertness and potential? Sleep debt is real, and you have the power to eliminate it. You have the power to optimize your life!


Enjoy this page? Please help us pay it forward to others who would find it valuable by Liking, Sharing, Tweeting, Stumbling, and/or Voting below.

And join the conversation with your own comments here:

blog comments powered by Disqus

About This Site

Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

In fact, we challenge you to do so! What do you say, are you up for the challenge?




The Stanford Sleep Book

Stanford Sleep Book Picture

Dr. Dement's pioneering textbook has been the core text for Sleep and Dreams since 1980, but it has just recently been made available to the wider public for the first time.

In it you'll find a more detailed account of the most important things you need to know about sleep, alertness, dreams, and sleep disorders. Studies, statistics, plus plenty of Dr. Dement's classic anecdotes painting the history of sleep medicine.

Preface | Intro | Contents | Get A Copy

More Sleep Resources

The Zeo

A revolution in personal sleep tracking, the Zeo is a wireless headband that transmits your brainwaves in realtime to a dock (pictured here) or your smartphone. The result? You can wake up and see exactly what stages of sleep you were in during the night! Unprecedented personalized sleep knowledge.

Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

Sleep Paralysis Treatment Book

Ever woken up paralyzed? A surprising number of us have, believe it or not. But few know the actual causes of this phenomenon, and fewer still how to exert control over it. Dream researcher and sleep paralysis expert Ryan Hurd shares breakthrough insights into how to do just that.

How This Site Was Made

In 2007 I discovered a guide to website building that would change my life. After learning from it diligently, it would eventually empower me to help Dr. Dement take his life's mission of spreading education about sleep health to the online world. Now, several years later, this site reaches over 100,000 visitors per month and counting.

The results are due in large part to the methods taught in that guide, and they are replicable for others who have knowledge of a subject they would like to share with the masses. I've detailed some of my journey here for those who might be interested.


The Sleep Essentials Quick Guide


Important Disclaimer

Please Note:

The information found on this page and throughout this site is intended for general information purposes only. While it may prove useful and empowering, it is NOT intended as a substitute for the expertise and judgments of healthcare practitioners.

For more info, see our
Terms of Use.