Saturday, August 4, 2018

“Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”? NO: Let’s Stop Celebrating Sacrificing Our Health

By Kai Chan
GYA sticker, photo courtesy
of Ignacio Palomo.

I’m tired of fellow academics boasting about how little sleep they got, as if it’s some badge of honour that they’re willing to give it all for their science or scholarship. Not that it’s always boasting, mind you--sometimes, more appropriately, it’s explaining crankiness or bloodshot eyes, acknowledging procrastination or overcommitment, or just plain complaining. Those are all fair game.

But when it sounds like boasting, comments like this propagate a dangerous celebration of academic martyrdom that normalizes unhealthy habits and turns many a brilliant student away from academia. This is true even though the problem of sacrificing sleep goes well beyond academia, including law, business, medicine, etc.

“Sleep is for the plane ride home”? No, sleep is for the
This weary traveller didn’t make it to the plane--
here she’s 
sprawled over our luggage in the lounge.
I’ve definitely remarked on sleepless nights in ways that might sound like a brag. No longer.

Too many students tell me they don’t want to go on in academia, because they see how busy their professors are, and they can’t imagine that being a good life. Who can blame them? But is that really what we want for academia? A profession that weeds out those who prioritize family and health over working 60+ hour weeks? What a recipe for dysfunctional workplaces and academic communities.

Another weary traveller. My daughter was so tired from the
plane that she wouldn’t wake for a feeding (years ago now).
For me, this post was prompted when I spotted Ignacio Palomo’s Global Young Academy sticker, “Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”. (Ignacio was using it only to show his appreciation of GYA, not his support for the attitude it represents.) I love the GYA, and my colleague and friend who coined and popularized this phrase, meaning that one shouldn’t waste time sleeping while at GYA meetings. What’s great about the phrase is how it succinctly captures a strong commitment to the organization and GYA friends.

On this 21-hour journey to Brisbane (which started at 6pm),
I got 20 minutes of shut-eye while my 1-year old slept on my
chest. I’d just as soon boast about that as I would boast about
driving 140 km/h. (It’s just as much of a social burden given
that fatigue is a leading cause of motor accidents.)
But now that it’s on organizational stickers, let’s also acknowledge its dark side: the slogan celebrates habits that compromise our health. And it sends the signal that those who don’t want to do that (who want to get a good night’s sleep) don’t belong.

As I said, I cherish my GYA colleagues, but I didn’t want to show it by staying up until 3 AM. I had too much else going on, and I didn’t want to return to my family fried or sick because I worked myself into the ground. Plus, I'm a better person when I have good sleep: more patient, more generous, less self-absorbed.

It’s hard enough getting a good night sleep without that kind of social pressure (witness exhibit D, left).


  1. Thanks for the post Kai! Indeed, I find fundamental to have a balanced approach to academic work. Personally, I feel much more productive and creative after excersicing or taking some breaks. Perhaps a catchy sentence on the co-benefits of taking the necesary breaks for science can make it to the next generation of GYA stickers. More has been written about this topic here:

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