Jocko Willink is a former Navy SEAL and founder of Echelon Front, a leadership consulting company. He’s authored numerous books including Extreme Ownership and Discipline Equals Freedom. What he’s best known for, however, are his podcasts.
In Jocko Podcast episode #229 with co-host Echo Charles, Jocko discussed a topic that is becoming extremely popular: sleep deprivation. While most people who talk about this topic do so from a negative point of view by emphasizing how bad sleep deprivation is for your health and cognitive abilities, Jocko takes a different approach that can be summed up by watching his video titled “Good”.
He thinks that the risks of sleep deprivation are overblown and that he is able to function perfectly fine on one hour of sleep. Jocko believes that his cognitive capabilities are exactly the same when sleep deprived as they are when he’s well-rested.
What Jocko REALLY thinks about sleep deprivation
Echo Charles: Sleeping gets kind of a bad rap, now that you mention it. You know how ‘sleeping on the job’, that expression is not a good expression. It’s not a positive expression.
Jocko: You’re not doing a good job. Leif talks about this a lot as well. As soon as he would get into an overwatch position and get security set he’d be like ‘cool I’m going to get some sleep’. Because the planning cycle for us officers in the field, basically we’d be planning the entire time. We’d know that once we got into the field we could get some sleep. Because there’s no chain of command breathing down your neck for another CONOPS mission. You’re just out there like ‘thank god’.
Echo Charles: A lot of times if you’re sleep deprived then you’re no good to anybody.
Jocko: Eeeeeehhhhhhhhhh yeah I’m not 100% on board with that. I’m just being straight up.
Echo Charles: I know you are.
Jocko: I read some things that say ‘if you haven’t slept for 24 hours then it’s the equivalent of three – you’re legally drunk. I don’t think so. I’ll tell you what’s a good example. The early musters that we did. We didn’t have a system down yet and so we didn’t know all the things we were going to have to tackle. We just didn’t prepare correctly. So Leif and I would be up all night long.
The worst muster as far as sleep goes was New York City. One of the nights – I think it was the first night – we had to sign 900 graduation certificates. It was 1:30 in the morning when we got started. PT for us starts by the way at three. So we sat there, we signed them, we went to bed for an hour and woke up. The next day we were on stage the whole day, the entire day, no stopping. People were drilling questions at me. BOOM what about this what about that brrrap ba ba ba. Now could I have done that if I was SEVEN DRINKS DRUNK?
Echo Charles: Well some people can I don’t know.
Jocko: Let me rephrase that. Let’s not compare it to alcohol. Because we know that functionally you could pull that off. To say that I was up there cognitively impaired? I don’t think you could say that. I don’t think it’s true.
Echo Charles: I think that reality is that different people are different and it’s going to affect people in different ways. Generally speaking, getting adequate rest is better than not getting adequate rest.
Jocko: No doubt. We would looovvveee to get that big old sleep. Sure, that’s great. But what I’m saying is that people don’t always get to sleep a lot and you still have to make critical decisions. Your mind – just like your body can adapt to certain situations – when I’m doing something it doesn’t matter how tired I am I know what’s happening. I’m on it, right?
Echo Charles: Y’know it’s so interesting, there is – I don’t know the studies – but if you believe that you got enough sleep it affects your capacity. That almost suggests that if you’re just like I’m gonna PTF through this 100% and that’s your attitude, it will help your cognitive capacity even if you didn’t get that much sleep. And I think that I meant more than anything that I didn’t mean you’re no good to anybody when you’re sleep deprived. I’m saying that it’s a good attitude to have to make sure that your team isn’t sleep deprived. That’s a good attitude to have. But as an individual or team member it’s good to be able to function with good sleep and without.
Jocko: For sure. Sleep is preferred. But what I’m saying is it’s not gonna – you can step up and rise to the occasion. Look, I don’t recommend it. For sure, you wanna be able to sleep. But I’m not drastically cognitively impaired at the moment where all of a sudden ‘wait a second I don’t know what the answer to that question is. Uh, hold on,’ you know? That doesn’t happen. Your adrenaline flows, you’re up there. You’re pulling the trigger on your gun. Whatever. Things are happening. You get in the game. You get in the game. You’re not falling apart ‘aahhh uhhh,’ NO. You’re making things happen. Even you operate on very little sleep at the muster. I didn’t see you ‘hey uh I forgot to press record.’
Is Jocko right?
Most research indicates that sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do for your health. Why We Sleep (our number one recommended sleep book) author Matthew Walker says the following:
“After thirty years of intensive research, we can now answer many of the questions posed earlier. The recycle rate of a human being is around sixteen hours. After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours. Three full nights of recovery sleep (i.e., more nights than a weekend) are insufficient to restore performance back to normal levels after a week of short sleeping. Finally, the human mind cannot accurately sense how sleep-deprived it is when sleep-deprived.”(Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep)
Unfortunately most of us aren’t quite as tough as Jocko, who has noted that he is a natural short sleeper, meaning that he can function normally on less sleep. As the former SEAL mentioned in his book Discipline Equals Freedom:
“Teens generally need eight to ten hours and by the time people are full adults eight hours becomes the standard – though the actual number is between seven and nine hours, depending on the individual. Some people genetically need even less sleep than that, but those people are rare. I am one of those people.”(Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual)
It’s also important to note that Jocko was only talking about his cognitive capabilities in this interview. In his book he lists some of the negative affects you can experience if you don’t get enough sleep:
“Failure to get enough sleep has serious side effects. Lack of sleep can cause negative hormonal changes, interfere with the metabolizing of glucose, increase blood pressure, and suppress the immune system. Less sleep also means less human growth hormone in your body, which means less muscle mass and weaker bones. Mentally, the brain is impacted as the ability to pay attention and concentrate begins to diminish and problems solving and basic reasoning become less acute. Furthermore, over an extended period, there are psychological effects like paranoia and even hallucinations.“(Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual)
I think Jocko would agree that even if you have the ability to tough it out it’s much better to get the sleep that your body requires.