- Sleep is for the weak?
Is sleep a complete waste of time, or is it essential for becoming a better player? Think of it like this. You have 24 hours in a day. Let’s say on an average day you spend 8 hours at work or school. Now you only have 16 hours. Then let’s say you spend 8 hours of that time asleep. Now what began as 24 hours is cut into a 3rd. And that extra time must then be divided up among your social life, personal responsibilities, time for relaxing and finally, your time for focusing on competitive gaming.
Let’s say this means you only get an average of 4 hours of gaming each day. Over time these hours add up. But what if someone else with the same commitments and daily schedule were getting 6 hours of gaming time by just sleeping less? These extra 2 hours each day would lead to 730 hours over the year. And if we look at getting good, from the point of view of total hours grinding, this player will rapidly achieve a far higher skill level than you.
And this is how I used to think about sleep. With inspiration from the YouTuber Casey Neistat and the ex-navy seal Jocko Willink, my younger self used to see rest as an unnecessary luxury, wasted time sourced out of pure laziness. And by overcoming the indulgence of oversleeping, I could regain lost time, become more disciplined and thus more successful in each area of my life. And there really is some truth to this…
Jocko: “When that alarm clock goes off, there’s at least 50% of the time where you just – that soft little pillow is just caressing your head and you want to stay there. And it takes discipline to go ‘nope, I’m going to get up out of this bed and I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do’. And that discipline that you have at that moment, you win that fight, that’s a big victory. And then that pattern will carry out throughout the day because once your up – ‘now that I’m up I might as well work out, because I’m already up and I feel good that I got up out of bed and I won that battle, let me go win another battle, I’m going to go get it done.”
Now there IS massive power to developing the habit of self-discipline, but before you set your alarm for 5 am, we need to look at the argument on the other side and see what the science says about sleeping less.
- WHY should you sleep?
When it comes to your performance in any competitive game, it’s evident that your cognitive abilities will influence your game’s outcome. For example, let’s say you are playing a crucial ranked-placement match that you absolutely need to win! Whether it’s in a MOBA, shooter or anything in between, it’s undeniable that your level of focus, reaction time, and decision-making will all play a massive role in whether you play well or get completely destroyed.
If your focus slips away for a brief second at any point in the game, you could miss important information on the minimap, tune out an important call-out or ping and by missing information set yourself up for failure.
But even when you have all the information you could still have a lapse in judgement that could lead to a bad call out, strategy or momentary decision during a team fight.
But what if you notice the necessary information and make the right call but then fail to execute it because your reaction time is milliseconds behind your enemy?
Now research on the effects of sleep can give us insight into each of these three factors of focus, decision making and reaction time…
- The Research on Sleep
David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania sought to answer the question how sleep deprivation at various degrees could influence mental performance.
To measure the mental performance, Dinges used a simple attention test to measure concentration. During the test, you must press a button in response to a light that appears on the computer screen. The lights appear unpredictably, sometimes quickly, other times slowly. As you do the test, your response, and the reaction time of that response, are both measured. In Dinges’ research, they gave this test to subjects from 4 different groups.
– One group was kept awake for three days straight.
– The second group was allowed four hours of sleep each night.
– The third group had six hours of sleep each night.
– And the fourth group was allowed to keep sleeping eight hours each night.
Now the test itself is very easy, all you have to do is press a button in response to the light. But when participants were sleep-deprived they would periodically stop responding altogether, as if they didn’t even see the flash. It was as if their brains would momentarily flat-line.
This finding is what researchers would call a microsleep. When starved for sleep, it’s as if your brain tries to gain some rest in short bursts throughout the day. During each microsleep, your brain becomes blind to the outside world, causing you to lose all awareness and even control over your motor skills. The scary part, they have no idea when it happens. In fact you’ve experienced microsleeps before, but chances are you can’t remember the last time it happened to you.
Think about that for a moment, even a two-second microsleep at any moment in the game can be catastrophic – causing you to miss important information like a flanking enemy or completely zoning out mid-fight. And the worst part is you wouldn’t even know when they happen, you’d come out the other end of the play questioning what the hell just happened.
