Willpower Workout 14: Going without sleep

Willpower Workout #14: Going Without Sleep

September 11, 2020

Earlier in this challenge, we have talked about what we have called “personal pre-conditions” that can make any task, even a motivating task, require your willpower. Pre-conditions are depleted states, during which you have fewer internal resources to devote to getting over the “activation energy” necessary to take an action.

Remember Willpower Workout 5: Clean for an hour on Friday night. This workout required willpower because most people are depleted when they get to Friday night.

In this workout, we’re going to take it another level. The goal of this workout is to go at least 24 hours without sleeping. Fatigue is one of the most debilitating pre-conditions when it comes to performing well and productively. Sleep researcher Itzhak Fried, from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) describes the impact: “We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly… Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much.”

Fried’s research shows that when we are tired, neuron activity in our temporal lobe, which is responsible for visual perception and visual memory declines: “the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”

In his book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explains Charles Morgan’s research on what happens to the information captives share after they undergo intense interrogation. Interrogations of the type investigated by Morgan often included one to three 24-hour periods without sleep. Here is how Morgan explains the effect of sleep deprivation to Gladwell:

“Trying to get information out of someone you are sleep-depriving is sort of like trying to get a better signal out of a radio that you are smashing with a sledgehammer… It makes no sense to me at all.”

The point is that being tired is debilitating. Former Navy SEAL, Stew Smith, describes the experience of going five days without sleep during training this way, “I would be thinking of something and I would see it in front of me like a cartoon character. When you’re losing sleep, after a while, you turn to this fight-or-flight response. You just go into survival mode.” He made it through only by “staying in constant motion, staying uncomfortable, and psychologically breaking each day into a series of six-hour stretches until the next meal.”

It requires an unusual level of internal strength to make it through the night without letting your eyelids fall to rest.

Day 14 Willpower Workout:

  1. Take this test when you finish work for the day (ideally around 6pm). Increase the span and speed until you can’t get it correct. Only give yourself three chances on a given setting. Write the most challenging test you complete successfully.
  2. Go without sleep of any kind or duration for at least 24 hours.
  3. Take the test again when you would normally go to bed.
  4. Take the test again when you reach 24 hours.
  5. Continue without sleep as long as you can, up to 42 hours. (Please do not go beyond this length for the purposes of completing this workout.)
  6. Take the test a final time just before you decide to go to sleep.

Disclaimer: Be smart! Do not drive after you’ve been awake 18+ hours. If you have any medical conditions, you may not want to do this. We’re not doctors. Consult a physician if you have any reason to be concerned.

If you’re looking for tips for how to make it through the night, go back to Smith’s advice. Another Navy SEAL agrees,

Keep moving. That is the first rule. If you stop moving you will fall asleep. Doesn’t matter if you’re standing up or laying down. You will fall asleep. Keep moving.”

Note that our point here is not to advocate for going without sleeping, but only to stretch our limits by doing it in this one-off scenario.

Evaluating Your Workout:

  1. How many hours did you stay awake?
  2. When did you start feeling tired?
  3. What did you do to keep yourself awake?
  4. How does your performance on the visual perception and memory test change as your fatigue increases?

Willpower Workout in Action:

For this workout, I’ll be posting live updates on Twitter.

This is day 14 of a 40-day journey to explore your limits. If you’d like to receive a daily email with the willpower workout of the day, you can sign up here to start at Day 1 with the first workout:

If you’d prefer to jump in where Matt is right now and then make up the other workouts on your own schedule, sign up here:

Past Workouts: