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Are Micro-sleeps Ruining Your Productivity?

Are Micro-sleeps Ruining Your Productivity?

The morning after a night of poor sleep can be rough, as I’m sure you know from firsthand research. For years we’ve known that sleep affects us both physically and mentally—lack of sleep erodes our mental abilities in particular. Just one night of sub-optimal sleep at less than 5 hours might hurt us more the next day than almost two days of no sleep at all.[1]

Despite this, chances are that you spent your morning commute bleary-eyed and desperately clutching a cup of your preferred caffeine fix whilst maintaining a silent litany of “I promise to go to bed earlier tonight!”.

The fact of it is, you may just have to hack your sleep in order to hack your productivity. Actually, you just need to sleep (no hacking necessary) to be more productive. Research tells us that the insufficient sleep you’re currently getting increases the frequency of micro-sleeps[2] and it might just be these micro-sleeps that are ruining your efforts to be your best self.

What is a micro-sleep?

Sitting at your desk at work after getting 4 hours of sleep, you might think you’ve got your workload under control, but you feel your attention slip occasionally. You suddenly and involuntarily lose your focus and it’s a struggle to zone back into full awareness. After a few seconds you manage to get yourself together, but it’s not the last time that this will happen to you today.

Science describes micro-sleep as very short periods of sleep[2], but you may be more familiar with them as unintended lapses in attention[2]. Although short, they are an interruption to your flow and, in a sleep-deprived state, these interruptions might take you longer to recover from.

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So why do they occur?

Sleep is a biological necessity, so while we’re awake, our need for sleep builds throughout the day until we fall into bed in the evening. It’s normal to experience crossovers between wakefulness and sleep to a certain extent, but a lack of sleep will expand our sleep debt. A heavy debt will increase the frequency of these crossovers and subsequently, you might find yourself lapsing into micro-sleeps more often[2-3], meaning that you will struggle to concentrate more often and may feel sleepy or tired[4].

If you already struggle with these feelings at work, it’s time to accept that they’re a call for help and not to be ignored until you eventually retire.

Your brain on insufficient sleep

Research thus far has shown that your mood suffers the greatest hit from a lack of sleep[1]. The brain becomes more reactive[5] and emotions can go haywire, causing unstable moods.

One interesting study also showed that we’re more likely to react to negative stimuli[2] when suffering from a lack of zzz’s. Being a bit of a ticking bomb can’t be good in a social setting, especially if you’ve been holding a grudge against your coworker or have suppressed feelings towards your boss.

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Insufficient sleep can also affect our mental and creative skills, with lateral and flexible thinking particularly impaired. Furthermore, it has been shown that it takes us longer to complete a task when operating on a lack of sleep[2], especially as our motivation and engagement[2] suffer as well. (Can this explain the cyber loafing problem some have?) In any case, it’s safe to assume that even the tasks that come automatically to us, might be harder to get crossed off our to-do lists.

Even if you push through and complete a task, it’s likely there will be errors[2] you’ll have to spend further time correcting as chronic sleep deprivation decreases speed and accuracy[3]. Let’s face it—the time spent correcting errors could have been better put to use, like on a full night’s sleep.

But I do get enough sleep!

Are you sure? In another effort to prove us all wrong, research reveals that we tend to think we’ve gotten enough sleep even when we haven’t[3]. Furthermore, we tend to greatly overestimate our cognitive performance when chronically sleep-deprived; although we think we’re doing well, our performance might have actually plummeted.[3]

It looks like sleep might be the best first step towards optimising your productivity. Even without delving into polyphasic sleep and other experiments, just getting a good night’s sleep might help you refresh enough for you to make the most of your day at work.

If there’s one thing you’ll take away from this article, it should be this quote by Jim Butcher:

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Sleep is God. Go worship.

Make that the litany inside your head.

If it’s the middle of your workday, you’re struggling with being productive at this very moment and thinking that this article is absolutely useless, I’ve got a morsel for you too. Here are:

3 scientifically-backed truths to quickly boost your productivity:

1. Get some exercise: Research has shown that exercise increases productivity so that we are both able to do more and do it better.[6] The good news is that you don’t have to go off to slave away at the gym—even a walk around the office or a run up the stairs might help. If you can find the time, go do it now.

2. Be happy: Think positively and feed positive emotions—happiness can increase an employee’s productivity so that he does more while maintaining a level of quality to his work[7]. In this context, happiness entails any positive emotion experienced often.[7]

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3. Try being mindful:Research has shown that even the short-term practice of mindfulness can improve our ability to remain focused as well as our mood and cognitive processes[8].

References
[1]Pilcher, J., Huffcut, A.I., (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta analysis. Sleep, 19(4), 318-326.
[2]Lim, J., Dinges, D.F. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Dexpartment of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
[3]Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.
[4]Porcu, S., Bellatreccia, A., Ferrara, M. (1998). Sleepiness, alertness and performance during a laboratory simulation of an acute shift of the wake-sleep cycle. Ergonomics 41(8), 1192-1202
[5]Yoo, S.S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F.A., Walker, M.P. (2012). The human emotional brain without sleep – a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17(20), 877-878.
[6]von Thiele Schwarz, U., Hasson, H. (2011). Employee self-rated productivity and objective organizational production levels: effects of worksite health interventions involving reduced work hours and physical exercise. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53(8), 838-844.
[7]Oswald, A.J., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. (2009). Happiness and productivity. IZA Discussion Paper No. 4645. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1526075
[8]Zeidan, F., Johnson, S.K., Diamond, B.J., David, Z., Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and cognition, 19(2), 597-605.

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Last Updated on March 13, 2019

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on the small tasks.

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

2. Take a break from your work desk.

Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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3. Upgrade yourself

Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a friend.

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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6. Paint a vision to work towards.

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

7. Read a book (or blog).

The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

8. Have a quick nap.

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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9. Remember why you are doing this.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

10. Find some competition.

Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

11. Go exercise.

Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

12. Take a good break.

Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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