Is getting very little sleep really the mark of a successful CEO?

Get ready for lots of stress and countless white nights – if you’ve launched a start-up or are considering doing so, this is one of the warnings you’ll hear the most often.

But what is it about CEOs and sleep anyway? Is there an “entrepreneurial gene” that activates as soon as you start your own company and that prevents you from getting more than four hours of sleep? Well, technically, yes. You can be genetically predisposed to needing less sleep, but this rare gene mutation has nothing to do with business and sleeping habits.

The idea that successful people only sleep for a couple of hours is heavily glamorised, and there are actually many examples of brilliant entrepreneurs who can’t function without a full eight hours of sleep. While there will be times when tight deadlines, events, and eureka moments will keep you up until sunrise, it’s important to remember that you’re human and getting rest is a biological requirement, not a sign of laziness. If you want to be productive and healthy in the long run, good sleep is a must. Plus, as you’ll see below, the sleeping habits of successful entrepreneurs are quite varied and range anywhere from three to ten hours.

Tobias Lutke, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates need eight hours of sleep to be productive.

A profitable business doesn’t necessarily need an insomniac CEO. In fact, there are many examples of famous entrepreneurs for whom sleep is non-negotiable. For example, Shopify CEO and founder Tobias Lutke tweeted last year that he typically sleeps for eight hours a night and that he recommends his employees to do the same. In an industry that’s increasingly prone to burnout, his message was definitely encouraging and refreshing. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also said that he needs eight hours of sleep to feel energised, and Jack Ma said that good sleep is critical to handling stress and problem-solving. Bill Gates talked about his past sleeping habits on his blog and confessed that when he started Microsoft, he often stayed up all night working, although this impacted his thinking because he was pulled into his work and thought that’s what CEOs should be doing. Now, he acknowledges the importance of sleep and advises entrepreneurs to sleep for at least seven hours, even if they think they don’t need it.

Famous entrepreneur night owls

At the opposite end of the pole are the famous night owls who barely sleep at all – either because they’re too busy or because this is what makes them feel more productive. For example, former US President Donald Trump said that he only sleeps for three hours a night, and fashion designer Tom Ford reportedly does the same. Winston Churchill went down in history books for getting about four hours of sleep, although we should also mention that he took a two-hour nap every day. But for most entrepreneurs, life is a combination of normal sleep and the occasional all-nighter before a special launch or event. For example, Elon Musk told the New York Times that he usually sleeps for seven hours a night, but he also worked 120-hour weeks to meet Tesla production targets.

Being an early bird impacts your productivity.

Whether they sleep for three or eight hours, all successful CEOs seem to have something in common: they’re early risers and don’t start their day later than 7 am. Apple CEO Tim Cook even wakes up at 4 am, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey at 5:30 am, but they’re careful to be in bed by no later than 10:30 pm.

But this is not just some quirky CEO habit, and scientists seem to agree that waking up early is good for your productivity. Because of the way the human brain works, it doesn’t work at maximum capacity immediately and needs about two hours to reach peak performance. So, if you wake up at 6 am, “brain fog” will go away by 8 am and you’ll have enough time until noon to get stuff done. But if you wake up at 9, you’ll start being productive at 11, and only have one hour until lunch break makes you feel sleepy again. Studies have also shown that waking up early is better for your mental health, gives you more energy, and boosts your problem-solving skills – all of which are essential for business owners.

Respect your body and do what works for you

Before you try to copy another CEO’s sleeping habits, remember that everyone is different and that you should first and foremost listen to your body. Although the world has glamorised sleepless nights for years and associated them with success, now things are slowly beginning to change as self-care and mental health awareness take centre stage.

And besides, the quality of your sleep is far more important than the number of sleeping hours. If you want to make those hours count, research the best bed frames and mattresses on the market. Because you won’t do your best during that shareholder meeting if you can only think about a stiff neck and a sore back. Also, before bedtime, try to limit your screen time because that might prevent you from falling asleep. Instead, read a book or listen to meditation music (these are also good disconnecting your brain from the small stresses of the day).

If you’re the kind of person who got used to sleeping for just four or five hours without feeling exhausted, then that’s great. Use that time to work and be creative. But, if you need 7+ hours, don’t feel guilty about it. Work nights only when it’s absolutely necessary, and don’t live off caffeine and adrenaline because your energy levels will eventually be depleted and you’ll crash. Listen to the signals your body is sending and, if you feel that you need a break, go to bed earlier. Exhaustion doesn’t need to be part of a CEO’s life, and there are many other ways to boost your productivity without depriving your body of sleep.

You've successfully subscribed to StartupTalky
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to StartupTalky
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
X