Stop It: Dreaming Isn’t Working

(Note: I posted this earlier today on Small Business Trends. Tim)

I object to this new term ‘sleepworking.’ That’s what they’re calling dreaming about work. I say dreaming about work is dreaming about life, an extremely good sign sometimes, a bad sign other times, but not — never — as simple as more work.

Let’s not pollute the language with this sleepworking prattle. As if dreaming about work counts as working. It’s not just silly, it’s also counterproductive. It messes with something important.

The latest along those lines is a Staples survey of small business, released this month. The headline is “Staples Small-Business Survey Reveals People are Constantly Working, Even While They Sleep.”

According to the 2nd Annual Staples National Small-Business Survey, more than half of small-business professionals said that work has actually become part of their dreams. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said that they “sleepwork” (i.e. dream about work), and nearly 70 percent of those “sleepworkers” report they wake up and put their “work dreams” to action.

Come on, get real. Dreaming about work means you care. It might be struggle, excitement, the creative process, stress … but when what you do during the day creeps into your dreams, that’s not more work. That’s involvement.

Dreaming about work can be wonderful. How many times have you come up with solutions to problems, or new ideas, by chewing on them in your subconscious mind? Work is what we do a lot of, many hours a day, most days; wouldn’t it be awful to not dream about it? The dream means you’re relating to it, thinking about it, and, ultimately, enjoying it. It’s the challenge. It’s the creative process. This kind of involvement has kept me happy for most of my adult life. When I lose that it is time to switch jobs.

True, dreaming about work can be bad too. Stress is bad. Worry is bad, at least unproductive stressful worry. Go listen to Robert Sapolsky on Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Remember the helicopter dream in the first scene of the movie Apocalypse Now? The helicopter noise and the throbbing engine seems inside his head while he sleeps. That’s replaying stress.  That’s bad.

Even in those cases, though, dreaming is a sign and a signal. It’s not just more work. It’s the real you fighting back at the you you’re in danger of becoming. Or something like that.

The creeping (and I might say creepy) use of this dreamworking motif is just fun if you don’t take it seriously, but it’s also evidence of how we subvert language sometimes to serve our own purpose. The authors of the Staples study clearly wanted to show how hard small business owners work. They could have done it without bringing in this sleepworking theme. Consider the data they do have:

The survey also revealed that 98 percent of U.S. small-business owners and managers are working during their time off – including nights, weekends and vacations – and nearly 54 percent expect to work even harder in 2008.

The results revealed organization and teamwork are the top factors why owners and managers are working so many hours. Nearly 70 percent admitted they do not have a written business plan. Almost three-quarters consider themselves organized, but only 33 percent said they complete the tasks on their “to-do” list each day. Slightly more than two-thirds said they feel constantly challenged by not having enough time to get work done and nearly 44 percent said customer fulfillment takes up the majority of their time while at work.

When asked to compare their businesses to a track and field event at the Olympics, a mere 14 percent said their business operates like a relay race, with everybody working in tandem toward the same goal, whereas 26 percent think of business operations as a 100-meter dash, always sprinting and trying to do everything quickly.

So okay, this is interesting data. Not surprising at all, but interesting. So go with that. Leave my dreams out of it.


  • Matthew Scott says:


    I love this article.

    My experience in coaching executive men in transition to becoming entrepreneurs with my men@pause coaching practice and Duct Tape Marketing Coaching is that most men are sleep working.

    My experience tells me most people try to get their self-identity needs met at work-especially men.

    Compound this with the fact that most people are daydreaming about leaving their job, we witness a continual struggle with people wanting to work harder to get out of their present suck the life out of them situation.

    Perhaps the answer is "pausing" long enough to find the work that truly matters.

    I have studied successful entrepreneurs for years. We only hear about the divorced, fat ones that are no longer small business, but huge business.

    Many more small business entrepreneurs will tell you that they can leave work behind when they leave the office because they no longer struggle with the issue of finding work that matters and therefore are not searching for that missing self-identity needs. They can now get their identity needs met at home.

    Matthew Scott, M.S.
    Founder, The Life's Work Group, Inc.

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