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.