The good news is that those individuals who slept eight hours every night maintained a stable, near-perfect performance across the study. But the results from the other groups showed severe impairments that worsened with each level of sleep deprivation.
The most worrying group was the one that was the most relatable – sleeping a consistent 6 hours each night. It’s not hard to fall into a routine of sleeping less with a busy schedule, and many seem to find 6 hours good enough to survive. But ten days of six hours of sleep lead to a 400% increase in the number of microsleeps. And by the end of the 14-day study, these results showed no signs of levelling out. Meaning that if the study continued, the performance deterioration would likely continue to build up over weeks or months.
And if microsleeps weren’t scary enough, consider how you would perform when you aren’t in these momentary lapses of consciousness. Throughout the majority of the day, when you feel you are performing okay, your sleep-deprived brain would be making far worse decisions. Neuroscientists have discovered that although some brain areas can cope relatively well with little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. So while you may be able to function relatively well while executing well-trained skills and behaviours, the decision-making part of your brain would be completely impaired, causing you to play into your ego and emotions and become a far more impulsive player.
And as your decision-making and playstyle suffer from this, so will your reaction speed. Research has tied sleep deprivation to an 11% increase in response times – equivalent to the increase you would see from someone with a 0.8 BAC (the threshold at which you’re deemed legally drunk).
But the story of sleep is not over yet, let’s address the other argument to sleeping less, which is acclimating. We all know someone who seems to manage just fine on low amounts of sleep, or perhaps you’ve had the experience of being sleep deprived and still appearing to perform well while gaming. If sleep deprivation is so bad for our mental performance, then what’s going on here?
Well, if you live near mountains or do any intense sports training, you’ve likely become familiar with the idea of acclimating to high altitudes. Basically, as you climb higher from sea level, there is lower air pressure and thus a lower amount of oxygen in the air. This means your body must work harder to get oxygen into your body and throughout your system. If you decided to climb a mountain that’s a few thousand feet above sea level, this would cause you to feel short of breath and your muscles will seem to become fatigued far faster.
But what about people who live at high altitudes? Hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal live comfortably at altitudes over 5000 feet above sea level. And even 10s of thousands of Americans live in small towns with elevations of over 9,000 feet above sea level, many of which are in Colorado. If you live in a city around sea level and decide to visit these towns, you might get what’s called altitude sickness while visiting. But with slow adjustment to higher altitudes, your body can actually adapt. Over a few days, your respiratory system will become more efficient at taking deep breaths, and over a few months, you will actually develop more red blood cells to help carry oxygen throughout your body. So with enough time, your body can adapt to extreme conditions like higher altitudes by making physical changes.
- Getting used to less sleep
But what about sleep? Can you become accustomed to less sleep and train your body to perform at its peak during sleep deprivation?
Well, yes and no. When sleep-deprived, your body will try to compensate for the fatigue by increasing stress hormones like cortisol. This might even cause you to feel even more energetic and alert than normal. It’s as if your body is trying to rev your inner engine. But while these stress hormones will make you feel energetic, they won’t necessarily help your performance.
In the research mentioned earlier on the groups of sleep-deprived individuals, the group that slept only 6 hours per night didn’t rate their sleepiness as bad, even as their cognitive performance was going downhill. In other words, while their objective performance was going down, they thought they were performing just fine. They FELT okay even though they weren’t.
So over time, if you become accustomed to being sleep deprived, you will adapt only subjectively, in the way you feel. Objectively your performance will continue to decline, and you’ll be curious why you’re struggling to achieve the level of skill you know you’re capable of.
- Sleep debt
So ask yourself, is this where you are at now? Have you accepted a low level of exhaustion as your norm? Have you neglected sleep for so long that you feel used to it? Well, chances are, even if you feel like you ARE getting enough sleep, you probably aren’t. A sleep study published in Epidemiology indicates people generally overestimate their nightly sleep by nearly 1 hour. One reason for this is that we don’t track our time asleep each week, and when we don’t measure things, we suck at guessing. The other reason is that time spent in bed is not equivalent to time asleep. From the 20 minutes it might take to fall asleep to the short awakenings you have throughout the night, its possible that 30-60 minutes of your so-called sleep time is actually spent awake. So if you think you’re getting 8 hours of sleep, it’s likely that you’re only getting 7; if you think you’re getting 7, it’s likely only 6. And those hours of lost sleep add up!
