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15 CEOs on how much sleep they actually get

We asked 15 CEOs to tell us the truth about their nightly routines—and whether they get up as early as Tim Cook.

15 CEOs on how much sleep they actually get
[Photo: Pixabay/Pexels]

One thing CEOs love to talk about is how much sleep they get. Some are vigilant about their sleeping hours. “I will usually sleep eight hours a night,” Warren Buffet has said. “I have no desire to get to work at four in the morning.” For others, sleep is more of an afterthought: Indra Nooyi reportedly slept no more than four hours a night while running PepsiCo. And last year, Elon Musk told the New York Times that he was working 120-hour weeks to meet Tesla production targets. “There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days—days when I didn’t go outside,” he said.

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The early risers—amongst them Tim Cook and Sallie Krawcheck—are prone to sharing their proclivity for the wee hours.

More than 50% of people, however, are genetically predisposed to have relatively normal sleeping patterns. We asked a number of CEOs about their sleeping habits—most of which are a bit less extreme than you might think.

James Park, CEO of fitness startup Fitbit

“While I don’t get as much sleep as I’d like, it’s still a priority for me and something I always have to work at,” says Park, who heads to bed around 1 a.m. and typically gets about six hours of sleep a night. One thing that helps Park sleep well is exercise. “I’ve found that getting exercise helps me get the best night of rest and feel most energetic, so I try to stick to a consistent schedule of at least 20-30 minutes of exercise each day,” he says.

Park adds that while research points to seven to eight hours of sleep, everyone is different. “At Fitbit, we’ve tracked over nine billion nights of sleep—and it has shown us that there is no set amount that works for everyone,” he says.

Kathrin Hamm, CEO of bedding startup Bearaby

Hamm aims for eight hours of sleep but usually manages only seven, with a bedtime of 11 p.m. She uses naps to give her an extra boost in the afternoon. “I make sleep a priority—after all, running a business is not a sprint but a marathon,” she says. “Naps have become my secret weapon. I try to divide my day in two shifts, where I get a 30-minute nap around 5 p.m., before I work a couple of hours more in the evening.”

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Hamm points out that the majority of people are lighter sleepers. “There might be a few lucky ones out there who don’t have to think much about their sleep, because it literally comes naturally to them,” she says. “Unfortunately, I am not one of them, which means I have to be more mindful about my sleep.” As a CEO of a startup that makes sleep aids, Hamm encourages her team to take naps, as well. “It’s important that we shift the conversation from ‘high performance equals long hours and little sleep’ to thinking around more flexible options to fit different sleep patterns and preferences—and a culture where its actually ‘cool’ to take a nap in the middle of the day,” she says.

Craig Elbert, CEO of vitamin startup Care/of

As a parent to a 3-year-old and 9-month-old, Elbert’s sleep schedule can be unpredictable. “Sometimes I pleasantly get seven to eight hours of sleep,” he says. “Other times, if I’m working and the baby wakes up? Four hours.” He admits that on the whole, he doesn’t get enough sleep, albeit not for a lack of trying. “It’s a priority, but at this life stage, children supersede that priority,” he says. “I think bragging about lack of sleep is overrated. Sleep is great if you can get it!”

Christina Stembel, CEO of flower startup Farmgirl Flowers

For Stembel, sleep takes a backseat to work most days of the week. She consistently wakes up around 7 a.m. but usually after no more than three to four hours of sleep. “I don’t generally have a set bedtime,” she says. “I go to bed when my work is mostly done.” The exception is Friday night, when she usually gets to bed by 10 p.m. and lets herself sleep for upwards of 10 hours. “I do feel lucky that I’m not one of those people who wrestles with insomnia or other sleep issues,” she says. “When I’m out, I’m out. I sleep very deeply and, at least I like to think, efficiently, making the most of the few hours I get.”

Stembel thinks of her sleep schedule as a sacrifice she is willing to make while she scales her business. “Your time is one of the most precious but also most necessary resources you have when you’re scaling a business,” she says. “You can never make more hours in the day, but you can take advantage of the hours most normal people dedicate to resting.”

Tom Smith, CEO of fertility startup Dadi

Smith usually only sleeps at 1 a.m. but makes a point of sleeping six hours a night. “I can operate with less sleep, but my effectiveness and mood suffer,” he says. “I’ve met people who live well on three hours of sleep, but that’s uncommon, and I believe everyone is different. People should start by understanding their bodies and what habits work best for them—then design a routine to support those habits.”

Philip Krim, CEO of mattress startup Casper

Krim has always needed a lot of sleep. “I’ve been that way since I was a baby,” he says. That’s why he aims for between seven and eight hours of sleep each night, despite having a newborn; he typically goes to sleep around 11 p.m. and wakes up no earlier than 6:30 a.m. “When I do, I’m at my best the next day,” Krim says. “I’m more productive and focused.”

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Ashley Merrill, CEO of sleepwear brand Lunya

Merrill shares her wake-up time with the likes of Tim Cook. During the week, she sleeps four to six hours a night and rises between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m. Merrill tries to make up for her lack of sleep at the end of the workweek. “On the weekends, I sleep close to nine hours a night, plus I nap Saturday and Sunday for about two hours both days,” she says.

Running a startup makes it difficult to sleep more on a daily basis. “I would love to get more sleep, but startup life isn’t conducive to a super restorative and balanced lifestyle,” she says. “Sleep is a huge priority for me, and and that is why I make sure I get to bed early, decline almost all evening events, and ensure that I nap on the weekends.” Merrill also makes it clear that her sleep habits should not set the tone for the rest of her team. “I am vocal about wanting to get more life balance,” she says. “I tell my team that just because that is the time of day I can do emails does not in any way indicate they should be responding then.”

