My entire life, nearly all my friends and coworkers have known me as the guy who always has too much energy. Need a song sung for no reason? I got that. Unexpected dance party? I was there. Going to play table tennis? Sign me up for the third time today. Want someone to play with the horde of hyperactive kids at the company party for hours so the other adults have a welcome break? I took one for the team every time. I would regularly be seen sprinting down hallways to deliver a message in person rather than over email or heard shouting praise to a peer from across the campus.
Countless people have asked for my secret as to how I always have so much energy. The most common question: “How much caffeine do you drink?!” The answer: None. The secret as to why I am always so energetic is that I force myself to be hyper because if I slow down for a minute, I’ll crash. I have learned to convince myself I have energy even when I truly don’t solely so that I can get through each day.
Not a lot of people know this about me, and I didn't have a diagnosis until recently, but I suffer from narcolepsy. Thankfully, I don't present in a way that makes me fall asleep or collapse in social situations, but it affects me in other ways. Here’s a few fun facts about me:
I’ve had restful sleep twice. Ever. That's partially because I wake up constantly throughout the night, so whether I’m in bed for 4 hours or 10, I am equally exhausted in the morning.
I only dream, and they are often vivid, exhausting dreams. I haven’t experienced what it’s like to not dream. I only recently learned that most people sometimes sleep without dreaming and it blew my mind.
I am practically incapable of napping. On the rare occasion I actually manage to nap, it leaves me feeling worse off than I was before.
While there is much more to narcolepsy and insomnia than I will be discussing in this article, all in all, this means:
How you feel when you go days without sleep is how I feel every day.
Prior to the publishing of this article, only a couple people even knew that I had a sleeping disorder. Most have no idea what my nightly experience is or that it has any impact on my day-to-day. Why now? Two reasons. First, I was finally able to put a name, official diagnosis, and scientific understanding to what I’ve been seeking answers to for decades. I finally feel something positive about an issue I’ve struggled hopelessly with nearly my whole life, so I want to make my thoughts concrete and share them.
Second, and more importantly, now that I am aware of why I operate in the unique way I do, my opinions on the importance of honoring individualism and autonomy in the workplace are even stronger than they already were. That’s because my sleep disorder is an inconvenience in my personal life, but it’s a source of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt when it comes to my work life. I have learned to deal with it and get my work done without a problem (most days, anyway) and I don’t typically go out of my way to bring it up because I worry how I’ll be perceived, that I’ll be given less trust or responsibility, or that it looks like I’m making excuses or asking for leniency.
So, I wanted to highlight my personal struggles, explain how I cope with them, and how others can understand or even help. Moreover, I share my story because as rare as my specific condition is, my general situation is far too common.
Poor sleep quality and not getting enough sleep are both prevalent in today’s world, now more than ever before. While a number of factors are to blame and everyone’s situation is different, work expectations often play a critical role in why people are unable to get a good night’s rest.
Writing this is cathartic for me, but I also hope my personal experience will help others see, understand, and relate with their peers and employees whom might also be struggling at work due to a lack of adequate sleep. While there are many types and degrees of sleep disorders (such as narcolepsy and insomnia) caused by many different factors, each presenting with different challenges and symptoms, this is my personal experience. So without further adieu, here is a glimpse into my daily work experience while suffering from chronic sleeplessness:
If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ve seen me yawning at my computer, but that’s nothing unusual to see from anyone. Still, when I worked in an office, I tried to hide it as much as possible because I was worried how it would come across. If you see me staring at my computer like a zombie instead of productively typing away, you might assume I stayed up all night partying or playing video games even when I knew I had important work to do the next day. Chances are, I went to bed early and tried to get a good night of sleep.
If I am not partaking in your morning team building exercise, it’s not because I’m not a culture fit and don’t want to be involved, it’s because I have no physical energy until later in the day (if I’m lucky enough to have any energy that day). Sometimes I have loads of energy, sometimes I can will myself to do what needs done, and other days I simply can’t do anything. Everyone knows what it feels like to have a bad night of sleep and thus have little energy. That’s just happens to be my normal.
What helps: One of two things. I either need to wait it out until my sleepiness wears off and I feel fine again or I need to go do something else for a bit to try to get my energy levels up. That might mean going to lunch early, taking an extra break to go for a jog, or playing a bit of table tennis. It seems counter-productive that exercise boosts energy, but science is science.
