I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

After waking up at 2 or 3:00 in the morning, I would write until about 5 or 6:00 am. New How, the first book, was written mostly in the dead of night.

I don’t remember exactly how I started this practice. Or, if I even thought of this as a strategy. I just remember doing it over and over again, sometimes varied if I caught a snooze from 6-7 am.  With 4-5 hours of sleep on any given night, I’d head off to work. Which usually meant a full day of back -to-back meetings with executives of companies, solving tough problems. My head would be full of all this turmoil, when I did the kid hand off from our nanny.

I snapped at my son when I was overly tired, which was, admittedly more often than not. I remember yelling as loud as a human being can yell when he was about three for not doing as I asked. I look back at this scene with great shame today, because no three-year-old kid should be expected to follow directions exactly. It’s clear that my judgment was clouded. A lot was expected of me, (or so I thought), and so I expected a lot. On weekends, I was a like a limp piece of lettuce, ready to fall apart with even the slightest activity. I was leaving it all on the field of work with no room for failure, or life or love.

Back then, I would actually say things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. You’ve probably heard other people say something similar, right? Perhaps even yourself? So when Time ran an essay entitled, “I’ll Finish The Dishes When I’m Dead“, it resonated.

The observation the author, Brigid Schulte, makes is that time can’t actually be managed..

Time never changes. There will always be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in that time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need to, want to or should do. When we die, the email inbox will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t.

And, the real issue is our (unrealistic) expectations of ourselves. …

So much of our overwhelm comes from unrealistic expectations. And when we don’t meet them, instead of questioning the expectations, we think that we’re doing something wrong. Managing the overwhelm, she said, comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.

We do this over and over again, based on the idea that “more is better” because of a core belief, or pattern …

Your ongoing conversation with yourself is, You’re not enough. So whatever you do will never be enough. Every human being has some flavor of ‘not enough.’ Begging the question: How much is enough? When is it good enough? How will I know?

‘Not enough.’ That rings (sadly) true.

I no longer say shit like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” but more “maybe this is a sign to try a different approach”. Things I’ve learned …

First, I’ve learned that overcommitment is the one thing that keeps away happiness. When I sleep too little, travel too much, and don’t eat well or exercise because I’ve said yes to too many meetings or projects, then I get tired, cranky, and lonely — and everything gets viewed through a tired, cranky, lonely lens. Doing more is typically not the answer. Although there are times, where intense focus is the right way forward. For example, I’ve been doing a new book proposal, working weekends and evenings as inspiration strikes. I am hopeful that this intensity now will pay off down the road, providing a clear light on the path as I get into the deeper story telling. But this project is different than New How; I ended several bigger commitments last year, as I prepared for this new endeavor. Letting go of things created the space for the new thing to have space to flourish.

2nd, the key to my productivity, is to define and redefine the ‘True North’. Just the other day an entrepreneur I’m advising was measuring success by how much he did, as if volume or efficiency is what matters. But it seems to me that he ought to review the definition of productivity. Productivity is a measure of how well you achieve a certain goal, so it only works if you’re really clear (as in, intentional) on what you want.  (Link is Fast Company profile on how I stay productive, written by Lydia Dishman.)

3rd, it’s a practice. My kiddo has to sometimes put a post-it on my head to remind me to go to bed instead of finishing a project. The hubster’s eye rolling signals when I’m traveling too much for different speaking gigs.  There’s no universally right way to do things and, because things change, this process is both iterative and never-ending. Like living your life on a balancing board; it takes strength just to stay on.


It seems to me this is a core life skill that none of us learn in books or in class. So I’m curious if we can learn from each other — what can you share about this? What works, and even … what doesn’t?

13 Replies

    1. Yeah, I used to think my family was being “unsupportive” when in reality they were supporting a fuller self. Only when I truly listened with heart did I hear that truth.

  1. Nilofer, great post thanks for sharing in an open and honest way your story!
    I’m actually writing a 25 day guide to becoming more efficient and organized to gain more hours of your life to do what is important to you so this post was spot on for what I’m working on currently.
    There are processes that we can do but the biggest thing that has worked in my life is to have the mindset of what is important, what is necessary, and what you are going to do about getting it done.

    1. Can you share one tip of your 25 day guide? I’m so curious. Am moving countries (longer story for later) and using it as a reset button on things.

  2. A simple strategy that I have learned but continue to find challenging to deal with. The belief that if I don’t get 8 hours sleep and wake up at 3 (which tends to be the ghouls and spooks hour for me!) then I am in a bad place. I would then stress about getting back to sleep and not really manage it. So, even knowing I have a full day ahead, I will get up and let my mind run out. Usually this works. Your point about expectations driving my whole agenda is so true.

