The adverse effects of short sleep are getting a lot more attention lately, perhaps because research is starting to look at the damage to GDP. The problem is more likely to get attention when it becomes obvious that nations and companies are losing real money, so it’s not just a personal problem.

In Japan, where short sleep is estimated to reduce GDP by 2.92%, companies are starting to provide dedicated nap rooms in workplaces. Other than cutting the rate of karoshi (death by overwork), they’re looking to get more output from their workers in less time, which is the definition of productivity.

If you’re a freelancer, in charge of your own patterns of work and sleep, what should you do about it?

Napping: Don’t fight it

Sleeping in working hours looks like slacking, even if you’re not sleeping off a Don Draper booze lunch. True, as a translator, you may not be getting paid by the hour, but snoozing doesn’t seem like a big productivity booster. It looks much more diligent to tough it out and stay awake until you’re done. But that time you spend fighting to stay awake has some significant costs.


Sleepy people are slow people. Even if desperation to just get the thing done and delivered is a powerful motivator, you’ll still be plodding through it.


if your mind is occupied with staying awake, minute by minute, it’s not focused on your work. Less concentration means lower-quality work. Even if you catch all these dozy mistakes in the checking/QA stage, fixing bad work is less efficient than doing a decent first draft.


Acts of stoical endurance in the face of crushing fatigue might possibly be good for the soul, or build moral fibre, but they don’t do your adrenal glands any good.

Take a nap already

If keeping your eyes open is a struggle that wears you down, don’t keep doing it. Just take a nap.

Some people are better at naps than others. Done right, a nap can take 20 minutes, after which you spring back to work, invigorated and highly productive. This is something I’ll have to come back to in another post.

Admit your preferences

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man health, wealthy, and wise”

I’m in favour of regular sleep patterns, despite my complete failure to stick to them. But you can have regular sleep without necessarily following the above proverb, and your pattern should be your own choice, not bound by convention. If working at night is better for you than in the afternoon, do that. If you’d rather have free time in the afternoon while your kids are awake, then head to the office after they’re in bed, do it. Work from dawn, then take a siesta? Fine, if that works for you.

The point is, find out what your actual preferences are, and go with what really works for you and those around you.

Test your preferences

You might think of yourself as a night owl and pride yourself on working hard while the world is asleep, but how productive are those nocturnal hours, really? And if you work until 4am, set the alarm for 8am, then sleep until noon, did you actually gain anything?

On the other hand, if you make a virtue of rising with the sun and obeying the above proverb, are you actually productive in those hours, or are you miserably slurping coffee and waiting for lunch?

Get quantitative

The answers to these questions are quantitative, not just qualitative. Get numbers for how many genuinely productive hours you fit into any given daily pattern, and most importantly, how many words you actually get translated.

Sleep pattern hacks (not recommended)

Polyphasic sleep means dividing your sleep time into smaller chunks. The theory is that the REM sleep is the sleep you really need, and if you just go to sleep all night for eight hours (monophasic sleep), you only get two hours of REM sleep. Shorter chunks of sleep are more efficient, if the brain expects them, because the brain rushes faster into REM, and the more you break your sleep into a collection of 20-minute naps, the less sleep you need overall to still grab the same amount of time in REM. At the extreme, you can get enough sleep from two hours a day.

Why I don’t recommend this

But the snag is that you have to be extremely disciplined about it, never deviating from the fixed schedule of naps at regular intervals, never missing a nap, and never oversleeping. That seems to me like a deal breaker, because you have a lot more life (in the form of hours not spent asleep) but less quality of life. You take the flexible lifestyle you have as a freelancer and change it into something more regimented than any office job. That said, there is still the siesta, as the low-hanging fruit of polyphasic sleep (actually, it’s only biphasic, because you sleep in two chunks), with a night sleep of six hours and a short nap in the middle of the day. That seems harmless and could still gain you 90 minutes a day.

Tim Ferriss goes into this in detail in “The 4-Hour Body”.

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