What Can the Wood-Choppers Contest Story Teach Us About Sleep

Once upon a time there were two men in a wood chopping contest.  They were tasked with chopping down as many trees in the forest as they could from sun-up to sun-down.  The winner would be rewarded with both fame and fortune.

From morning till noon, both men firmly chopped and chopped.  By noon they were neck and neck, but then one man took a break and stopped chopping.  The other man saw this and thought to himself: “The lazy fool, he’s probably taken a break for lunch. He’s given me a chance to get ahead of him and I will without doubt win this contest!”

A while later the man got back to work. As the day continued he chopped more trees than his hard-working (and hungry) competitor and by the middle of the afternoon he had taken a clear lead.

How you might ask…

Keep reading.

When sundown came, the man who had taken the break at noon had chopped almost twice as many trees as the other man, who was drenched in sweat, hungry and exhausted.

How did you beat me?” he asked shocked.

“You were lazier than I and even took a break for lunch!”

“Ah,” said the other man, “I did take a break, but it was during that break, that I sharpened my axe.”

Moral of the story:
Taking time out to sharpen your axe/sleep is worth many hours of hard work. The hours you put while tired give you diminishing returns on your “time” investment. Maybe taking a nap in middle of the day can help you. Remember it is not the quantity of the sleep that matters, but the quality of the sleep.

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Pulling All-Nighters is Pointless!

What happens when you sleep?

REM Sleep, Dreams, and the Circadian Rhythm: The most vivid and memorable dreams take place during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

During REM sleep, eye movements resemble what the sleeper is looking at in the dream, while the rest of the body is paralyzed at the brain stem. If we were to look at someone eyes in REM cycle, his/her eyes would be moving from left to right as if they are looking at someone.

The sleep and dream cycle varies between, person to person but the majority of “healthy” individuals exhibits a consistent pattern illustrated by the graphs below. The Circadian Rhythm is a 24-hour cycle the human body goes through each day.


According to US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health the two factors that affect memory retention are how much of your time asleep is spent in REM.

We organically sleep in periods/cycles of deep sleep and “shallow” sleep, with each round being ended by a period of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) for about 20 minutes. The greater the number of REMs we have a night, the more well rested we are the next day and the better perform and have processed our short-term memory into long-term.

REM cycles are about 1h30 (90 minutes), which is the reason it is best to sleep in multiples of 90 minutes. 7.5-8 hours will be 5 REM cycles.

If we only sleep 6 hours, that’s 4 REM cycles. We’ve lost 20% of the memory and restoration of our sleep.

It only gets worse at 4.5 hours, or 3 REM cycles, where we’re only getting 40% of the memory processing time. Ouch!


It’s very easy to waste a day of work or study by not getting enough sleep. Conclusion, spending a whole night studying for a big presentation and trying to cram information is pointless if we only get three to fours hours of sleep. 

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