Sleep: Rethinking Delayed Gratification

A Note to Self-Development Content Creators

It’s long been said that the key to success in the modern world lies in the ability to delay gratification. Saying no to the abundance of instant pleasures at our disposal in pursuit of something more long-term. That logic works flawlessly across nearly any pursuit, from exercise to eating healthily to building a business. Doing the “right thing” even if it feels a little worse in the moment.

It’s also long been said that our inherent struggle to delay gratification lies in our “lizard brain,” aka the limbic system, which controls the pleasure centers in the body. Humans are equipped with both with the highly developed pre-frontal cortex that allows for rational decision making and pattern recognition & the highly developed lizard brain that turns us into, to quote myself, “horny chickens running around with our heads cut off.” This tension frames our existence — fighting between both forces constantly for dominance. In large part, which side wins more often determines how successful you are. Classic psychological experiments like the marshmallow test have taught us as much.

An interesting sub-current to this narrative is that truly tapping into our ability to delay gratification is an unnatural process that requires mindful and consistent teaching. A bit of necessary tricking. This idea is familiar to me, and I’ve written about it for as long as I’ve had this blog.

However, now I want to disagree. Delaying gratification is hardwired into our biology. We’re just thinking about it the wrong way.

This has become obvious to me as I’ve finally gotten around to addressing my issues with sleep. I recently learned that I have sleep apnea. As I’ve gone through sleep studies and read more books than I ever expected to on sleep, most notably Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, I’ve learned just how unique how humans sleep is compared to every other living species.

At its most foundational level, sleep is a practice of delayed gratification. In essence, you’re sacrificing the ability to do something today so that you can do it better tomorrow. We’ve all had memories of staying up a bit too late working on an assignment when we’re confronted with the decision to either wake up early the next morning to finish it or grind through the night. I was always team grind it out, as I wanted to go to sleep knowing I didn't have to wake up to more work, but would always find errors in my work that next day even if I didn’t dedicate specific time for it.

In hindsight, I wish I had gone to bed earlier, but I understand why I didn’t. Sleep requires a surrender to the control you have to do a particular action now, in the moment, while you’re awake. Humans are the only mammal with a developed monophasic sleep system (1 resting period per day), meaning we’re the only creatures that have successfully set up a system that allows us to take extended period away from focusing on staying alive. Other mammals aren’t afforded this luxury, as they need to either keep watch during the night or hunt for food. The better we’ve gotten at fulfilling our most basic needs, the more time we’ve been able to set aside for sleep, which has done absolute wonders for our evolution; Walker cites numerous studies that show our ability to segment sleep off from the rest of our days has directly contributed to brain development in the prefrontal cortex, the size of which is the primary differentiator between us and other mammals.

The very same prefrontal cortex that allows for delayed gratification. So, in turn, as we’ve slept more, we’ve become more “human”. And as we’ve become more human, we’ve become better at delaying gratification.

Case closed.

And that’s not to mention REM sleep, which humans experience roughly 4 times more than the average mammal (our ratio is 80/20 NREM:REM). The source of our creative power comes from this stage as well, something else that is a unique human advantage over other species.

This post isn’t to say sleep is important — that’s obvious. It is to say, however, that it can be used as a key point in turning the framing around self-development into a more positive light. Rooting the fruitful discourse of anecdotes and advice from a place of love for our unique biological abilities rather than the fear of reverting to our primal ways can help the well-intended message me and the hundreds of other people I see posting similar content across the internet come across less judgemental and superior. The science says so.

Now get off your phone & go to bed!

~ Carter

From a night I couldn’t sleep and stress ate pizza

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Carter Owen

Carter Owen

Aspiring author and humble observer of human behavior writing from NYC — sharing my journey and what I’m learning along the way. Think more, feel better.