Arianna Huffington: why sleep is crucial to achievement

By Arianna Huffington

Billionaire Arianna Huffington is one of the world’s most successful women. But in 2007 she suffered a “painful wake up call” which transformed her attitude to wellbeing.

Born in Greece in 1950, Arianna Huffington moved to the UK in 1966. She became a bestselling author at 23 with The Female Woman, and in 1994, entered the US spotlight as wife of Republican Michael Huffington during his unsuccessful Senate bid. In 2011, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for US$315m, with Huffington becoming editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group.

Despite unprecedented success, Huffington experienced her own turning point in 2007, when she fainted from sleep-deprivation and exhaustion, hit her head on a desk, and broke her cheekbone. This “painful wake-up call”, as she terms it, prompted her to focus on her own wellbeing and incited a desire to create boundaries and routines – starting by making sure she gets enough sleep…

How did your wake-up call influence your attitude to wellbeing?

For years, I bought into our collective delusion that burnout is the price we pay for success.

When I had my wake-up call, I’d just returned home after taking my daughter Christina, then a junior in high school, on a tour of prospective colleges. We’d agreed that, during the days, I would not be on my BlackBerry. But each night we’d eat dinner late and get back to the hotel exhausted. Christina would go to sleep while I acted the sneaky teenager and stayed up late.

I’d respond to all the ‘urgent’ emails and attempt to squeeze a day’s work into what should have been sleep time. This would go on until about 3am, when I could no longer keep my eyes open. After three or four hours’ sleep, I’d be up for the day shift.

Work was more important than sleep to my 2007 self. Because, hey, I’m running a start-up; one that’s got my name on it. Clearly I’m indispensable, so I must work all night, responding to 100 emails, then writing a blog post, while being the perfect mother during the day. This way of living seemed to serve me well — until it didn’t.

From then on, I knew I had to make sleep a priority, starting with creating a mindful bedtime routine. I now treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual.

I now treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual”

Can sleep enhance performance?

We share a common need for sleep and though this has been a constant throughout human history, our relationship with sleep has gone through ups and downs. Right now, that relationship is in crisis. At the same time, our Golden Age of sleep science is revealing all the ways in which sleep plays a vital role in decision making, emotional intelligence, cognitive function and creativity. Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when we include time for renewal.

Glamourising sleep deprivation is deeply embedded in our culture. Everywhere you turn, it’s celebrated, from “you snooze, you lose” to “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But perhaps those who equate sleep with laziness or lack of dedication can be convinced otherwise by looking at the world of sport.

To professional athletes, sleep is not about spirituality, work-life balance, or even health and wellbeing; it’s about using every available tool to increase the chances of winning.

Take the Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala. Early in his basketball career, he’d stay up late watching TV and wake early to hit the gym. When he turned 30, he told the Warriors’ director of performance he wanted to see a sleep specialist and started taking his relationship with sleep seriously. He banished electronic devices from his bedroom, started tracking his sleep and went to bed earlier. As he put it, “sleep good, feel good, play good”.

The results? His playing time increased by 12% and his three-point shot percentage more than doubled. His points per minute went up 29%, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9%, and his turnovers went down 37%. He was named the most valuable player (MVP) for the 2015 NBA finals. Afterwards, he Instagrammed a picture of himself cradling the MVP award — while sleeping!

How has sleep improved your own performance?

Once I started giving sleep the respect it deserves, my life improved in almost every way. Now, 95% of the time I get eight hours of sleep a night – and instead of waking up feeling I have to trudge through activities. I am joyful about the day’s possibilities. I’m better able to recognise red flags and rebound from setbacks. It’s like being dialled into a different channel with less static.

What’s your bedtime ritual?

First, I turn off my electronic devices and escort them out of my bedroom.

Then, I take a hot bath with Epsom Salts and a candle nearby.

I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pyjamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep.

Sometimes I have a cup of camomile or lavender tea. I love reading real, physical books – especially poetry and novels that have nothing to do with work.

What’s the secret to creating followship among your people?

In a climate of change, we’re constantly adapting and iterating, but stay true to our values of community and engagement. People want to work at HuffPost to tell the important and entertaining stories of our time while helping people tell their stories.

Once I started giving sleep the respect it deserves, my life improved in almost every way”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

I’ve learned a great deal about failure and resilience. My mother used to tell me “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success.” I believe we’re not put on Earth to accumulate victories and avoid failures, but to be sand-papered down until what’s left is who we truly are.

When we launched HuffPost , one reviewer said the movie equivalent of the site was “Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate rolled into one”. A year later, when that same reviewer asked about blogging for HuffPost, I happily said yes; holding grudges is one of the most draining things you can do.

What’s your parting advice on achieving balance?

Remember what we’re told on airplanes: “secure your own mask before helping others, even your child”. The better we are at taking care of ourselves, the more effective we’ll be in taking care of others.


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