Interview: Treasa Spragg on “Struggle Porn”, Sleep, and more

Hello, dear reader.

What follows is the transcript of an interview I conducted nearly two years ago, so in 2019, pre-COVID. I was speaking to Treasa Spragg about “struggle porn”, sleep, naps, deep work, and getting the most important thing done each day.

Of, if you prefer, listen to the audio version.

The audio was recorded in her car by the side of the road in Dublin city, and it was intended only as the basis for a written blog post – so this is in no way professional audio quality. You can occasionally hear other cars, and we even had to move the car ourselves at one point.

I’m also not a professional interviewer (nor am I trying to be). So… excuses made… But I’ve decided to make the audio (and its transcription) available now anyway as there’s a lot of great wisdom that Treasa shared here, that people struggling with sleep and work in 2021 will find helpful.

As many people, myself included, prefer to listen to an interview rather than read it, I’ve provided it in audio format on YouTube, with its transcription available here. The transcription is of course more searchable, for quotes, etc.

So! Now, please enjoy this interview with Treasa Spragg.


Kevin:

Hi! So, who are you and what do you do?

Treasa:

I’m Treasa Spragg. I am the CEO of Revolution Project Ltd, and I basically get people moving and then I help them to sleep optimally.

Kevin:

We were going to talk about struggle porn, so, what exactly is struggle porn? Where does it come from, and how is it at odds with science?

Treasa:

Do you know what’s hilarious? The guy who’s responsible for wrecking our sleep is… Of course, the term struggle porn did not exist back then, but in 1879 when Edison created the first light bulb, he set us all off on this whole thing of thinking that we could use the hours of darkness to be “productive.” He famously used to say that he only needed three or four hours of sleep a night and that we shouldn’t be focusing on losing sleep, we should be focusing on a better use of that time. But since then, you’ve had so many people, unfortunately, mostly males of no particular age, but who do the whole hustle and grind thing and think, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. You can get by on three, four or five hours a night.”

Treasa:

We’ve had some famous people like Margaret Thatcher, Trump, people like that who sleep very little, but all of the scientific research shows you’re going to be chronically sleep-deprived if you have less than six hours. Seven to eight is optimal for the majority of people. There are ways to find out precisely how much you need, but most of the global population would fall between seven and eight hours. More than nine is as detrimental to your health as less than six.

Kevin:

I wasn’t aware that more was bad… And is it true that there’s a fraction of 1% of people who do get by and are fully healthy on two hours, three hours?

Treasa:

There are people that are called super sleepers. It’s a genetic anomaly and there have been very, very few of these people in the world, but they genuinely only need an hour and a half…

Kevin:

Which is one sleep cycle, is that right?

Treasa:

That’s only one sleep cycle, yeah. That’s genuinely all they need. There is an interesting opposite phenomenon called the fatal familial insomnia, that is genetic, so it hits and it has only appeared, I think, in Italian families, where it just has a sudden onset. It could be in your 30s, and very, very quickly, basically, you develop really bad insomnia. And then, of course, you have all the resultant health side-effects, including dementia and people die! That’s sort of the opposite end of the scale. But most people who say that they can get by on three and four hours, if you put them in a sleep clinic, and if you actually got some researchers to do cognitive tests, you’d find that that isn’t the case. The Sleep Doctor, that’s his title, in the U.S., his sleep cycle is only 78 minutes. It’s rather funny for a sleep doctor, but he actually only needs five of those cycles, so he does get more time in his day than the average person.

Kevin:

Right. Because it’s five times 12?

Treasa:

It’s, well, five times 78 minutes.

Kevin:

But he’s saving five times 12, because an average sleep cycle is 90 minutes, so he’s saving an hour per night?

Treasa:

Oh, yeah, he is. Yeah, yeah. He gets more bang out of his day. You need five sleep cycles per night. Very unique things happen in the sleep cycles, and even the way the way that we have more deep sleep in the early part of the night, which is why it’s a really good idea to try to get to bed around 10:00 as opposed to midnight or 2:00 AM. And then we have more of the dreaming. We spend more time in dreaming in the later stages… But even the light sleep, particularly the light sleep and wakefulness a couple of hours before you wake up are also really important.