You probably know what it’s like to have your mind wander — when you aren’t thinking about anything or you’re incredibly bored so there’s a thousand random, pointless thoughts dancing through your head. Normally, the parts of the brain responsible for wandering thoughts shut off whenever you need to actually focus on a task. As a chronic insomniac, that part of my brain never turns off. It’s constantly on even when I desperately need to focus on something. Then comes working memory, a function you use countless times a day for recall and problem solving. That part of my brain simply isn’t as active as yours. Finally, there's just the general difficulty of focusing when sleep deprived that we've all experienced before.
These two neurological discrepancies combined with perpetual sleepiness mean that I am in a near-constant state of being some degree of distracted by my own brain. When I am building a presentation, I am splitting my effort between the important content, the endless battle of wading through a million unrelated thoughts and distractions, and the urge to fall asleep at my desk. For every slide I manage to create, I’ve spent several minutes unwillingly thinking about something else, spacing out or dozing off, and trying to snap out of it and regain focus. For every article I write, I’ve spent hours researching topics that become less and less relevant with each new webpage because I can’t reign in the single focal point of the article and I'm desperately trying to read something exciting enough that it pulls me out of my funk. For each blog I produce that should only take an hour, I instead have to split it up over a couple days because I only have so much time during the day that I can effectively focus.
What helps: The easiest and simplest improvement is for me to fidget. If I’m twirling a pen, pushing a slinky across the desk, or tossing a ball around while we’re talking, it’s not me playing with toys instead of engaging in a serious discussion, it’s me distracting the parts of my brain that need to focus on something else so that I can dedicate my conscious attention to the task or conversation at hand. Of course, this isn’t a free pass for me to do whatever I want mid-conversation. Often times I am doing these things without noticing and they are distracting to others. I appreciate when a coworker is willing to point it out so I can find a way to cope that isn’t as noticeable or obnoxious.
The other option is for me to do something so engaging and exhausting that my brain needs a break, like playing an intense sport for a few minutes or going for a run. This will slow me down enough that I can focus on just one thing while my subconscious mind and body are taking a breather.
Quality sleep is necessary to form memories. When you sleep, your brain compiles everything you experienced that day, getting rid of the junk and neatly organizing and storing the important stuff for later. I don’t really sleep, so I don’t remember as much. In order for me to remember something, it has to be associated with something I register as impactful or I have to repeat it throughout that day, less I forget it by the time I wake up the next morning.
I suck at tests not because I am dumb, but because I’ll only remember the answers I see the value in knowing right now in my life. I can’t remember your name not because I didn’t care about meeting you, but because I can only remember your name if it’s burned into my mind repeatedly or if I did something so embarrassing when we met that I associate you with that memory now.
Sadly, this aspect of diminished memory also affects my ability to learn. I can tell you all about the lessons learned in business books that I got value in, but I couldn’t repeat any nuances details of specific examples. Thanks to “Brave New Work”, I know roundabouts are more efficient than traffic lights and I have explained why that is to everyone I’ve spoken with since. However, I couldn’t possibly guess what all the statistics were in that example. If I wanted to be able to do that, I’d have to repeat the numbers to myself over and over throughout the day, for several days, and revisit that information often.
What helps: Tying necessary information to the bigger purpose. Tell me why something is important and give me some examples so my brain will put more effort into holding onto it long term. Share a story with me so I can anchor information onto visual mental images and the feelings associated with that story. Again, I don’t remember at all how statistically superior roundabouts are to stop lights and intersections, but I know why they are and can equate it with a tangible image, so I remember the overall message.
As you can see, I certainly have my challenges, but none of these things have ever prevented me from doing the job expected of me. If anything, having something meaningful to do helps me get through each day because I have someone important to anchor to so I don’t get bored and lose momentum. The more responsibility I have, the easier of a time I have.
So, if you see me (or someone that displays similar behaviors) playing games or taking lots of breaks, that’s not slacking off. On the contrary, that’s being self aware that I’m too tired to focus and have been getting absolutely nothing done sitting at my desk. Thus, I’ll do what I need to do to re-energize and focus my mind back on the task at hand in order to maximize my productivity.
This is just one more reason why I absolutely thrive when in an organization that supports individualism and enables autonomy. I know what I need to do to get things done, and though my approach is different than how you would do it, the job gets done and I can maintain my mental health by not having to worry about what others think of my particular brand of splitting up my work throughout the day.
Thank you for hearing me out. If you have or have had a sleeping disorder, whether it’s constant or just on occasion, I’d love to hear how it has affected your work. How do you cope with it and get through the day? I’d love to know your personal story, challenges, and how you deal with it.