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.
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 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, but you may be more familiar with them as unintended lapses in attention. Although short, they are an interruption to your flow and, in a sleep-deprived state, these interruptions might take you longer to recover from.
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.
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. The brain becomes more reactive and emotions can go haywire, causing unstable moods.
One interesting study also showed that we’re more likely to react to negative stimuli 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.
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, especially as our motivation and engagement 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 you’ll have to spend further time correcting as chronic sleep deprivation decreases speed and accuracy. 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. 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.
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:
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. 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. In this context, happiness entails any positive emotion experienced often.
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.
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Lim, J., Dinges, D.F. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Dexpartment of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.
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
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.
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.
Oswald, A.J., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. (2009). Happiness and productivity. IZA Discussion Paper No. 4645. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1526075
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.