Treasa:

The different stages all have different purposes. I mean, scientists are still asking, “Why do we sleep?”. There are still so many questions around, why do we sleep? We’re only just beginning to find out things about dreams and things like that. But yeah, we need the five cycles.

Treasa:

Nick Littlehales works with football teams, Olympic cycling teams, all of this kind of stuff. He will say, “Look, it’s not optimal, but if you must, then you can get by with four good nights and then three nights where you’re only getting four cycles. But you make sure you adjust your time for going to bed and waking up so that you get four cycles.” And then you have what he calls a “controlled recovery period” the next day where you’re getting a full cycle in optimal conditions.

Kevin:

So these three and five hours sleepers are just supplementing with coffee during the week, and then they’re crashing for most of Saturday and Sunday morning. And then they’re effectively jet lagged come Monday.

Treasa:

Yeah, and it doesn’t actually work. You get into a really bad cycle with trying to offset your tiredness with caffeine. You’re going to go into just a really bad cycle because all caffeine does is block your sleep drive and then it’ll keep you up because it can hang about. It has a half-life of seven to eight hours depending on your physiology.

Kevin:

So, don’t take coffee in the afternoon…

Treasa:

Yeah. It’s best to have no coffee after 2:00PM. I mean you do get some anomalies of course. You always will. We’re all slightly different physiologically, but the general rule is [no coffee after 2pm]

Kevin:

Do you follow your own advice? You get [five sleep cycles] even with kids; [no coffee]?

Treasa:

Oh, yeah, I almost don’t drink coffee at all. I’ll have a decaf sometimes, but I really have to hunt down a decaf that hasn’t been chemically treated to be decaffeinated. But yeah, no, herbal teas, and turmeric lattes, and decaf tea after… Yeah, about two o’clock.

Kevin:

Yeah, I’ve never been a coffee drinker. Although recently, I found a jar in the press after someone moved out.

Treasa:

Oh, funny, yeah.

Kevin:

I was really tired one day. I was like, “I’ll try it.” And because I don’t drink it, it’s like-

Treasa:

Oh, yeah, it has a huge effect on you.

Kevin:

Yeah! Initially. But then, it’s just going to wear off.

Treasa:

It does. Well, it basically blocks the tiredness signal in your brain. When it wears off then-

Kevin:

…it doesn’t make you less tired, it’s just that you don’t realize it for a while.

Treasa:

Exactly. It just blocks that information from you. And then when it skulks off a way to its corner, all of a sudden you get this message like, “Whoa. You’re this tired.” Instead of the tiredness creeping up on you gradually.

Treasa:

Once you actually realize, “Look, it’s been telling us fake news for years essentially.” That’s what coffee has been doing. See, a lot of us, we’re all ritualized. Every habit, whether it’s a good habit or bad habit, it’s a ritual, so it’s something that we’ve become so used to doing. It does take… I say to people, “Don’t worry about shifting something by five or 15 minutes. It might feel as nothing, but once you’ve done it for a month, you’ve actually made a massive difference.”

Treasa:

I will have people who are like, “I love an espresso after dinner at eight o’clock at night.” I literally just ask them to bring it back in 15-minute chunks at a time. Or, if their dinner is always late, then just instead of having the espresso, moving it on to something that’s a substitute that they actually enjoy, so that you don’t have to do it in one fell swoop. I find that that’s like New Year’s resolutions. You’ll say all of these things, and then it’s too much too fast. Psychologically, we don’t like pain.

Kevin:

Funny, I generally am a cold turkey person. I’m a huge believer in habits as well, like if I’m learning something difficult, like a new piece of music or something. I don’t know when I’ll get there, but I’m going to do a little bit every day and I’ll get there. But then whether the thing is like, “Oh, I take cold showers now so that’s what I do every day.” I’m not doing it once a week, and then twice a week-

Treasa:

Yeah, you’re doing it every day.

Kevin:

Yeah, straight away.

Treasa:

Excellent. Did you read some Wim Hof stuff or how did you get into the cold showers?

