Dolphins can stay continuously alert for over two weeks at a time. They only sleep with half their brains turned off at a time. This helps prevent them being eaten by sharks. Entrepreneurs will no doubt find this fact hauntingly familiar.

There’s something about starting a business that destroys all concept of time. There’s nobody to tell you when to stop, so many business owners simply don’t. An 18-hour day isn’t unusual when you’re trying to get your business off the ground.

As for weekends and holidays, forget them. They’re just more time in which to get work done. I speak as someone who once rewrote my website’s content management system during a snowboarding holiday. I did still manage to get on the slopes, but even then I never stopped thinking about my business.

Technology has made this worse, of course. It’s not so long ago that email access was difficult if not impossible when traveling abroad. Now it’s just like being at home.

So entrepreneurs don’t really go on holiday. We just temporarily move our work to a slightly nicer location. Even then we may not look up from our screens long enough to notice the change of scenery. Like dolphins, it feels as though we can never fully relax. We have our own sharks to deal with.

How to make sleep an important part of your business plan

Yet we have to sleep. That’s not an opinion – it’s a biological fact. Without sleep we progressively lose our sanity, start hallucinating and eventually die. That would curtail even the most ambitious of business plans.

Dolphins have a neat trick that gets around this problem. They sleep with only half their brains turned off at a time, switching between the two halves. In experiments this has been shown to let them stay alert for at least two weeks at a time.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing? Actually no, it would be awful. Nobody would ever relax, wind down or enjoy the simple things in life. Instead we’d all be competing twice as fast as we do now, with no downtime whatsoever. So, if any eccentric scientist reading this has plans for splicing dolphin DNA into human brains so we can half-sleep too, please don’t.

Still, there are other ways we can improve our alertness. Power-naps have been shown to be remarkably effective. Some people have trained themselves to be able to drop into REM sleep (the deep, refreshing sleep) in seconds. Twenty minutes of this might be equivalent to an hour of conventional sleep.

One round-the-world yachtsman got so good at this trick that he could fall asleep in the time it took traffic lights to change. Presumably he was then quickly awoken by the sound of beeping horns behind him.

Tuning into your body’s natural sleep patterns can help, too. If you’re a night owl or a lark, plan your sleep time accordingly. You’ll get a more refreshing rest that way. Some experiments have shown that it’s possible to change your sleep pattern. Perhaps, but as a confirmed night owl, I have never functioned well before 9am, and some of my best work is done at 1am. That routine feels hard-coded in my head, and trying to change it might be more trouble than it’s worth.

What not to do

Tempting though they are, avoid stimulants. Caffeine and similar drugs come with a price tag attached – the law of diminishing returns. The more you use them, the more you have to use them. And they merely delay sleep – they don’t replace it. Eventually the bill must be paid.

Perhaps what’s more important than trying to stay awake longer is getting a better perspective on life. After all, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a business is a means to an end – not the end itself. If we spend all our waking lives working, we’ll have no time to enjoy the fruits of that work.

To put it another way, if dolphins could build houses to keep out the sharks, they’d probably enjoy a good night’s sleep just as much as we do.

Alex Cruickshank Xero

Xero is beautiful, easy to use online accounting software for small businesses and their advisors. Xero provides business owners with real-time visibility of their financial position in a way that’s simple, smart and secure.
Xero has over 700,000 customers in more than 180 countries around the world and is listed on the NZX and ASX.