It’s another New Year and people are full of resolve to do more, aim higher and live fuller lives. It sounds exhausting to me and I suspect that’s one reason why the Christmas leftovers often last longer than our good intentions. We’re so keen to work and play that we forget that without rest, we can’t do either.
We should take our inspiration from the cheetah, the fastest land animal on Earth. Its pace is impressive but those 75mph sprints come in short bursts. It can only go fast if most of the time it is moving very little at all.
It sounds paradoxical but the lesson of the cheetah is that you often have to do less in order to do more. For evidence of that, just look at the working lives of philosophers and thinkers.
Samuel Johnson was a night owl who worked late into the small hours by candlelight, but he had the good sense to compensate for this in the morning. One acquaintance, a vicar, reported that he would often visit him around 12 o’clock to find him still in bed. His contemporary, James Boswell, was much the same and, although he aspired to get up bright and early, he would often end up ‘wasting the precious morning hours in lazy slumber’. Boswell was too harsh on himself. The reason he found it so hard to get out of bed was that he needed more time in it. He should have embraced his lie-ins, like Johnson, and viewed them as important time to recharge his mental batteries, which would admittedly have been difficult since the first battery wasn’t invented until five years after his death.
The French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire liked being in bed so much he often worked there, not getting up until noon. William James was an insomniac who nonetheless made his peace with his bed by sitting up in it to read when he couldn’t sleep and taking an hour’s nap every afternoon. Thomas Hobbes was another Northern European fond of the Mediterranean siesta, which he took for half an hour on his bed daily, something that perhaps helped him to rise ready for work at seven in the morning.
What all these people illustrate is that ceaseless activity is not a very good way of being productive. We need time to let things stew away either in the back of our minds or even when they are switched off. The Italians have a saying, la notte porta consiglio: the night brings advice. We say more simply ‘sleep on it’ but the principle is the same: not thinking at all for a while is often the secret of thinking clearly.
The price we pay for ignoring this wisdom is tragically illustrated by the pitiful case of René Descartes. In his prime he slept for ten hours a day, producing masterpieces like the Meditations and Discourse on Method, as well as inventing the modern graph. But when he accepted a position as a tutor to the young Queen Christina of Sweden, this happy arrangement was ruined, as he was required to instruct her at five in the morning. After a month of this he fell ill with pneumonia and ten days later he was dead. The lesson is clear: staying in bed can save your life.
Have you benefited from more sleep? Let us know in the comments below.