Kevin:

I had heard things about it, but even conflicting things like, “Cold showers are great to wake you up, cold showers are great before bed to get you to sleep.” I was like, “No, come on, [they can’t both be true].” But in the end, I was trying to get some work done at 10:00 PM or something. I was really tired. I was sitting in the chair. I was thinking, “I can’t, I can’t. What will wake me up? Splash the face with water! It doesn’t feel like enough. I need it all over me. I need to really cool down. Do you know what? I will try this [cold shower thing]. I’ll do 10 seconds. I’ll make it 10 seconds.

I started the habit then, and I’ve continued it every morning instead of coffee. I rarely do it in the afternoon anymore, but it gets me right up. Even if I have only had five or six hours. [Though] I’m generally an eight-hour sleeper.

Treasa:

I mean, the thing is that depends on your age as well. The thing is that once kids go from being kids to being teenagers, their circadian rhythms are knocked out by three hours. All of a sudden kids have genuinely been feeling sleepy at 7:00 or 8:00. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it’s 10:00, 11:00, midnight, which really frustrates a lot of parents. But once you realize that this is something they have no control over, they’re genuinely not tired until later, but they still absolutely need their sleep. And so schools shouldn’t be starting as early as they do, but the gradual restoration then of your circadian rhythm back to a decent time can be something that people don’t focus on. So you can come out of your teenage years into your 20s and you still have this thing of going to bed too late and it requires moving back. What’s optimum for our bodies is that because we do have, the circadian clock actually is a 24.5 hour clock, but it gets reset every day by the melatonin.

It is optimal if you go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time every day. When you start doing that, what happens is even at the weekends, I’ll wake up at 5:50AM naturally on the weekends. I might lounge in bed a bit longer and just be thinking and ruminating, but I have hours to get stuff done before the kids wake up, which is brilliant. But if I, then, am going out, I’ll have a nap that afternoon and I’ll have a nap the following day. But it is better for your body. It’s better for your brain function.

Kevin:

So if you’re going to be out late, you make sure you get an evening nap first or something?

Treasa:

Yeah, get a nap the previous afternoon. You don’t stay in bed longer. You get up at your normal time, but I would definitely then have another nap in the afternoon.

Kevin:

What’s your nap alarm clock set for? 25 minutes?

Treasa:

It depends. Basically a half hour if it’s just a general day and for whatever reason, I’m feeling tired, that’ll happen once in a while. But if I’ve gone out to salsa or something and I’m back late, then I’ll try to have a full cycle and I’ll set the alarm for 90 minutes and make sure the bedroom is dark, and quiet, and everything.

Kevin:

So you’ll get one full cycle.

Treasa:

Get one full cycle, yeah.

Kevin:

I can’t remember where I heard it, but my nap timer is set to 25 minutes because you don’t want to hit 30 and be the first third into your cycle because you’ll wake up more tired than when you began if you allow yourself to hit 30 minutes or something?…

Treasa:

Well, it’s if you go beyond the 30 and particularly 60, or 30 to 60 seems to be really challenging for people because you probably have gone into just that part of the cycle that you don’t want to be woken up from. You always want to be woken up towards the top of the cycle.

Kevin:

Is there a name for that part of it?

Treasa:

Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s the deep wave, so it’s your deep sleep. It’s the slow wave of sleep. It’s just if somebody will call you, they’ll really have to shake you, or the alarm goes off, it pulls you out of it. Yeah, which is challenging.

Kevin:

So, 30 or 90 minute naps, but you don’t really want to be in the middle of that?

Treasa:

Correct. There’s something that Matthew Walker recommends, but very, very… just once in a while. If you’re very tired, but you do have to be productive, he advises taking a cup of coffee-

Kevin:

Nappuccino?

Treasa:

Nappuccino! Taking a coffee, having 30 minute nap. You wake up, the coffee will hit your brain in 20 to 30 minutes, and, Bob’s your uncle, you’re going to be very productive for the next little while. I mean, the thing is that caffeine has been shown to have… It’s the prefrontal cortex that it affects and it definitely helps your cognitive function, but then all of the other side effects cancel that out. It’s just if you have to give a presentation, or something or other, or something’s happened and you need to be-

Kevin:

Special circumstances.

