Sacrificing sleep: is short-term fatigue justified by long-term benefits?

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

graphic: Elizabeth Teng

“What time do you usually go to sleep?” I’ve been asked this question many times over the past few months by parents, friends, and even teachers. I wish that I could say an early time whenever I come to answer the question, for no one really enjoys going to bed after finally finishing homework that they’ll be handing to the teacher in literally a couple of hours. Suffering from the endless stream of work that can accompany heavy classes and extracurricular workloads, most students, including myself, find sleep a romantic fantasy that is rarely achieved during a regular weeknight.

In addition, the obligatory work overload tends to leak into the sanctuary that is the weekend, eliminating free time. Because of the unhealthy amount of work we persuade ourselves to undertake, students frequently fall into into less-than-healthy behaviors, and often lack motivation for activities outside of school. Although many seem to take pride in all the activities accomplished while managing to stay alive and healthy during the school week, I would venture to say that the loss of sleep and social time is a silent struggle for many high school students, not only at Princeton High School but also for scholarly and competitive students across the country.

I’ll spare you the details of how complex (or not) my schedule is, but, routinely, I would not return home until late in the night from a study session, teacher conference, swimming practice, or other event I need to attend; the distressing fact that I face every time I end up in this situation is that I have, at the very least, an hour of homework to do. Finishing my homework at around midnight, I’ll be ready to jump into bed and hope that I survive the approaching day. The humbling fact about my struggle is its similarity to the evening routines of many other driven students around the country; this struggle between grades and sleep is becoming increasingly common as students push themselves further and further each year in order to catch up to (or surpass) their peers.

Although the degradation of energy through the week is apparent in many students, how does this affect their social life? The answer may be found in subconscious choices. For example, if I’m tired, I’ll choose to sit around the house and communicate with friends electronically rather than bike to meet up with them. And if I am with my friends at some point, I’ll choose not to stay out longer but to leave early and go home to sleep instead. These sacrifices aren’t unusual, and when people are asked what they will be doing on a Friday night, “sleep” is not an uncommon answer.

However, we are not forced to be subject to the academic pressure of our high school schedules, and we are certainly not forced to stay up so late and lose said rest. Every honors student can make a conscious decision to submit work with less effort in the interest of health. Similarly, every honors student enrolled in advanced classes has made a conscious choice to take rigorous, time-consuming courses. But the prime reason we force ourselves to endure the losses is that we aspire to be better—we tell ourselves that in the end, it will be worth every all-nighter and frantic study session. We tell ourselves that it will get better when colleges and employers can see the fruits of our sleepless nights, but in the end it is up to each individual to decide whether or not he wants to sacrifice those hours of rest for the possibility of better opportunities in the future.