Are You Too Busy to Sleep?

In the United States and many other developed nations, it’s cool to be busy. It’s almost become a competition for people to be as busy as possible. But for us to be so busy, the first thing we tend to cut back on for time is sleep. And most of us are happy and proud to sleep less and even boast to others how much we’re accomplishing because we’re only sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night. The problem with this is that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When we sleep less, we become less productive. When we become less productive, we accumulate more work that needs to be completed. When there’s more work to be completed, we cut back on sleep again to work more hours. And in turn, we become even less productive. In this post, I’m going to detail the effects of sleeping less on productivity and how you can avoid the self-perpetuating cycle.

Sleep’s Influence on Learning

Most of us start cutting back on sleep when we begin college. It’s the first time where our parents are no longer enforcing a bedtime curfew and there’s an influx of schoolwork, studying and projects. But does cutting back on sleep help with studying and learning for school? Not so much.

That’s because our hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory and learning, is like a temporary hard drive for storing new information. As we learn, information is written onto that temporary hard drive. But the space on the hard drive is limited. Once the hard drive is full, learning new information becomes difficult. Some things get overwritten and others discarded. But during sleep, our brain transfers information from the hippocampus into long term storage. This clears up space again in the hippocampus for new information to be learned efficiently again. So, this has taught us two things:

First, getting a good night’s sleep before learning or studying is extremely important. If you don’t have enough sleep before learning, your hippocampus, already crammed with information, doesn’t have the capacity to take in new information very effectively. This concept was shown in a recent study. Two groups of participants were asked to memorize facts at noon and were then tested on the facts. As expected, both groups performed equally. Next, they had both groups of participants attempt to memorize new facts at 6pm and were tested again on them. The difference between the two groups is that the first group performed everyday activities between noon and 6pm while the second group performed everyday activities while also taking a 90-minute nap. The second group performed 20% better on the 6pm test compared to the first group. This study illustrates how sleep or naps can be used to flush the hippocampus of old information, so it’s primed for new learning new material.

Second, getting a good night’s sleep after learning or studying is just as important. If you don’t sleep after learning, your hippocampus, crammed with newly learned information, will start discarding that information to make space for new memories. The problem is, unlike how sleep transfers information from this temporary hard drive to long term storage, a lack of sleep causes the hippocampus to freely discard the information completely. This concept was also shown in a recent study. Two groups of participants learned several verbal facts. 8 hours later, the two groups were tested on those same verbal facts. One group slept the 8 hours in between learning and testing while the other group stayed awake. The group that slept retained 20-40% more information than the group that stayed awake. This illustrates how sleep or naps can be used to solidify newly learned information so it’s easily accessible in the future.

Therefore, if your goal in school is to learn, depriving yourself of the proper duration, quality or consistency of sleep will result in efficiencies of up to 40%. So, trading sleep for study time just isn’t worth it and will make it worse.

Sleep’s Influence on Work

Next, after college most of us begin working. And, if we’re busy with tons of work, we again tend to cut back on sleep to accomplish this work. But is cutting back on sleep helping us complete more work? Maybe not.

Studies have shown a correlation between hours slept and both work rate and speed of task completion. The correlation showed that those who slept less had a lower work rate and took longer to complete tasks. On top of that, those who slept less also produced more mistakes at work and developed less accurate solutions to work-related problems. And workers who consistently slept around 5 hours or less per night missed about 6.5 more days of work per year than those who slept 8 hours. This would suggest that those who aren’t receiving adequate sleep are significantly less productive than those who are.

But does this lower productivity ever show up to your superiors? Studies would suggest so. When supervisors are asked which qualities make up a valuable employee, the most common qualities reported were creativity, social skills, emotional skills, intelligence and motivation. The problem is that a lack of sleep within an individual degrades each one of these qualities. Sleep deprived individuals tend to be less creative, less socially adept, more emotionally unstable, less intelligent and less motivated. This likely leads to lower job performance. A study in 2016 showed that those who increased their duration of sleep by one hour a night saw a 5% pay increase in the long run compared to those who maintained their inadequate sleep habits.

From all this data, we can assume that those who sleep less than the recommended amount, are likely worse off at work. They’re less productive and less skilled. This translates to poor work performance and a lower compensation at the end of the day.

Final Thoughts

If your goal is to be productive, to accomplish a lot and to complete work efficiently, sacrificing sleep likely isn’t the answer. The path to achieving this goal is to get adequate sleep. Consistently sleeping 8 undisturbed hours a night is ideal. This will allow you to complete work with intensity. Rather than working extended hours in a degraded state, work limited hours in an optimal state. Completing work when you’re at your best will yield incredibly productive, focused and creative work. So next time you think you’re too busy to sleep, you might just be too sleepy to work.

For more information on optimizing your sleep, please check out my 3-Step Guide to Sleep.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognitive Health, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


Disclosure: I frequently review or recommend products and services that I own and use. If you buy these products or services using the links on this site, I receive a small referral commission. This doesn’t impact my review or recommendation.

2 Responses

  • Another great newsletter. Excellent articles on sleep. I worked shift work for 20 years never got proper sleep. The articles will be of good value, thank you

    • Yea, shift work is tough! It’s so much more effective to sleep on a consistent schedule when possible. I feel bad for people who aren’t able to because of their work.

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