Over time you accumulate something called a sleep debt. Since the recommended amount of sleep for most individuals is around 8 hours per night, anything less than this will begin to affect your performance, not only the following day but for days or even weeks, depending on your sleep debt.
For example, if you lose just 1 hour of sleep each night for a week, that will lead to 7 hours of lost sleep, which will impact your overall sleep debt and level of performance.
– In other words, staying up to watch 1 more show on Netflix or play one more game with your friends, repeated throughout the week, will lead to hours of building sleep debt that you’ll then need to pay back with more sleep.
Now in theory you can pay back some of this sleep debt through taking naps or a few nights of 10-hour recovery sleep. But the best way to maintain consistent performance and play at the top of your game is to simply fix your bad sleep and make good sleep a priority.
- Building the Habit of Good Sleep
But, here’s the thing, **bad habits are hard to break**. If you’ve had poor quality or quantity of sleep in the past, it’s not likely you’re going to change it based on knowledge alone. Even those who have been diagnosed with preventable diseases due to bad habits like overeating or smoking, rarely change their behaviors. So knowing how important sleep is might not be enough to shift your approach to it, you need to take action. So here are 2 key tips to apply that will help you utilize all the powerful benefits of sleep and actually build a better habit.
The first tip is to **start tracking your sleep**. Research shows that when tracking our health like monitoring our blood pressure over the course of a training program, or weighing ourselves with a scale each day during a diet program, we are FAR more likely to stick to it. And tracking your sleep is no different.
This is because as **visual creatures**, we need to SEE some results to believe in it. And over time, as you track your progress, you’ll begin to see connections that reinforce a healthier sleep pattern. For example, if you notice that you’re building up a backlog of sleep debt and notice that you feel more tired, and are playing much worse in ranked games, then you’ll begin to prioritize sleep more. Or if you notice that your sleep schedule has been on point for a full week, you might also be popping off in your matches and pushing quickly towards a new rank. Being able to make that connection between your performance and data will help reinforce the habit.
Now, while I’ve spent well over $1000 on various smartwatches, smart rings and other sleep tracking gear, you may want to start simple. Over the past few months, my go-to sleep tracker has been an app called Rise that helps you track your sleep debt, and they’ve been kind enough to sponsor this video/post. But more information on Rise at the end of the video (see linked above).
My second tip for you is to set a bed time alarm. Many of us set an alarm to get up, but most people don’t set one for going to sleep. The problem is that its easy to lose track of time or get sucked into watching one more show on Netflix before going to bed. But with a sleep alarm, you are reminded every day when you should unwind, shut off the phone and computer and prepare for sleep.
For me this has been a game-changer. An hour before I’m supposed to go to bed, my alarm goes off. I give myself a bit of time to finish whatever I’m doing, then I shut off the computer and put my phone on airplane mode. That way I’m not tempted to even check my devices as I prepare for sleep.
Let’s say you and another player have the same schedule and time commitments, but they sacrifice 2 hours of sleep each night to play more. That player will get far more hours of training than you, but the quality of their training will be far worse; it will be as if they are adding 2 hours and losing 3.
And scientists aren’t the only ones who know this. Basketball legend Lebron James advocates getting 10-12 hours of sleep per day, including his naps. Tennis champion Rodger Federer notoriously sleeps 12 hours each day as well to stay at the top of his game. And many other top athletes from Michael Phelps to Usain Bolt follow suit.
So earlier, when I mentioned the power of discipline and inspirational figures like retired-navy seal Jocko Willink, I don’t think his message of discipline is lost here. But rather than be disciplined to sleep less, the key is to become disciplined enough to sleep more. If you want to wake up at 4:30 in the morning like Jocko, then great, just be sure to go to sleep earlier as well. So get disciplined on sleep, start tracking your sleep, reflecting on your habits, turning off your technology earlier and give your brain exactly what it needs to fuel your success.