Why Do We Think We Don't Sleep Enough?

If recent studies are to be believed, most of us get more than eight hours every night. So why do we think otherwise? Major factors include our perceptions of ourselves and time—and how we spend it.

If sleep is the new sex, as some have suggested, Americans might be surprised to find out just how randy the country has become.

In a few weeks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release a study called the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). This study, done annually, tracks how 12,000 Americans spend their time. The 2012 figures showed that the average American gets 8.71 hours of sleep on a given day. That’s 8.45 hours on weekdays and 9.35 hours on weekends. To be sure, those averages include college students and retirees. But with 12,000 people, the ATUS can report by demographic groups. Its researchers find that even working parents of kids under age 6 average more than 8 hours (8.18 for men; 8.37 for women).

So how do these somnolent findings—which will be similar in 2013—square with perceptions? A recent poll by Harris Interactive found that 83% of Americans say they do not consistently get a good night’s sleep. A recent National Sleep Foundation poll claimed Americans sleep 6 hours and 51 minutes on work nights, and 7 hours and 37 minutes on non-workdays.

One answer is that people’s perceptions of time and how we spend it are fuzzy—something to keep in mind when looking at any survey or poll.

Rachel Krantz-Kent, an economist with the American Time Use Survey, notes that her study has a different methodology from most sleep surveys. For starters, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t ask respondents about a particular activity, the way a survey on sleep, or work, or commuting might. Her researchers listen as respondents describe all their activities on the previous day, sequentially, from 4 a.m. to 4 a.m. “That forces everybody to fit their behavior into a 24-hour day,” Krantz-Kent says. If you ask people to estimate how much time they devote to activities, “I think you’ll find that sums to more than 24 hours a day.”

Plus, she notes, many surveys ask people how much they do something on a “typical” day. But what is a typical day? Most people have “no idea,” Krantz-Kent says. Was it the lousy night you had two nights ago? Or the much better one that preceded that? The ATUS asks respondents about yesterday. While yesterday might not be typical for one person, it won’t, over the hundreds of days the survey is done, be atypical for Americans as a whole.

The ATUS is also designed to “minimize social desirability bias,” says Krantz-Kent. If you ask about specific activities—how much time do you spend reading to your children?—“people might feel that they need to reply a certain way.”

This gets at the issue with sleep surveys. Telling other people how little we sleep is another way of saying we are very busy and rather important. “Americans are an achievement-oriented society and tend to answer questions in a way that leads to positioning themselves in idealistic terms as hardworking, sacrificing, family-oriented members of society,” says John Coyle, a senior vice president at Maddock Douglas, whose Art of Really Living blog covers the subjective experience of time. “Self-reporting sloth, or even ‘taking good care of one’s self’ is somewhat anathema to the socially accepted viewpoint.”

Whole conversations can be built around this premise. When Theresa Daytner, CEO of Maryland’s Daytner Construction Group, visited the White House in early 2009 as part of a small business delegation, she introduced herself to President Obama as the owner of a business with seven figures in revenue and as the mother of six children. He asked her when she slept.

“I stumbled with a response because he was only in office about 90 days at that point, having inherited the worst economic crisis in my lifetime...and he was asking me that question?” Daytner says.

But in reality, Daytner does sleep. She reports that she slept 6 hours the night before I asked her about her sleep schedule but “it was less than normal for me; just happened to stay up a little later last night.” Normally, she says, she sleeps “at least 7 hours a night,” if not a bit more.

She sees no connection between being productive and skimping on sleep. Indeed, many people think the opposite is true. In January Jessica Lahey, a New Hampshire-based middle school teacher, wrote an essay called “Why Parents Need To Let Their Children Fail” for The Atlantic. The post went viral, and the subsequent book deal increased Lahey's workload quite a bit. Nonetheless, she says that, “Particularly now that I am trying to balance two full-time jobs, the one thing I won’t compromise on is sleep. I always get 8 hours.”

To be sure, an average doesn’t mean no one is sleep deprived. Total sleep hours don’t necessarily imply sleep quality. It also doesn’t mean that people don’t have bad nights. To average out at 8 hours, some people in busier demographics “may be subsidizing with 9- and 10-hour weekend sleep-ins,” says Patty Tucker, a California-based sleep coach and consultant. “The harm of bingeing on sleep on Saturday and Sunday is that is makes it hard to get a full and well-constructed night of sleep on Sunday night, which then sends us off into the workweek on the wrong foot.”

And that, of course, can certainly be harmful for productivity: A study published last year in the Journal of Vision found that when people were restricted to less than 6 hours of sleep for several weeks, they became progressively slower at visual search tasks as the study went on.

Another thing to keep in mind with sleep surveys is that it’s human nature to remember the occasional bad night—say that Sunday night plagued by insomnia—as more pronounced than a night of adequate sleep. People also have a tendency to view fun stuff (sleep, leisure) as consuming less time than it does, and non-fun stuff (chores, work for many people) as consuming more time than it does. One study comparing people’s estimated chore time with time diaries found that women thought they spent 5.5 hours weekly washing dishes; men thought they spent 2.6. In reality, they spent 1.1 and 0.7 hours.

Given those numbers, perhaps it’s not surprising that people don’t have a good grasp on how much they sleep, either.

[Sleeping Ducks: Pulen via Shutterstock]

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