The modern work culture encourages us to work, work, work until the project is finished, even working late at the expense of a good night’s sleep. But sacrificing sleep for work is not only a dangerous health practice—it can actually make you less productive over time.
Productivity is often associated with doing more in a shorter amount of time, and prioritizing work over sleep is often viewed as a ‘badge of honor,’ a shorthand for hard work. However, in reality, when sleep is deprioritized, productivity and performance can suffer.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s research in 2018, sleeping for only 5-6 hours per night drops productivity by 19% at work the next day, and sleeping for less than 5 hours will drop productivity by 29% the next day, as compared to a baseline of people who get 7-8 hours of sleep. That dramatic drop in productivity might make more people than you grouchy, potentially undermining your reputation with a boss or coworkers.
A 2011 Harvard study of 7,480 adults found that 23.2% of people show signs of insomnia, and estimated 11.3 days of lost productivity among these people sleeping poorly. Another survey from 2014 by the National Sleep Foundation estimated that closer to 45% of adults lack adequate sleep. This means that poor sleep is causing 23%-45% of the population to lose more than two work weeks’ worth of productivity every year.
The lack of sleep doesn’t just cost you time and social relationships—it adds up to hurt a company’s bottom line. One study of 4,188 U.S. workers found "significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes" among those who slept less, and estimated a $1,967 loss in productivity per worker due to poor sleep. Another study estimated that this culture of sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy $63.2 billion each year.
Ironically, research reveals that the main driver of poor sleep is work overload. One of the biggest reasons that people do not get enough sleep is because they feel they have too much to do or because they are stressed about what they need to work on. It’s a vicious cycle of not getting enough work done because of sleep deprivation, and not sleeping because not enough work is done.
What are the top 3 reasons you should prioritize a good night’s sleep?
1. Sleeping is associated with better decision-making and improved memory. In fact, according to Philips annual global sleep survey, 61% of adults around the world believe that their memory is worse when they have not slept well, while 75% admit they are less productive after a poor night’s sleep.
2. Sleep can prevent burnout in the short- and long-term. Sleeping less than six hours each night is one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout. Creating a good sleep routine now will raise your odds of having a long, productive career in which you can enjoy your work.
3. You May Make Fewer Mistakes. Even moderately sleep-deprived people have been shown to have a 50% slower response time, and a lower accuracy rate on simple tasks than someone who is under the influence of alcohol.
How many hours of sleep do you need each night to remain at your peak performance?
The answer is different for everyone, but most experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep for a healthy adult. Healthy sleep has three components: quantity, quality and regularity. Each works in tandem to ensure your brain and body are well-rested and prepared to operate at an optimal level.
Why regularity? Sleep is based on the body's circadian rhythm, which helps determine sleep patterns. The circadian rhythm is essentially your “internal clock” that controls the production of melatonin—a hormone our bodies produce to make us sleepy. Maintaining a regular, predictable sleep schedule will help your body fall asleep faster and more deeply.
Interestingly, scientists still do not fully understand why humans need to sleep. Although common sense would say it is to let our bodies rest from the energy we put on it during the day, According to BBC, the energy saved over the course of an eight-hour rest, roughly 50kCal, is virtually insignificant. Our bodies are actually digesting, breathing, dreaming, and performing other normal functions rather than fully resting.
If your sleep schedule is out of whack, how can you solve the issue?
If you’re not getting a proper night’s sleep, take the problem into your own hands. Be a more productive and energetic person by following these sleep tips.
Reserve your bed for sleep
Ideally, your bedroom is a haven dedicated to rest and relaxation, where nothing stressful (i.e., laptop) or stimulating (i.e., television) is there to occupy your mind before sleep. This can be an especially hard habit to break for people who give “one last check” to their email before bed, or have become accustomed to falling asleep to a TV show.
If you have a desk or television in your bedroom, that is okay, but experts recommend making sure they are out of sight when you’re falling asleep so they do not trigger anxiety. If your mind is elsewhere, you will have a harder time drifting off to sleep.
If you take a nap, keep it short
If you are dragging in the afternoon, an cheaper and healthier alternative to a cup of coffee or a sugary energy drink is a quick nap. When you begin to feel a slump come on, set an alarm for 10-20 minutes, turn off the lights, and try a sleep meditation exercise (like the old reliable, counting sheep). It’s okay if you do not fully fall asleep, as studies suggest that even lying still with eyes closed can help your brain relax.
Be mindful about your napping habits, since sleep sessions between 30-60 minutes can often make you feel more sluggish than before (a feeling known as ‘sleep inertia’). If you want to nap, try to keep it under 20 minutes or allow yourself a full 90 minutes as to achieve one complete REM sleep cycle.
Exercise—but only during the day
Exercise is a great way to tire out your body, and can help tire you out during the day so that you are better able to fall asleep at night. However, when you exercise too close to bedtime—especially a vigorous workout—it can leave you feeling more awake and restless.
Studies show that it is best to exercise in the morning or during the first half of the day to achieve healthier sleep patterns.
Schedule the right amount of time in bed
This may sound obvious, but it is impossible to get seven hours of sleep when you only have a six-hour sleep opportunity. Overcommitting with evening or morning activities may accidentally leave you without even the option to get a good night’s sleep. Ensure you have at least seven hours of ‘sleep-able’ time, plus time to unwind at night and properly awake in the morning, so you do not preclude yourself from getting rest aside from all the usual stressors.
Lay off the caffeine in the afternoon and evening
If you are stuck in a bad sleep cycle, it is easy to rationalize a pick-me-up of coffee or an energy drink to make it through the afternoon or evening. However, a poorly timed caffeine boost could actually hurt your productivity and keep you up late into the night.
While caffeine affects every drinker differently, it is best to avoid it as much as possible, and especially in the second half of your time awake. Even if you have a high caffeine tolerance, aim to consume it only in the morning in order to protect your ability to sleep.
If you really didn’t get enough sleep the night before, the earliest part of your day will be the part when you have the least effects of sleep deprivation, so tackle the hardest things on your agenda first!
Avoid cigarettes and alcohol
Cigarettes and alcohol are known to disrupt the quality of sleep and fragment the sleep cycle. Do your best to avoid nicotine products and alcohol in the afternoon or evening if you want to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Stick to a sleep routine
Establishing a reliable circadian rhythm is one of the best things you can do for getting a good night’s sleep. Having a regular routine means going to bed at approximately the same time each night and only using your bed for sleep. Of course, this routine might be ‘relatively’ regular, since for many people having an ironclad bedtime is laughable, but even with a fluctuating schedule it should be possible to go to bed within the same hour each night with a little effort.
More than just keeping to a solid sleep schedule, doing the same calming activities each night before bed can help prepare your brain for rest, and even alert your brain to start producing relaxing hormones. This might include reading, listening to soft music, a bath or shower in low light, or other wind-down activity that helps you feel relaxed.
It may be worth considering eliminating screens from your bedtime routine, including your phone, laptop, or television. Backlit displays emit bright light which fools your brain into thinking it is still daytime, which can throw your circadian rhythm off and slow the release of melatonin. If you must continue using your devices in the evening, manually dimming the displays or switching to a ‘warm’ color setting is helpful.
Additionally, you should aim to limit oversleeping on weekends, which can throw off your inner timer and screw up your weekday routine.
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