Treasa:

Special circumstances, yeah. You don’t want to be doing stuff like that all the time.

Kevin:

Yeah, it’s not a daily ritual to be to getting into.

Kevin:

The angle was struggle porn as well, so to draw it back to that. Sleep is the main thing struggle porn is attacking, I suppose, but-

Treasa:

Well, I think as well, it’s the longer working day where people feel like, I think especially, I don’t want to necessarily namecheck, but there were a lot of talkers who were basically like “hustle and grind endlessly for five years, and then you’d have it made and you’d be able to coast”.

Five years of your life is actually a very, very long time in terms of doing a lot of damage to your health and your relationships. We always have to think, “What’s the cost of our life?” If you were to sit down and write, “Well, what’s really, really important for me?” The majority of people will say, “My health, my family, my friends,” maybe a passion cause or something. And then it’s like-

Kevin:

“…but it’s not my internet marketing business”.

Treasa:

Yeah. But it’s also like, “Well, okay, if I’m going to basically hustle like crazy for five years and disregard my health, not take care of anything that I love, my family, my friends, anything like that, is that life, is it worth it?” The thing is that you never know when something is going to happen to you. I think you have to always live like you have this present moment in this day, and that’s it, and it’s wonderful to have it. So I think you always have to, if your values are, or the things that make you really happy, if you know what they are, I think they have to guide you. And then at least every day you’re going to be happy and you’re going to be close to people. It might take a little longer to get to your goal, but not necessarily. I think if you create the right conditions-

Kevin:

Consistently do the most important thing every day and a few other, two or three tertiary important tasks, you’ll be getting there as well.

Treasa:

Cal Newport has two amazing books on Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. But with Deep Work, he talks about the fact that you have to train your brain almost as if you’re training your body in a gym to be able to do completely focused deep work. I love the thought of a power hour. I’ve known about that for a long time, but he was talking about you can extend your capabilities, but it really takes a lot of focus and training to get from one hour to four. But he thinks four hours is maximum that anybody can do in a day. That means anyone going into an office and working from 9:00 to 5:00, the most really good, deep, productive, excellent work you can get out of them is four hours. All the rest of the time is administrative, it’s relational, it’s meetings that push things along a little bit. But the deep unfocused work where everything, all the magic really happens, you can’t get more than four out of somebody.

Treasa:

Yeah. The thing is as well is that the proof’s in the pudding. I mean, he’s 37, he’s a professor, and he’s actually produced more papers than is the norm for somebody of his age and experience. Obviously, with the books as well. That’s where his second book was really, the second one that I read, Digital Minimalism, was really useful because it talks about the attention economy and what you’re going to do as an individual about that. How do I guard my own time? How do I guard the input that comes into me? How can I make sure that I’m choosing the input rather than just leaving it open by just saying, “Go on world,” via all these social media platforms?

Kevin:

Your mental diet.

Treasa:

Yeah, yeah, completely. I think it’s really important.

Kevin:

So he was saying four hours total in the day or was it a four hour blitz?

Treasa:

Well, it’s a four hour [deep work] blitz, but he reckoned that’s the most that somebody could do. Yeah, everything else would be… Yeah. Even for his office hours for students to come and see him, there are two set days of the week at these times. He’s very clear on the time he gets for family, and the time he gets for his own health, and things like that as well.

Treasa:

He doesn’t even do email. It’s really funny. He has all these caveats before you email him. Email is the only way. He has no social media whatsoever. You won’t find him on anything. If you need to get him, it’s via email. But he asks you, “Has your question being answered here? Or is it about this? Or is this something interesting that we can collaborate on? And if you think it passes all of these markers, send me an email. And if I agree with you, I’ll contact you.” So that there’s no onus on him whatsoever to respond to the emails that he does get.

Kevin:

Right. That’s Tim Ferriss’ way of doing it as well.

