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Arianna Huffington On How to Get More Sleep — And Why It Will Transform Your Life

By Julia Felsenthal

"I'm 65 years old and I’ve never had Botox or anything," Arianna Huffington says to me, laughing and pointing at her smooth face. "The term beauty sleep is so real."

Of course, better skin is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of getting enough shut-eye. Read Huffington’s new book, "The Sleep Revolution," released Wednesday, and she may convince you that widespread sleep deprivation is at least partially responsible for a whole host of societal ills, including weight gain, Alzheimer's, and Donald Trump.

Let's back up: In 2007, Huffington had the kind of hypercharged schedule that we expect from the ultra-successful. She couldn’t find enough hours in the day to run her media empire, parent her two daughters, and jet around the world for conferences and speeches. So Huffington cut back on sleep, getting by on a meager three to four hours a night, then caffeinating herself through waking life.

One day, it all caught up with her. In the aftermath of a particularly jam-packed spree of events, Huffington collapsed. She woke up in a pool of blood, with a broken cheekbone, and a pressing medical mystery: What was wrong with her? Nothing so mysterious, it turned out. Her burning-the-candle-at-both-ends lifestyle had led to her burnout.

So she sought to create boundaries and routines in her life that would allow her to get the minimum seven hours of shut-eye that doctors say adults need. "The Sleep Revolution" is inspired by Huffington's journey, as she writes, "from sleep amateur to sleep pro." There's plenty of service-y tidbits, including chapters that lay out precisely how and how not to fall asleep. But the book is also, more broadly, a survey of how we became a culture that treats sleep as optional and valorizes those who can do without, and a prescription for how we can course correct.

"It's sort of like going back and saying, Why did we believe the Earth is flat?" Huffington muses when we sit down in her office at Huffington Post HQ in New York's East Village (where there are, for the record, multiple nap rooms for sleepy staffers to recharge). In her book, she traces that “collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed” back to attitudes forged during the first industrial revolution, reinforced during the second by sleep renouncers like Thomas Edison, and set in stone by the third, the digital revolution.

But Huffington forecasts a fourth revolution, which may lead us back to better sleep hygiene. "More and more human functions are being taken over by machines," she explains, "so human beings will increasingly be valued for their creativity, for deeper contributions that are going to be much harder if we’re not connected to a deeper part of ourselves."

She believes we're currently in the midst of a paradigm shift. Doctors are still peddling tens of millions of sleeping pill prescriptions per year — a quick fix that "doesn't actually solve our problems" — but scientific research is increasingly focused on the importance of good sleep. (Take this statistic: The first sleep center was founded at Stanford in 1970; now there are more than 2,500.) Although technology is to some degree responsible for keeping us perma-wired and awake, she adds, it also contains the potential to help us maximize our ability to fall and stay asleep. And while some employers still subscribe to the notion that workers should be reachable 24/7, many others are beginning to realize that wellness and time off are essential, both for morale and productivity.

Huffington and I chatted about her path to better slumber, how being well-rested has changed her personality, and what you can do to adjust your own abysmal sleeping habits (spoiler alert: it's best not to keep your iPhone under your pillow).

Q: You'd already written Thrive in 2014, a book about the importance of wellness. Why go back and dive deeper into sleep?
A: I went around the world speaking about Thrive. The one consistent recurring question was about sleep. So I realized that the sleep crisis was much bigger than I knew. And also that whether we practice it or not, people had accepted that nutrition and exercise were very important pillars. Sleep was not [accepted]. And yet all scientists will now tell you those are the three legs of the stool.

Q: There's a tension between the idea of sleep as this natural ancient thing that we all should connect to for its own sake and the idea of harnessing sleep for greater productivity, even though that culture of extreme productivity has lead us to a place of widespread sleep deprivation. How did you balance those two threads?
A: I have this line: I say, "come for the job-enhancing benefits, stay for the life-enhancing benefits." I want to meet people where they are, and there are millions of people who have no interest in the mystery of sleep. But everybody has an interest in being productive. I truly believe it doesn’t matter what your entry point is: If all you want is to be more productive, and more creative, and get the next promotion, in the process you’re going to discover another part of yourself.

Q: You had your own wake-up call many years ago. What was the learning curve like for you in reclaiming sleep?
A: There were two stages. The first was discipline. There’s nothing like coming to in a pool of your own blood to make you really pay attention. Every doctor told me the same thing: You have to decide to make life changes.

