Good Grades, Social Life, Enough Sleep: Choose Two

By Oliver Gladfelter

Almost everyone has seen this popular meme:

The idea is that everyone in college wants a vibrant social life, good grades, and plenty of sleep. Yet with only 24 hours in a day, it’s impossible to successfully achieve all three. Therefore students have a choice to make: which two goals do they prioritize? Do they sacrifice their social life in order to have enough time to finish homework and still make it in bed at a reasonable hour? Maybe skimp on sleep so they can juggle their social and academic lives?

To investigate how Denison students address this dilemma, we surveyed nearly 600 students in March of 2017 and asked how many hours a day they spend on the following activities: sleeping, hanging out with friends, and studying/homework.

The average responses were 6.71 hours sleeping, 2.74 with friends, and 3.78 on studying and homework.

Yet, these averages don’t tell us much about how students choose one over another. To understand that, we need to look at each activity in relation to the other options. If you heard someone only gets four hours of sleep a night, you may assume they’re decisively in the good grades / social life camp; however it’s possible they’re not socializing or studying at all, and instead spending their days doing some other activity altogether – such as working out, video games, etc. Thus, we will measure activity priorities in percentages, based on how much time students spent on it in relation to their other activities.[1]

For example, in the survey I indicated I spend five hours a day studying, four hours hanging out with friends, and five on sleeping. So that means out of the 14 hours I set aside each day for these three activities, 28.6% of them are going towards socializing, and sleeping and studying both get 35.7%. The data indicate I equally value my academics and sleep and prioritize both just slightly above my social life.[2]

So how do Denison students choose?

Figure 1 – How Denison Students Balance Their Endeavors

What you see above is a ternary plot. The closer a student is to any one corner, the higher the share that activity has. Students towards the top of the plot, for example, spend more time studying in proportion to the other two activities.

So the most popular choice was good grades and enough sleep – nearly half of students go this route (49.3%). The next popular combination is choosing enough sleep and a social life, the choice of 24.5% of students. It’s rare to find students choose the social life and good grades combination – only 1.2%, in fact.[3]

Not everyone fits cleanly in those three camps: 14% of students prioritize just sleep (meaning they put the other two pursuits on equal and lesser footing), 1% prioritize just good grades, and 0.7% prioritize just their social life. Finally, 9.3% spend equal amounts on all three activities – putting them smack dab in the middle of the triangle.

Earlier, I told you how long I spend on each activity. My answers place me somewhere close to the middle of the ternary plot as you can see below. Now it’s your turn: click on the figure below to see where you fall:

Figure 2 – How I Balance My Endeavors

 Click on the figure

to see where you fall

Interactive by Bobby Craig

In a previous article, we found that skipping meals correlates with fewer visits to the Mitchell Center – that is, students tend to practice multiple healthy (or unhealthy) habits in tandem. Might we see a similar story here? Making lifestyle choices is closely related to personal health, after all.

61.2% of students say they’ve skipped eating a meal in order to have more time for studying or homework. So if they’re willing to eat less for their academic pursuits, does that mean they’re also more likely to put good grades above sleep?

Figure 3 – Healthy Habits Tend to Come in Pairs

As you can see, those willing to skip meals for the explicit purpose of studying were also the ones who fell furthest from the “Enough Sleep” corner. And in what direction do they go? Mostly towards “Good Grades” – nearly everyone placing academics as their top priority have skipped meals to get more homework done. In other words, they’re not skimping on sleep in order to socialize.[4]

This reminds us that navigating college life is vastly more complex than “choose two.” We do so much more than just socialize, study, and sleep. While doing some ‘research’ for this article (i.e., meme hunting), I stumbled across this related and equally relevant gem:

It looks like I have a lot more work to do…

Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.


1. How much a student might spend total on these three activities varied – from 0 to 24, actually! The mean was 13.2 hours, with most of the sample falling between 10.37 and 16.03 hours. And since we’re measuring in ratios, all three are interrelated: adding just one hour to the amount of time I spend sleeping a night (wouldn’t that be nice?) would reduce my priority percentages in the other two activities. No one activity can be added to without taking away from the others, which should give us a better picture of prioritization than just the amount of hours spent on each activity.

2. Of course, we wouldn’t expect individuals to be spending equal amounts on each activity to begin with. It’s normative to get (near) eight hours of sleep, so getting five hours a night – even if it’s more than my other two activities – probably means sleep isn’t being valued too highly. Additionally, because it’s normal to fill a third of one’s day with sleep, the results are clearly biased.

3. The average percentage of total time students spent on each activity was: 52.3% for sleeping, 27.9% for studying/homework, 19.9% for spending time with friends.

4. To provide some empirical backing to these claims, I regressed a skipping meals dichotomous variable with hours spent on each of the activities. Skipping meals is positively correlated with time spent studying; students who skip meals for academics have a significantly higher average amount of time spent studying (p value = .01). Skipping meals is negatively correlated with time spent sleeping; those who skip meals are getting less sleep (p value = .02). So students who prioritize academics over getting enough to eat also prioritize academics over sleep, creating the separation observable in Figure 3.

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