Treasa:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin:

One person I found very interesting though is Arnold Schwarzenegger because he was challenged on the “sleep faster, no one needs more than six hours” thing that he’s very famous for saying that in graduation talks he’s given. I was like, I love Arnold Schwarzenegger for so many reasons and so many ways, but I never agreed with him on that. I was like, “You are very successful, but it seems to be in spite of this rather than because of it.” He did in that, it was a Tim Ferriss interview of 2017 I think. He said, “Look, that’s what I needed [personally].” He conceded a bit that , “I always just woke up. It’s six hours OF sleep, not ‘go to bed and get up six hours later'”. It depends how long it takes you to get to sleep and six is just what I needed. And if you need more, you should probably get more. Some people need five and that’s fine.” And so he sort of conceded on that. But had you ever… I’m sure you’ve heard him say that, and what would have been your opinions?

Treasa:

I would have said, “Listen, you either speak in generalities or you mention the generalities, the general population need between seven and eight, general population needs five cycles of 90 minutes. And there are always outliers always, but you never, ever prescribe.” In my workshops, I show people how to actually figure out without going to a sleep clinic, how to figure out what optimal for them. Most people can figure it out in a week. For some people, it takes a bit longer because you have to have a couple of static weeks where you don’t have anything unusual going on and you can completely control when you go to bed.

Kevin:

It’s like a holiday week.

Treasa:

A holiday week or even just a week where you’re like, “I don’t have anything social going on or I normally go out on a Friday night, but this particular Friday, I’m not going to.”

Kevin:

What if night owls have to get up for 7:00 to get to work by 9:00? They won’t be able to figure that out on their own.

Treasa:

This stuff was really hard because one of my best friends, she lives in Dubai, which actually suits her time clock a lot better. But because she works for herself and because her work covers a whole lot of time zones, she is very, definitely a night owl. She does her work between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM. She will generally then sleep until midday, one o’clock. She’s absolutely hugely productive.

Treasa:

In general, because we live in this kind of world, it’s unfortunate for night owls, for people who are… That’s their chronotype is to be a night owl. It’s really challenging because the reality is that we do need to… It’s really tough. I would be all for schools starting later. Do you know what was so daft? My 15-year-old, Monday through Thursday this entire academic year [2019], her first period has been maths, which is crazy. They’re not fit to engage at all. But schools should definitely be starting later for kids. This is where flexible working comes in and remote working. If you’re a night owl naturally, you can most likely arrange with your boss that you don’t start working at 10:00 AM, which is fantastic.

Kevin:

Yeah. That’s been my experience… I started work at 10:00am. I’m more of a night owl, not radically, but closer on that end and would start work at 10:00am when I was doing the game dev stuff. I found my brain was on by then. Now I’ve been like, “Oh, by 10:00, so many things can happen to derail you.” So now I’m trying to get up at 8:00 and do work from 8:30 until 10:00. Just get that one most important thing done. Then I’ll move off and try other things.

Treasa:

Can I ask you what that one most important thing is? Is this one most important thing that you’ve determined or is it a reaction to an email or something coming in?

Kevin:

The idea is that I don’t even check email till 10:00 AM.

Treasa:

Good, brilliant.

Kevin:

So I’ve written it down the night before on my spreadsheet. I’ll color green if I get it done. Color it red if I missed it that day. As I look back through the month, I’m like, “It’s mostly green.”

Treasa:

Good.

Kevin:

On Wednesday, it’s often been ‘write a blog’, but I might reprioritize that now, but the idea was just ‘get the blog done in the morning. Don’t let it drag on all day’. Other days, it would be something that should take an hour and it gets done first… If the most important thing is that I email one person a response. I’m not going to make that the one hour task.

Treasa:

Oh gosh, yeah.


So, a rather abrupt end there unfortunately. I could speak for hours more with Treasa, and there’s so much that she touched upon that I’d love to ask her more about. Like “wait, why exactly is getting more than 9 hours of sleep as bed as getting less than 6?”, but that will have to wait for another interview, I suppose.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this format, and that those listening on YouTube did as well. It’s the first time I’ve done a dual posting as audio and text, and I think I will be doing more of it in future. It makes sense to recycle the content to reach more people, whatever their media preference.

If you have any comments or questions (particularly for Treasa – maybe we could do a follow-up, more professional interview) please leave them in the comments.

Until next time…
Kevin

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