I started with microscopic steps: adding 30 minutes, taking my devices out of my bedroom, not rushing to my phone first thing. But then, very quickly, the new me drew me like a magnet. The old me was more cranky, more irritable, more reactive. I found [the new me] not really reacting. I like living my life like that. There is so much more joy.

I don’t expect life not to have challenges. The hardest thing that happened to me since this new regimen was when I got a call from my daughter at Yale that she couldn’t breathe, and I had to drive to New Haven to find her in the emergency room. She had gotten involved in drugs. That’s the scariest thing for a parent. Taking her out of Yale two months from graduating, I had so much clarity about what was right for her, and so much gratitude that she had called me, that she was alive, that she wanted to get well. We just celebrated her four years of being sober. From the daily problems to the big crises, we are in a different place to deal with them if we’re not running on empty.

Q: At the time you decided to prioritize sleep in your life, you were already the boss, able to set boundaries where you wanted. Even so, were there people in your life who pushed back against those changes?
A: I did make some conscious changes in the way I communicated. Let's say, you're on a book tour, you have an early morning show, and you’re in a town where you have good friends. Ideally, you'd want to have dinner with them, but you choose not to, because otherwise you’re going to be a zombie in the morning. I decided to tell people the truth. Some people pushed back, like, "Oh, come on! Let's go have dinner — you can sleep when you get home." Because that's the culture.

In terms of the first part of your question: People may have a boss who has unrealistic expectations. I did a panel at which a CEO said, "I expect my chief of staff to be available 24/7." I said to him, I expect in two years you will not be able to make that statement in public, the same way now that people can’t say I don’t hire women because they get pregnant. We’re in transition.

We have a growing number of executives who recognize that it’s in the interest of the bottom line — forget everything else — to actually take care of the well-being of their employees. The tipping point for me came a few weeks ago when the Harvard Business Review ran an article about the impact of sleep on leadership, co-written by a woman who was identified as McKinsey's sleep specialist. I thought: This is a moment in time! Normally that would have been an Onion headline. McKinsey, the boiler room of burnout, has a sleep specialist.

Q: You write that much insomnia may actually be caused by the anxiety of anticipating insomnia. I know I’m not supposed to keep my phone by my bed, but I’m a frequent insomniac, and I stress about feeling stranded in the middle of the night with nothing to do. Just knowing it’s there can have a calming effect, which can help me sleep.
A: First of all, I think that one of the most important things is not to judge yourself. It’s not going to be a straight, linear process of progress. I have this study in the book called paradoxical intention. [Researchers] told one group [your goal is to go to sleep. They told another group], your goal is to stay awake. [The second group was] more likely to fall asleep. They’re not moving into this anxiety cycle.

[But] if I was going to say one thing only, it’s that your devices are kryptonite. Your devices have to be outside your bedroom. I do wake up in the middle of the night. I think the important thing is what do I do when I wake up? I meditate. I listen to meditations. I became like a scientist of myself. I said, I’m going to listen to a hundred meditations. I found, out of these 100, two that I have never heard to the end because they always put me to sleep. Also books. I love reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. What I love about him is he was the emperor of Rome. He was a pretty busy man. He had to deal with everything you can imagine. But he was a Stoic philosopher, so he was able to maintain that equanimity, that imperturbability, no matter what.

You say change has to come from top down, and our politicians play into this macho culture in which we wear our sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. I’m sure you’re watching the election cycle very closely. Who are the worst offenders?

Tim Egan wrote a beautiful piece in The New York Times about Donald Trump and his sleep habits: sleeping three or four hours a night, sleeping with his phone, because he wants to be able to see what’s happening and comment on it. And then [Egan] connects it all to how many statements Trump makes that don’t make sense, are not factual, doing things that maybe a saner person would regret, like re-tweeting a Mussolini statement, or telling Ted Cruz’s wife that he’s going to spill the beans on her.

It's an overall phenomenon. You see candidates bragging about how little sleep they get. And I think you see it in the general quality of the debate. I’m sure when the history of this campaign is written, [Marco] Rubio's performance in the first debate, which was so dramatically different from his performance in other debates, will have something to do with sleep deprivation. It’s not like he was always incapable of remembering anything except the one statement he had memorized. It’s happened to me when I was sleep deprived and giving a speech. It’s so painful; you cannot retrieve things you know. That’s why pulling an all-nighter before a final is about the worst thing you can do.

Charlie Rose is fantastic on that. He's a famous napper. He says, If I have half an hour before I tape my show, and I can choose between doing more prep or having a nap, I’ll have a nap. At some point he knows enough to conduct an interview. The question is can he be fully present?

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Learn more about Huffington in her exclusive MAKERS story above.

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