  3. Great post…it took me a long time to embrace working smart vs working hard (though working hard is also a component of working smart, as you point out in your post). For years now it has worked wonders for my career, my sanity, and my productivity — but it also creates a new problem: what to do with excess capacity… Working smarter (in a traditional job) creates great opportunities to see things more clearly, think more deeply, and act more strategically. This allows one to push the envelope, expand one’s role and influence, and to get more accomplished. At the same time, it can be challenging to find the room to do more in any organization…boundaries can be expanded only so far and so fast as politics and culture and other factors allow…Ironically, one can go from overwhelmed to feeling less than fulfilled because there is a capacity to do more but not always an opportunity to do more (even after allowing time and attention dedicated to family life and “time off.”)

    Volunteer work, mentoring, networking, etc fill that gap to some extent. Meatier side projects are an obvious pursuit, but can be difficult to select and commit to. Interestingly, solving one problem of too much to do can create a challenge of figuring out what else to do…

    Thanks for the courageous and thought provoking post.

    1. Tom,
      You have what my husband and I refer to as a “good problem to have”.
      Face into that open space not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. If you could do anything with it, what would it be?

  4. Dear Nilofer,

    The concept of ’50 minute hour’, works brilliantly well for me. Every 50 minute, I force myself to take a break. No excuses. It is in this break I walk around the office, I return the missed calls, I check my whats app, I visit the washroom etc.

    After 10 minutes I am back to work.

    Secondly, no important meeting post 5 pm. As far as possible, all important meetings are at 11 am. Preferably all meetings are scheduled for 30 mins. This ensures everyone is well prepared and things happen properly and fast.

    Finally, family time is NEVER EVER compromised. They always remain my priority number one.

    I run five companies. All of them are doing well.


    With loads of love, prayers and exceptional wishes,


    As I Live…I Learn


    1. SO many good insights here.
      Love the idea of 50 minutes + 10. Building a cycle of renewal and focus into the cycle of the day. It could be in Charles Duhigg’s frame a microhabit that is life changing.
      And, yes the world would be made better if we could do shorter meetings. I realize the “default” setting is 60 minutes from MSFT etc tools, but what if they coudl naturally be 30? Wouldn’t that be interesting.
      Thanks for living your passions. And appreciate you sharing practices that work for you. Maybe they’ll inspire more in others and then we’ll learn together.

  5. Great post and relevant to both employed and non-employed people. I learn long ago that working hard wasn’t key to my success: quality of life and life style is for me. Took a long while and several health/medical adventures (as well as ‘bad’-mommy moments) to learn this–although I admit to slipping now and then. Trade offs meant less income and prestige. But now have better health and much less cranky stress.

    Am now traveling in Australia with my husband during his 5 month sabbatical and reading about the aboriginal life style that looked at the colonialists as crazy for always working versus enjoying themselves after they had seen to their needs. It seems this is an age old problem! We’re off to Uluru and Kakadu where I hope to learn more about having a balanced life full being creative and having my needs met.

  6. nilofer, we spoke a little of this on the phone, but what works for me, at times, is thinking of life in increments or stages. different things and people take priority in these stages. when i want to wander, expand, build on, or in other ways progress in an area that’s not the priority, i do a mental recheck first. it’s imperfect, as it’s difficult to say no to fantastic and exciting opportunities. but if it’s clear that it’s not serving today’s emphasis, it at least means i’m making a conscious choice, and the choice is mine. and down the road, priorities can shuffle.

  7. My tip: eat at home every night & do the dishes.

    Early in our marriage, after I had worked late “just one more urgent problem”, my husband told me very bluntly: “I did not get married to eat alone. You can achieve whatever you want with your career, but be home for dinner” For him it was about being together, he also was willing to make it happen by cooking most of the time because of our commutes and working hours.

    29 years later with two sons 21 & 16; this dinner habit was what defined our family. We still make dinner, eat together and talk almost everyday. It does not stop me from working later, (overcommitting is a problem I want to overcome) But while I built my career, and accomplished the goals that were important for my work identity, I was there while my kids grew up. Seeing them at dinner every night helped me refocus on a daily basis and remember to be present for them.

    I also made a commitment to cleaning the kitchen after dinner as a way to meditate on how I love my husband. (At that time, my not-very-nice side was obsessively calculating which of us did our equal share of the housework…and I did not like the mean spirit in my head). Deciding to approach the task with joy and gratefulness for our life together, gave me those feelings in my life on a daily basis. I have noticed lately that the post dinner clean up has become my favorite part of the day; no interruptions, I am accomplishing something simple and meaningful. When completed, everything is perfect, no undone piles, loose ends for tomorrow, or lists of things that need to be further investigated. It’s like a later day meditation on being present for the abundance in my life and a gift of joy.

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