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Can Better Sleep Really Make You More Productive?

Society’s ideas about sleep have changed a lot in recent years. But could sleep actually be a means of enhancing your productivity? Find out more about the science and the #1 tip for sleeping your way to a more productive life.

Old Ideas Die Hard

Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor, once claimed that sleep was ‘a criminal waste of time’.

Edison’s point was that with the help of his electric light bulb, human activity patterns would no longer be bound by darkness – and the natural cycle of day and night. Artificial lighting would free mankind to be ‘productive’ at any time of the day, to work through the night if we wished.

Simply speaking, Edison viewed sleep as an enemy of productivity – i.e., more hours in the day equals more time to get things done.

This simple equation – coupled with a Puritan ethic that equated long work days with good moral character – became the dominant mode of thinking in Western society. Productivity, at all costs, and often at the expense of sleep, had become the new definition of success.

A New Understanding of Sleep

But at the turn of the 21st Century, ideas about sleep started to change. Research and advice from physicians at the cutting edge of sleep science began to seep into public consciousness.

Sleep was no longer being regarded as ‘passive’ downtime, but instead, an active biological process, and a vital pillar of health. An avalanche of studies started to show that if you mess with your sleep, you increase the risk of a horror list of chronic conditions including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even some forms of cancer.

Famously, it was media mogul Arianna Huffington who capitalized on this new zeitgeist of sleep awareness. Her massively influential ‘Sleep Revolution’ movement seeded the idea that we’re in a crisis of sleep deprivation, with serious consequences for health, work performance, our emotions and our general happiness.

The Economic Cost of Insufficient Sleep

In addition to the medical implications of sleep deprivation, researchers point to another striking factor about not getting the appropriate amount of sleep – money.

In 2016, one of America’s largest think-tanks, the RAND Corporation released a 100-page report on the economic cost of insufficient sleep. The study, revealed the staggering statistic that America experiences economic losses of up to $411 billion each year due to sleep deprived workers, absenteeism and lost workplace productivity.

So, the evidence is clear. Rather than sleep being a ‘waste of time’ it seems to be the exact opposite. Perhaps it’s even time to reconsider sleep as a performance enhancing tool?

Sleep and Productivity – What Science Says

We’ve already established that the simplistic idea of sacrificing sleep to gain more time in the day is a crazy notion  – that is, unless you want to make yourself fat, dumb and chronically unwell.  So the question is, how does better sleep promote increased performance and productivity. Well, let’s take a look at some of the specific scientific findings:

1) You’ll avoid really bad decisions:

Some of the biggest industrial accidents of recent times – nuclear incidents at  Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion – have been categorically linked to the effects of sleep deprivation.

But although it’s unlikely you will ever make errors in judgement of this scale, the science is unequivocal. Fatigue caused by sleep loss alters the metabolism in the pre-frontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for higher-order ‘executive processes’ including judgement and decision-making.

Think about it. Do you want to be making important life or business decisions when your brain is only firing at half-power?

2) Your memory will vastly improve:

Although it’s a vastly complicated issue, a widespread consensus is that memory and learning is a 3-stage process – acquisition (taking on new ideas), consolidation (laying down of stable memories, and recall (the ability to reproduce new knowledge).

Over the years, researchers have built up convincing evidence that one of the key functions of sleep is memory consolidation. One of the ways this is thought to happen is that sleep helps strengthen the neural connections required for new knowledge to be stored.

So if you’re working on a new project or having to absorb new information, the old adage seems to be the best advice – just ‘sleep on it’.

3) You’ll get rid of toxic brain junk:

Ever experience that foggy feeling when you’ve been up too long and can’t think clearly? Recently neuroscientists made a fascinating discovery, that sleep acts as a type of waste disposal system for toxic waste that builds up in the brain during the day.

These toxins, known as beta-amyloids form plaques in the brain. If they’re not ‘flushed away’ during sleep, they accumulate and eventually end up destroying brain cells. Even more worrying is that scientists now believe there is a strong causal link between beta-amyloids, memory loss and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

4) You’ll be a better innovator:

When you think of all the great minds throughout history – Da Vinci, Einstein, Marie Curie, Alan Turing, Steve Jobs – one common strand emerges, the ability to see the world from a different perspective, and the ability to formulate innovative, creative ideas and solutions.

 In scientific terms, creativity is broken down into different elements including; fluency (number of ideas), originality (uniqueness of thought), divergent thinking (‘non-linear’ ideas), and insight (‘eureka’ moments)

The scientific literature on sleep and creativity is vast. From anecdotal evidence of dream-inspired discoveries to animal experiments, sleep is intimately connected to our ability to innovate, generate new ideas and make breakthrough discoveries.

So, if you don’t want to churn out the same boring ideas as everyone else, make sure you appreciate the benefits of a well-rested body and brain.

My #1 Sleep-Related Productivity Tip

Napping is like magic. It refreshes a tired brain. It gives you creative insight into ‘sticky’ problems. It creates more time in the day, because you have more energy to work longer hours.

But before I hear you say ‘but napping always makes me feel worse when I wake up’ – it’s important to understand a few nap fundamentals:

  1. Get over the stigma: Humans have napped for hundreds of millennia. It’s natural and it’s good for you. Some of the world’s biggest brands like Google and Nike get it. So should you.
  2. Time of day: We all need to respect our internal body clock. Our sleep pressure is highest in the day between 1 and 4 pm, so that is the ideal time for napping.
  3. Nap duration: It’s crucial to know a little about sleep cycles. A short power nap of 15-20 minutes is ideal for a brain refresh. But if you nap for longer, you run the risk of grogginess, or sleep inertia, when you wake, because you’ve entered deep, or slow-wave sleep.
  4. Nap environment: You don’t need a bed to nap. Just somewhere quiet, comfortable, even your car will do. For an extra power-tip, grab a pair of foam ear-plugs and a cheap eye-mask. Blocking out light and sound will vastly improve your nap quality.

I can’t emphasise enough how napping has improved my energy and productivity. Although I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home a lot of the time, when my schedule goes haywire, I’ll often schedule in a short 15-20 minute power nap in the afternoon, which immediately creates loads more energy for the rest of the day. I’m serious, it is like magic.

Try it. It’s the cheapest, easiest way to get more done during the day and to feel like your brain is firing on all cylinders. If you want to read more about the science of napping, I recommend checking out Dr Sara Mednick’s excellent resources including a great TED Talk.

So I hope you get the message. Sleep is not the enemy of productivity. It’s the opposite. A brain-boosting, creativity-enhancing, time-enhancing force for good.

As one of my favorite quotes says, “Sleep is God, go worship”  🙂

Jeff Mann is a writer, entrepreneur and certified sleep geek. His latest project is an in-depth look at cutting edge gadgets and gizmos from the world of sleep technology. You can follow Jeff on Twitter.