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Productivity and sleep

Written by Jocelyn Zakri MPH, RRT, RPSGT, RST

Whether you have a big presentation at work tomorrow or you’re running a marathon, friends and family are quick to tell you to “get a good night’s sleep.”

Sayings like these exist because, deep down, we all know how important sleep is to our performance. Yet for some reason, we’re all trying to figure out how to squeeze in more productivity on less sleep.

That’s the opposite solution. To get more productivity, you have to sleep better – not the other way around. Keep reading to learn how poor sleep hurts your productivity, while good sleep enhances it, and how you can ensure the sleep you do get is productive as well.

Effect of sleep on productivity

Nearly half of Americans report that low-quality or insufficient sleep interferes with their daily life at least once a week.

Clearly, we’re already aware that poor sleep negatively impacts our productivity. The longer hours we work, the more tired we get, and the more prone we are to error, procrastination, or the sluggishness that blocks our creativity.

Many people work over 40 hours though, and even if you’re working a reasonable amount of hours, your work might not be productive if you’re not supporting it with good sleep. According to the latest research on productivity and sleep, “good sleep” refers to both the amount and the consistency of your sleep.

Productivity killer #1: Insufficient sleep

The first barrier to productivity is insufficient sleep. Don’t get enough sleep, and your productivity suffers. You’ll have less energy and react slower. You’ll feel less creative and focused, and have difficulty making decisions and solving problems. These are the effects of sleep deprivation, and you can see them play out among sleep-deprived individuals in your workplace.

One large 2010 study observed over 4,000 workers at four large American corporations. As opposed to the participants categorized as good sleepers, the ones with insomnia or insufficient sleep experienced the steepest productivity losses, spending nearly three times as much of their day on just time management alone:

sleep quality vs productivity losspoor sleep worsens time management

The sleep-deprived workers were also less motivated, and had difficulty focusing, remembering things, and making good decisions:

productivity among insomniacs vs good sleepers

Sleep deprivation devastates us, mentally, physically, and emotionally. When we don’t get enough sleep, we have difficulty focusing during the day. What we do learn and take away, we don’t remember as well. Our brain consolidates memories during REM sleep, but REM is concentrated in the latter part of the night, so if we’re not sleeping enough overall, we’re missing out on more REM sleep as opposed to the lighter stages of sleep.

We also miss out on more deep sleep, the stage of sleep responsible for restoring and repairing our muscles and body tissue. As a result, our muscles ache more and we get exhausted easily. In fact, one study of athletes found that when you don’t sleep well, you tire 11% faster than everyone else who did. In the long run, chronic sleep deprivation is linked with a host of serious health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

It’s easy to see how the effects of sleep deprivation negatively affect your productivity at school, work and life. Being sleep-deprived has a similar effect to being drunk, and we all know how unproductive we are when we’re intoxicated. Pull an all-nighter, and your response time is 50% slower than someone with just 0.1% blood alcohol level.

Productivity killer #2: Inconsistent sleep

Part two of the formula for good sleep is consistently good sleep. One 2017 study followed undergraduate interior design students who wore actigraphy wristbands, monitoring their sleep schedules, before giving them cognitive assessments. The more irregular their sleep schedule, the worse their cognitive abilities declines during the week. These findings have been confirmed by others, suggesting that the regularity of sleep is just as important as the amount.

Also in 2017, a team of researchers observed college students at Harvard for a month and compared their sleep patterns to their academic performance. All of the students in the study got similar total amounts of sleep, but the ones who followed a regular sleep schedule performed much better than the ones who didn’t. The ones who woke up and went to sleep at different times had lower GPAs and delayed circadian rhythms. Their melatonin was released later than the consistent sleepers, as if they were experiencing jet lag, but without any travel.

delayed melatonin associated with irregular sleep schedules and decreased productivity

This second study gets at the root of why following a consistent sleep schedule is so important for productivity. Our sleep cycle is dictated by our circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms follow the day-night cycle (“-dian” comes from “diem”, the Latin word for “day”). In accordance with that schedule, our body releases melatonin in the evening, signaling to our brain that it’s time to start falling asleep. In the morning, our cortisol levels rise as melatonin lowers, awakening the body and preparing it to meet the day. When we don’t follow a regular sleep schedule, our melatonin production gets delayed, so we don’t fall asleep on time, and we experience the trickle-down effects it has on the rest of our body functioning.

Ignoring your internal body clock has serious effects on your productivity. The prime example of this is night-shift workers with flipped schedules. Study upon study shows that these individuals have performance issues that range from impaired focus and on-the-job errors that result in lost productivity, to even scarier consequences like drowsy driving accidents.

