For almost 11 years, Arianna Huffington’s role at the helm of her namesake media group, The Huffington Post, has not changed. Until now. The media giant announced via Twitter that she was stepping down from her role as editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post in order to focus on her new venture, Thrive Global.
“I thought HuffPost would be my last act,” Arianna tweeted. “But I’ve decided to step down as HuffPost’s editor-in-chief to run my new venture, Thrive Global.”
It comes as no surprise that the 66 year-old is keen to promote a site that’s said to be designed a combatant to workplace burnout.
Somewhere along the way on her journey to the top, Arianna found herself sleeping only four hours a night – which came to a head when she collapsed on the job in 2007. Horrified, she resolved to transform her life. On the eve of the release of Arianna’s new book, The Sleep Revolution, we caught up to discuss the futility of burnout, plus the irrefutable benefits of sleep. And lots of it. Here’s an extract from our interview with Arianna from Issue 33:
How did you rediscover the importance of sleep?
It started with my own painful wake-up call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I found myself lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn’t, but doctor’s waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living. I wrote about my wake-up call in my last book, Thrive, and as I went around the world talking about the book, I found that the subject people wanted to discuss most – by far – was sleep: how difficult it is to get enough, how there are simply not enough hours in the day, how tough it is to wind down, how hard it is to fall asleep and stay asleep, even when we set aside enough time. And since my own transformation into a sleep evangelist, everywhere I go, someone will pull me aside and, often in hushed and conspiratorial tones, confess, “I’m just not getting enough sleep. I’m exhausted all the time.” Or, as one young woman told me after a talk in San Francisco, “I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired.”
By the end of an evening, no matter where I am in the world or what the theme of the event is, I’ll have had that same conversation with any number of people in the room. And what everyone wants to know is, “What should I do to get more and better sleep?” So I decided I wanted to take a fuller look at the subject because it’s clear that if we’re going to truly thrive, we must begin with sleep. It’s the gateway [to] a life of wellbeing.
Why do you think so much of society is in a sleep deprivation crisis?
The evidence of our sleep deprivation crisis is all around us. If you type the words “Why am I” into Google, the first autocomplete suggestion – based on the most common searches – is, “Why am I so tired?” The existential cry of the modern age. And that’s not just true in New York but in Paris, Seoul, New Delhi, Berlin, Cape Town and London. Sleep deprivation is the new lingua franca. And even though we now know more about the science of sleep than ever before, and how important it is to every aspect of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, actually getting enough sleep seems harder and harder. Advances in technology have allowed us to pull back the curtain on what’s going on while we sleep, but technology is also one of the main reasons our relationship to this fundamental part of our existence has become so compromised. Of course it’s not just technology that comes between us and a good night’s sleep. It’s also our collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed.
Feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. The good news is, more solutions to this crisis exist now than at any other time in recent history. People want more sleep, and the market is responding. Hotel rooms are being transformed into sleep temples, schools are modifying start times to suit the sleep needs of teenagers, an exploding market in wearable technology has emerged that tracks our sleep, and a range of products–from smart mattresses to smart headphones–has entered our lives.
The biggest misconception people have about sleep?
The most common sleep misconception is that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success. As I mentioned, I was by no means immune from this. Another widespread misconception has to do with so-called ‘short sleepers’. A lot of people in our culture – especially hard-charging men – like to think they don’t need much sleep and even brag about it. It usually goes something like this: “Sure, other people need a full night’s sleep in order to function. But I’m different.” The truth, however, is that less than 1 per cent of the population actually qualify as ‘short sleepers’ – those rare few able to get by on little sleep without experiencing negative consequences. Though many people would like to believe they can train themselves, the trait is actually the result of a genetic mutation. You either have it or you don’t, so it’s not something you can develop over time or something you magically acquire because of your dedication to your job.
How can people who are time-poor get better sleep?
My advice is to remember that the busier you are, the more important it is that you make sleep a priority. That includes making a point to disconnect from your devices, for the sake of your sleep and your overall wellbeing. For example, I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. I have a specific time at night when I regularly turn off my devices – and gently escort them out of my bedroom. We also need recharging times during the day, whether it’s simply a short break for a walk or a few minutes of meditation so that we don’t let stress build up and make it harder for us to slow down our minds.
How does your personal focus on sleep tie in with your organisation’s goals this year?
Right now at HuffPost, we’re especially focused on our various sleep campaigns. We’re launching the #SleepRevolution College Tour at 50 campuses, including Stanford, Georgetown, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Ohio State and the University of Georgia. The goal is to spark a national conversation, based on the latest science, about the importance of sleep and the dangers of sleep deprivation, which is at the heart of so many stress-related mental health issues in college. To help students embrace sleep as a performance enhancer, rather than something to be avoided, HuffPost has partnered with major brands to host ‘sleep fairs’ to give students tangible tools and products to make changes in their lives and to learn better sleep habits.
In addition, The Huffington Post, in partnership with Uber, is spearheading a campaign to generate awareness around the dangers of drowsy driving. Lack of sleep can lead to cognitive impairment that’s as dangerous as driving drunk. Drowsy drivers are involved in 328,000 accidents each year, 6400 of which result in deaths. This movement aims to get drowsy people out of the driver’s seat.
In addition to activating policymakers and government officials, the campaign includes a dedicated public service announcement, sleep kit giveaways, and partnerships with companies committed to providing Uber rides for employees who work before or after a certain hour.
How does sleep relate to what you’ve learned from running The Huffington Post?
I learned that my way of life, which was directly linked to the way I defined success, was unsustainable and fundamentally flawed. We founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I also had two teenage children. I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall I had to ask myself, ‘Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted?’ I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realised, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way.
Any words of advice for entrepreneurs?
Experiment, take risks and remember to look beyond your own personal passions and be part of something larger than yourself. And remember, as you go about building whatever it is you’re building, not to fall into the trap of believing that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success.