Susana Saeliu, CEO of custom pillow startup Pluto

Saeliu now sleeps at least seven hours a night—if not eight—but that wasn’t always the case. “I absolutely loved to burn the midnight oil, night after night,” she says. “But sleep deprivation gradually caught up, and I felt myself having less clarity throughout the day. I began taking longer than usual to finish a set amount of work.” She found her self-awareness, decision-making, and mood were all negatively affected.

“Not only does priding yourself on sleeping less set an unhealthy standard, it also creates a delusion of true productivity,” she says. “My feeling is that sleeping less, or believing that you can adapt—or have already adapted to less sleep—is not the best path toward being the best leader you can be.”

Jessica Mulligan, CEO of CBD product line Winged

When it comes to her sleep schedule, Mulligan keeps things flexible. “I do the exact thing that the experts say not to do,” she says. “The time I go to sleep and wake up varies every day. I listen to my body, and when I’m tired, I sleep. But if not, I use the night to do big picture thinking for my life and business that can be hard to do during the constant daytime pinging of email, phone, and meetings.”

A key to waking up early, according to Mulligan, is being passionate about your work. “I can tell you that when you are excited about what you’re doing, popping out of bed is a whole lot easier,” she says. “It’s about finding what’s best for you and what makes you excited to get out of bed.”

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Nick Stafford, CEO of pet startup Ollie

“I’m typically in bed by 9:30-10 p.m. and up by 6:30 a.m. to exercise,” Stafford says. “I was a professional cricketer, so working out has always been important to me.” Though Stafford finds it easy to fall asleep, he makes a point of not taking his phone to bed. “One rule I have is to always leave my phone downstairs or out of the bedroom,” he says. “It’s a simple and effective way to place my mind and body into sleep mode.”

Sarah Ahmed, CEO of denim brand Warp + Weft

Like many founders, Ahmed struggled to prioritize sleep when she started Warp + Weft. “I was always running on adrenaline and found that although I was getting stuff done, I wasn’t centered,” she says. “My ideas plateaued. I wasn’t able to do long-term strategic thinking and wasn’t as attentive of a manager as I wanted to be.” Now, she doesn’t go without eight hours of sleep, hitting the sack at 9:30 p.m. “I’m extremely rigid, almost protective about my sleep schedule—and my productively has skyrocketed,” she says.

But Ahmed also recognizes that while this schedule works for her, it doesn’t suit everyone—and the same is true of the 9-to-5 workday. “We are testing a more flexible schedule that gives the team a more work-life balance,” she says. “It’s resulted in not only an increase in productivity and overall commitment to the company but happiness, wellness, and accountability amongst the team.”

Hilary McCain, CEO of CBD brand Sweet Reason

“I can’t imagine being an entrepreneur and not sleeping,” says McCain, who sleeps at least 7.5 hours per night. “I wouldn’t think as clearly, I would be a nightmare to work with, and I would almost certainly burn out.” Unsurprisingly, she uses CBD for a more restful sleep. “It takes the edge off and calms me down,” she says. “It helps me feel more in my body and less in my head.”

She notes that even CEOs with seemingly exacting sleep schedules—those who wake up before the crack of dawn—often make a point of not only sleeping early but also sticking to a consistent bedtime. “I think entrepreneurs and CEOs have less spare time and are therefore forced to really prioritize what they do outside of work, but I don’t think people are compromising sleep as much these days,” she says. “There’s too much research now about how crucial sleep is to your health and longevity.”

Javier Evelyn, CEO of healthcare startup Alerje

For Evelyn, six hours of sleep is manageable, though he would prefer to get seven. But what he can’t go without is his morning routine, which begins at 6 a.m. “Every morning, I also need to ensure that I work out, meditate, and take my vitamins,” he says. “I also try not to look at my phone for the first 30 minutes of my day to get a better command of my day. I’ve seen a distinct difference in my energy for the day if I skip on my morning routine.”

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Ron Rudzin, CEO of mattress company Saatva

“Sleep, to me, is an activity,” Rudzin says. “I tell whoever will listen that they have to view sleep as an activity and prepare for it, the same way they would if they were going to work out or play a sport.” That’s why Rudzin has a series of bedtime rituals before he goes to bed at 11 p.m. “I make sure that the temperature of the room is right, and it has to be extremely dark,” he says. “I turn off all my electronics about 15 minutes beforehand, and I take a warm shower before I go to sleep. And I do the same preparation for sleep every single night.”

Though he aims for seven hours of sleep a night, Rudzin does usually stay up later one day of the week to connect with Saatva’s night staff. “But I try to limit myself so I still get 5 or 6 hours of sleep—and only on a certain night,” he says.

Anna Palmer, CEO of e-commerce platform Dough

“On a regular night without any deadlines, I’ll usually fall asleep around 12:30 a.m. and wake up at 7:30,” Palmer says. But as a night owl, Palmer finds she focuses best between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. “We have a number of late-night workers on our key team, so we purposefully don’t schedule meetings before 10:30 a.m. to make sure people have the option to sleep if they were up working late,” she says.

However late she sleeps, Palmer shoots for seven hours of shut-eye a night. “With my first company, I was always sacrificing sleep to get things done because I thought sleeping was inefficient,” she says. “That schedule would end with me getting sick and crashing hard in a way that would impact my personal health and the team for weeks. It took a while to learn, but the second time around, I’ve learned that to take care of your team and your company, you have to take care of yourself first.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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