The productivity cost of poor sleep

These productivity losses cost real money. In 2016, the RAND Corporation found that sleep deprivation costs the US economy $411 billion a year and over 1 million lost workdays. People oversleep and show up late, or they skip work altogether due to an illness they were more at risk of getting because they were sleep-deprived. If they do come to work, they’re less focused and productive while they’re there.

On an individual level, that translates to 11 lost days of productivity and $2,280 in lost wages each year.

In the early 2000s, Harvard researchers conducted several studies focusing on sleep and work productivity. Across the board, the more sleep-deprived participants were, and the longer they worked on less sleep, the higher their risk for “fatigue-related errors,” microsleep while driving, and drowsy driving accidents. Errors are bad no matter your job, but they’re especially serious for workers in certain industries, like the medical field (one study found sleep-deprived surgeons are 20-30% more prone to error). Researchers estimate medical errors could be reduced by over a third just by shortening work shifts and allowing individuals to get more sleep.

Get better sleep, increase your productivity

Thankfully, the relationship with sleep and productivity works both ways. Just as poor sleep worsens productivity, good sleep helps it!

Get adequate sleep, and you’ll enjoy the following productivity benefits:

  • Faster reaction times
  • Better judgment and decision-making skills
  • Improved memory
  • Smoother creativity flow
  • Easier problem-solving
  • Fewer errors and more accuracy
  • Lowered risk of burnout

Of course, you have to get good sleep to enjoy all these benefits. Even if you’re sleeping enough, you won’t reap the benefits if it’s not deep. For instance, individuals with allergic rhinitis have nasal congestion that impairs their ability to breathe well during sleep, so they experience poorer sleep, and reduced productivity in school or work.

Some studies have researched these improvements among high school students who attend schools with later start times. Once they hit puberty, adolescents undergo a circadian shift that shifts their need to fall asleep about an hour later in the evening. Unfortunately, this coincides with the same time they start going to school earlier, and cramming the rest of their day with more homework and extracurricular activities. Sleep experts nationwide are advocating for earlier start times, since they’ve found that pushing it back just one hour significantly increased standardized test scores:

later school start times improves test scores

Good sleep simply helps you think better. Many people, including Einstein, Dali, and more recently, Google’s Larry Page, say they got their best ideas while they slept. A healthy amount of REM dream sleep stimulates your creative thinking, explaining why you wake up with novel solutions to tough problems or with a brilliant new idea after a dream-filled sleep.

How to make your sleep more productive

If you want to make your sleep more productive, you need to make sure it’s good sleep. Here are ten tips to be a productive sleeper.

1. Find your best sleep schedule.

What’s the best sleep schedule for productivity? It depends on you and your chronotype. Besides being a fancy word for whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, your chronotype dictates your internal body clock, and whether you’re more productive in the morning or at night. Instead of trying to force your chronotype to fit societal standards, lean into it and do your best work at the best times for you.

Beyond your chronotype, you should also make sure you’re getting enough sleep to feel rested. The average recommended amount of sleep for adults is between 7 to 7.5 hours per night, but the ideal amount for you may fall outside of that range. If you wake up after 6 hours of sleep and feel great, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to force yourself to sleep one more hour. On the flip side, if you don’t feel refreshed until you’ve had a full 8 hours, accept that, and make room for yourself to sleep 8 hours each night.

Once you know how much sleep you need, set a sleep schedule that allows for that amount and follow it religiously. The better you train your body to a regular sleep schedule, the easier it is to fall asleep and wake up. Follow this schedule every day, even the weekends, to avoid any sleep debt building up.

2. Induce sleep with a calming bedtime routine.

Each night, in the half hour before bed, complete the same set of activities in the same order. We usually recommend up to 60 minutes, but since you have a busy schedule, we’re shortening it to 30.

The goal is to train your mind to associate this bedtime routine as preparation for sleep, so aim for soporific activities if possible. Take a warm bath, make yourself a cup of bedtime tea, or write down your to-do list. Writing your tasks down helps clear them from your mind so you can worry about them tomorrow, instead of while you’re lying in bed at night.

3. Transform your bedroom into a restful sleep environment.

Reserve your bed for sleep and sex only – no work, hobbies, and definitely no binge-watching TV. You want your mind to associate your bed with rest and relaxation, not stressors from work or exciting TV shows.

Beyond activities, there’s much you can do to make your bedroom conducive to sleep. Keep it cool and dark. Set the thermostat to somewhere in the mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit and use blackout curtains or an eye mask if needed. Outfit your bed with a high-quality, supportive mattress and comfortable bedding. Keep your bedroom clean, preventing allergies and irritation, and clear of clutter, relaxing your mind.

