Banking the hours

What if you could save up all those hours that you knew in advance would be wasted, and spend them when they mattered most?

For instance, after work there’s an hour or two where I don’t do much of anything. In the morning on weekends I usually just surf the web.

It would be so much better if I were able to save these up and redeem them when I’m going to a concert or bar with friends. Or maybe when I’m spending a magical evening on a date, or when I’m enjoying a beautiful sunset. Or even when I’m simply in a contemplative or satisfied mood.

Given the choice, I’d do it in a heartbeat!

Incidentally, this is what happens with Daylight Savings Time. As you know, in the spring you lose an hour due to daylight savings, and in the fall, you gain an hour. Spring forward, fall back. This is the equivalent of putting an hour in the bank. In the spring you’re banking an hour that you redeem later in the year.

What if I said you could do this all the time? Take hours you didn’t care about, ‘bank’ them, and then redeem them later. Lets go further and say that hours when you’re doing *something,* you’re unable to bank. For instance, if you’re driving somewhere, that’s not bankable.

What’s the point of this hypothetical scenario. After all, it’s surely science fiction, right? No, there’s a way to do it in reality.

Sleep.

Sleep operates just like a bank account. You can choose to go into sleep debt, and you can choose to run a slight sleep surplus. Having a sleep surplus accumulates interest in the form of being more wakeful, and you can redeem it in the near-term when it means the most to you.

Normally, when I’m not mindful, I will accumulate a sleep debt during the week and then pay that debt on the weekend. This is totally foolish and backwards. The hours after work when I could be sleeping are the least rewarding personal hours of my life. Meanwhile, the weekend represents a solid block of time during which I could do anything I wanted. In other words, the most rewarding hours of my day. I could go further. Rather than driving somewhere, I could take the train or a bus, and get some (admittedly low-quality) sleep. For long distance travel, this is usually cheaper, anyway.

Think about it. You can jump into the science fiction future simply by manipulating your sleeping hours.

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Skill Acquisition and Sleep

Some skills or habits can act as enormous levers. Think about the habit of setting goals, writing to-do lists, and achieving those goals. This is a kickass lever to have in your arsenal of skills, even though it’s a little dorky and seems as though it doesn’t have any tangible benefit.

Simply put, if you write to-do lists, you’ll be more organized and deliberate about skill acquisition in another area – whether it’s learning gardening or sailing a ship.

One of these levers that people routinely ignore is sleep. If you have poor sleep habits, you will feel perpetually tired, and without any energy it’s difficult to get anything done. There’s a lot to say about proper sleep habits, and it’s an area I’m only starting to explore – my own “sleep hygiene” is quite poor right now.

That said, there’s one property of sleep I’ve taken advantage of in the past. I recently attended a talk given by a sleep doctor at NYU, and he confirmed what I’ve long suspected: sleep acts as a caching mechanism. Suppose you take two groups of people and have them try to learn something; one group then sleeps while the other group does not. The group that was able to sleep will retain the learned information better than the group that was not. Something happens while we sleep where information acquired over the day is shuffled around and put into long-term memory. Personally, I believe that dreams have something to do with this: they feel as though part of the brain is trying to interpret the caching that’s going on elsewhere in the brain.

I applied this property of sleep in college. As I believe is common with many engineering disciplines, in the first year or two there’s usually a course that’s designed to “test” majors in the subject and see if they really care about it. Where I went to school, this was a class for sophomores where we had to design and write a Stratego game with a visual display, some sort of AI, and networking capabilities so that people on different computers could play each other. There was a *lot* to learn in one semester and the project itself was basically the entire grade for the course.

On weekends when I still had a lot to do before delivering something, I found the most effective routine was a pattern where I worked for about 3 hours, took an hour break, and then slept for 2 hours. This had two advantages: first, I was able to regularly step away from the problem I was facing, allowing my brain to take a break (more on this in a later post). Second, I was able to sleep, which is the best thing to do when you step away from a problem for the reasons above.

The pattern that worked for me in this particular situation is certainly not applicable for everyone, or for long periods of time. Still, I would encourage anyone reading this to go ahead and experiment with breaking skill acquisition up: instead of doing a lot at night, do a little at night, sleep, wake up early and do something in the morning as well. Experiment with sleep and see what works best for you.