Executive Viewpoint

Life Hacks for Cyber Defenders Needed Right Now

Sleep, it seems, is still considered the most discretionary of our biorhythms. Sleep has become that regular periodic activity that is our bank of “extra time” when the pressure’s on – or we want to grab some time for unwinding with social media. 


The pressure is full on right now.  Popular #log4j memes in Infosec Twitter dramatically indicate that the Internet is on fire and that the world is on fire while IT departments struggle to contain the blaze. Separately, the security alerts continue the admonition for leaders of companies to ensure their teams are on full alert for the foreseeable future. 

I’ve lived this before, in fact, many times. The wake-up call for me was falling asleep behind the wheel on the freeway as I was trying to stay alert enough to drive home after a very long stretch in the company IT war room. A particularly challenging software deployment had gone badly. I can only imagine a touch of divine intervention that I awoke as my front left tire touched the concrete barrier separating my lane from the opposing traffic – just in time to wrench the wheel at 60 MPH and get back in my lane. 

I was fatigued and sleepy all.the.time.    

I share this because, dear one, you are most likely doing the same thing.   

Our work as information security professionals will never be finished in a week, even if the earth’s orbit and axis shifted and the week was ten days of 36-hour days. We are in a profession driven mainly by the urgent and a sense that if we don’t see any action, it is because it is happening, and we have to look more carefully to find it. If we aren’t hunting active exploits or patching the latest zero-day, we are actively hunting for threats because the new reality is that this is the world we’re in. Cyber defenders are like air traffic controllers in the midst of an active flurry of ICBM strikes – at any moment, an incoming can appear and change the dynamic of every single moving aircraft on the screen in a life-or-death way. 

Cyber defender hyper-vigilance takes a toll. 

Physical exhaustion is the easiest to recognize. Culturally that is something we discount. Our body can tell us, “I need rest” in many ways. Sleepiness. Inability to focus. Irritability. Impatience. Craving carbs to get an energy boost when we hit the inevitable energy slump – my quick fix for years was a 2 pm Twix bar.  

We don’t have the physical or mental reserves to think things through or listen to someone else think them through. It can feel like your body is slogging through wet sand. Deep sighs – all the time – are the silent scream of our souls, suffering from the perception that we are bound onto a railcar going nowhere fast, and the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. 

We start to catastrophize and imagine the worst. The practice of stating a case but not overstating it (an essential skill during cyber incident response) gives way to imagining bad outcomes everywhere.  

Even when I would force myself to get to bed at a decent time, my body lay there in grateful repose while my mind raced. Eventually, it was just easier to get up and start working – at least the mental squirrels in the cage of my overactive imagination would settle down so I could collect my thoughts when I was focused on work. And the day would start again, often at 3 am. That pattern stretched on and became weeks and months. I told my family, “I know this is a rough patch we’re going through. I promise it will get better – soon.” I insisted that I loved my work, and I truly did. I loved the energy, the pace, the impact.   

My MIND loved it, my body, not so much.  

Ask yourself if you are treating yourself as someone you are responsible for. Someone who depends upon you to ensure they drink enough water, eat in a way that fuels their body, get the right kind of movement, and rest. Is your mind ignoring your body?  

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ says our culture teaches us to separate mind and body, but that our body is the consort to our mind. Our mind can do nothing without its consort. Your ability to stay in the game depends upon the mind hearing and attending to the body’s requests: I’m thirsty! I’m hungry for nutrition! I need rest!  

Try these ten hacks to help be effective for the long haul. 

  1. Listen and act on the requests your body is signaling. Stop any excuse for ignoring them.
  2. Make a transition time between work and sleep. My particular favorite is listening to a bedtime story. I’m most fond of “Bed-Time Stories” by Dr. Estes’ who is not only a renowned Jungian psychologist but a “keeper of the stories” for her Mexican culture. The Calm app is another source of bedtime stories, meditations, white noise, and music that works well for this (and anytime you need a brain break from the stress during the day).
  3. Drink water. 1 oz for every 2 pounds of body weight throughout the day. I keep a stash of lemons to slice into the water for variety. 
  4. Get up and move every waking/working hour. Change your focus visually, mentally, and physically. It helps when you get to bedtime to have released tension throughout the day. 
  5. Cancel out the noise. Noise-canceling headphones can make a huge difference during the night for staying asleep. It’s a big investment, but the Sleep-buds by Bose are super comfy even for side sleepers and play a form of white noise that is very effective in keeping your thoughts from racing and blocking extraneous noise (even a snoring partner).
  6. Keep your sleeping space on the cool side. Temps in the low 60s are shown to be beneficial for sleeping.
  7. Invest in your pillow. Get a pillow that supports your head and neck according to your favorite sleeping positions. I’ve tried dozens over the years. A shredded foam-style pillow that is adjustable has worked best for me.  
  8. Ask to see a sleep specialist. If you have chronic difficulty sleeping, you may need some assistance in the form of an oral device or CPAP for treating sleep apnea. I was stunned to learn that my brain “woke” dozens of times every hour, effectively preventing restorative sleep in the REM and Deep Sleep phases.  
  9. Don’t lose sight of what is truly important to you. Professional excellence is one of several areas of your life essential to your enthusiasm and sustainability. Family, relationships, community, physical health, financial well-being, spirituality, and contribution are other major areas. Set specific goals for all areas of your life so that when you aren’t working, you feel great about your progress in other areas. 
  10. Let your support network know what you’re doing and why.  You could very well be the encouragement they need to be more mindful of self-care and sleep hygiene for themselves.  Be the example.

In a Zero-Day World, playing the long game keeps you IN the game.  

The reality is that we saw more Zero Days in the first half of 2021 than in the prior five years combined, according to VMware’s latest Global Incident Response and Threat Report. Our challenge is to play the long game to stay IN the game. Prioritizing sleep and wellbeing is essential self-care for cyber defenders.  

 Helpful resources