4. Turn off your phone.

All electronics interfere with your sleep, but if you’re like most people, your smartphone is going to be your biggest blocker for sleep. The problems with electronics and sleep is that all of these devices emit high levels of strong, piercing blue wavelength – the wavelength of light that your brain perceives the strongest, and also associates with sunlight.

The more your eyes take in this light, the more convinced your brain becomes that it’s daytime, and that you should be alert and awake. Plus, with smartphones, we tend to hold them close to our faces, really drowning our eyes with blue light. Meanwhile, we’re often reading work emails or checking Facebook, either of which can be activating stressors of their own.

5. Level up your power naps.

Everyone needs to take a break sometime. Why not spend it on getting a little shuteye?

By definition, a power nap is a short, 20 or 30 minute nap, taken as a productivity boost. The brevity of the nap is what makes it so refreshing, so it’s critical to keep it short. Any longer than 30 minutes, and you risk entering deep sleep, from which it’s even more difficult to wake up and you’ll feel groggier than before.

It’s also important to take the nap when you’ll most need it, such as during that productivity dip around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Schedule a break, block off your calendar, and go find a quiet place to sleep in your office where you won’t be judged. To take your nap to the next level, drink a cup of coffee before your nap, so you’ll wake up feeling super alert.

6. Get sunshine during the day.

Sunshine wakes you up, so you might be wondering how getting more of it could possibly help you sleep? If you get plenty of natural sunlight during the day, particularly in the morning, it helps synchronize your circadian cycles. Your brain relearns to be awake and alert during the day when the sun is out, and asleep at night when it’s dark.

Give yourself a special boost by pairing that early morning sunshine with a brisk walk or fitness activity outside, using a light therapy box on your desk in the morning, or moving your desk to sit by an outside window.

7. Exercise regularly.

Speaking of exercise, this is another energizing activity that actually helps improve your sleep – depending on when you do it. Avoid exercising late at night, as it will activate your nervous system and make sleep harder to come by. But exercise regularly and in the morning or early part of the day, and you’ll help physically tire your body out so you practically fall into bed at night.

8. Watch what you eat and drink.

A healthy diet makes for a healthy body, and the healthy sleep to go along with it. Eat well during the day, but take special care to what you ingest after the afternoon. Limit your caffeine, drugs, and alcohol. Watch out for heavy dinners of overly fatty foods, or late-night snacks filled with sugar. To varying extents, these all mess with your digestive system and your mind, interfering with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Even with drowsy depressants like alcohol, they may initially help you fall asleep only to interrupt your sleep cycle and wake you earlier than necessary.

9. Wake up well, too.

Go for gold by finishing up productive sleep with productive waking. Don’t hit snooze. Spring up out of bed and get going with a morning routine, which might include brushing your teeth, brewing a cup of coffee, or a few energizing jumping jacks. Open up the windows and let the sunshine in, or use a dawn simulator alarm clock.

Avoid looking at your phone or emails for at least a little bit, allowing your body to adjust to the day a bit before hitting it with stress.

10. Schedule tasks while you sleep.

If you’re worried you won’t get everything done with all this extra time spent sleeping, brainstorm how you can schedule certain tasks to take place while you sleep.

Cook tomorrow’s dinner using a slow cooker. Schedule your business travel during red-eyes so you can sleep while you fly. If you want to work on solving a particular problem, or have a big exam the next day, review the material before you sleep, so your mind can work on it in your dreams.

Additional resources

  • Create the perfect environment for sleep, including lighting, colors, and scent.
  • Despite what many workaholics think, their workaholism is a major obstacle to sleep and their productivity. Learn about the unique issues affecting workaholics and sleep.
  • Sleep affects all productivity, even the physical kind. Athletes can read about how better sleep can improve their athletic performance and make them an even stronger competitor.
  • Whether you have a creative dayjob or just want to get more out of an artistic hobby, follow these tips to enhance your REM sleep and apply your dreams to more creative endeavors. Creativity
  • Discover your chronotype. Learn the best times for you to work and sleep, so you can adjust the rest of your schedule to facilitate your productivity, rather than hinder it.
  • In their article, “Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety,” Harvard University reviews their research on the link between sleep deprivation and drowsy driving or workplace accidents, along with how the lack of sleep affects the brain’s ability to function properly, resulting in worsened cognitive performance.
  • In a 2006 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Harvard professor and sleep scientist Dr. Charles A. Czeisler outlines the various ways insufficient sleep is the ultimate “performance killer.”
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