Have a long to-do list? It can be tempting to cut short your sleep to try to get it all done. But before compromising your recommended seven to nine hours, it’s worth looking into how a lack of sleep can impact our ability to be productive at work, at school or even around the house. After all, it can be extremely challenging to focus and prepare a detailed expense report or give an energetic presentation when you are not getting adequate quality sleep.
According to the CDC, one in three Americans don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep most days. Whether poor sleep lasts for one night or many, it’s tempting to simply push through, surviving on sheer will (and caffeine). But that doesn’t mean our ability to be our best selves at work, school, or other areas of our life isn’t suffering.
Let’s take a closer look at the connection between sleep and productivity — including the science behind it and what sleep experts recommend we do to pack in the sleep we all desperately need and deserve.
The link between sleep and productivity
Getting a good night’s sleep provides you with the fuel you need to get through your day; it is also necessary for optimal brain and body functioning, says Dr. Reeba Mathew, associate professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and co-director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Memorial Hermann. But not getting enough sleep can make it difficult to concentrate and complete tasks. “This happens because inadequate sleep causes a temporary slowing of the normal functioning of our brain cells (neuronal tiredness),” Mathew explains.
Contrary to popular belief, sleeping less doesn’t mean you’ll get more done. In fact, studies have found that people who sleep five to six hours a night are 19% less productive than people who sleep seven to eight hours a night. Catching less than five hours a night bumps your productivity down by 29%.
How sleep deprivation makes us less efficient
Sleep deprivation affects our ability to get things done in a general sense. Dr. Surina Sharma, Sleep Lead for American Medical Women’s Association and an assistant professor at Emory University, describes some specific ways that lack of sleep influences productivity.
First of all, says Sharma, studies have found sleep loss can impact our ability to make clear-headed decisions, and it increases the chances that we will make risky choices. It can make planning difficult and managing complex tasks more challenging. According to research, poor sleep also can cause problems with time management and job performance demands.
This explains why people who are sleep deprived may have trouble meeting deadlines or find it challenging to organize their day in a way that allows them to get their work done.
Working adults aren’t the only ones affected by sleep deprivation, either. Studies have found that students who are sleep deprived often lack motivation to get their work done, have issues with concentration and attention, and experience emotional disturbances. All of this can result in poor grades and diminished academic performances.
But perhaps the most concerning effects of sleep deprivation is our ability to complete tasks efficiently and robustly — especially ones that require our psychomotor skills (activities that are primarily movement oriented) to be in top-notch shape.
According to research, when we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to react at slower speeds while attempting to complete tasks, and we are more likely to make errors. If your job requires activities such as operating a motor vehicle, sleep deprivation isn’t just inconvenient; it also can be dangerous. Studies have found that drivers who are sleep deprived are more likely to get into accidents.
Work-related accidents are especially common in people who do shift work, which usually means working overnight. Between 10 and 40% of people who do shift work develop shift work sleep disorder, which increases the likelihood of accidents at work, work errors, mood issues, and health complaints such as stomach and heart issues.
What happens physiologically when we don’t get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation can have strong impacts on our body, which can make our productivity tank. When we don’t get enough sleep, our heart rate goes up, as a result of increased cortisol levels, says Dr. Jyoti Matta, medical director of the Center for Sleep Disorders at Jersey City Medical Center. Our blood pressure goes up as well, and we may crave foods that are high in sugar and carbs, which can end up making our daytime exhaustion worse.
Part of the reason lack of sleep can be so hazardous when it comes to activities such as driving is because it decreases the body’s ability to maintain a healthy state of watchfulness and caution, says Matta. “Sleep deprivation decreases our vigilance,” he says. “We don’t have the same microfocus or attention, which could also be dangerous.”
Lack of sleep can also cause the body to experience unsettling episodes of "microsleep," which is when you invertedly nod off without meaning to. Matta describes these as moments in your wake cycle that are interrupted by short periods of sleep that last a few seconds.
It’s not just physical accidents that are the concern here, says Matta. “These microsleep episodes could cause someone to stop paying attention during a meeting or take a much longer time to complete a task,” he says. “For example, if someone works in health care, they can make unintended human errors like forgetting to scan a patient’s label before administering medication, which could be serious.”
What are symptoms of sleep deprivation?
Usually, you can tell when we’re living with a lack of sleep. But sometimes, you may not be sure if the symptoms you are experiencing are from sleep deprivation, stress, or something else. According to Mathew, a few key signs can tell you that you’re dealing with sleep deprivation:
- You are experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness
- You notice cognitive effects, such as difficulty concentrating
- You are having memory issues
You face delayed response times when it comes to physical tasks or memory retrieval
5 tips for getting your sleep back on track
People often think of getting enough sleep as a special perk in life, not something that is essential. It might be time to reframe that type of thinking, says Sharma. “Sleep is an important part of one’s overall health and should not be considered ‘unproductive time,’” she says.
Our experts advised us on some concrete ideas for doing just that.
Make deliberate efforts to protect your sleep schedule
It’s not enough to just say in a general sense that you want to work on getting better sleep. You need to make a conscious effort to do so, even if it begins with incremental increases to your sleep time each night. What does that look like? It starts with recognizing the importance of getting good sleep and how it impacts health and well-being. Then, it means putting this intention into action.
“This will mean rearranging home- or work-related tasks/chores if needed,” says Mathew. Perhaps you need to set a time each night that you are done responding to work-related emails, or a deadline for when you’ll stop straightening up the house each night. “Sometimes, making smaller changes in increments and sustaining them may be easier for some people with the intent of reaching the goal over a reasonable time (days to weeks),” Mathew says.
According to Sleep.com Sleep Advisor Dr. Chris Winter, even 15 more minutes per night can make a demonstrable impact on your cognition and quality of life, especially when you compound that additional sleep over time. Just 15 more minutes per night can add up to the equivalent of 90 more hours of sleep per year, or more than 11 additional nights of sleep.
Set boundaries between work and personal time
These days, with many of us working remotely, the boundaries between our jobs and our home life can easily become blurred. As such, Matta emphasizes the importance of setting clear boundaries between your work life and your personal life. If you do this, your sleep will likely improve.
“If you’re working from home, dedicate a space in your home that’s designed to be an office and make a clear distinction between that space and living space,” Matta says. “Make sure the bedroom is used for sleep and for relaxation, not for work.” You can also inform your employers that you are unable to respond to work emails after a certain hour, or on weekends.
Just as clear boundaries can help you get better shuteye, better sleep can help you detach from your workday. In one study, a good night’s sleep minimized the effects of negative “spillover” — allowing nurses to more easily leave behind work stressors when they were off the clock.
Make lifestyle tweaks that encourage more restorative sleep
“For restorative sleep, both the quantity and quality of sleep is important,” says Mathew. There are a few factors that affect the quality of your sleep, she says, including stress, anxiety, caffeine, alcohol, medications, and your sleep environment. Making changes to some of these can help promote better quality sleep, she says.
For optimal sleep, Mathew suggests considering:
- Avoiding excessive caffeine intake during the day, especially in the afternoon
- Keeping consistent mealtimes; doing so can help set your internal circadian rhythm that regulates sleep
- Avoiding heavy meals and exercise close to bedtime
- Refraining from using alcohol as a sleep aid; it can worsen sleep and sleep-related respiratory conditions
- Keeping a regular bedtime schedule (including on weekends!)
Ditch your smartphone at bedtime
Almost all of us are guilty of being addicted to our smartphones, and this includes at bedtime. But being glued to your phone in the hour or so before falling asleep is one of the worst sleep no-nos, says Mathew. It’s not just because consuming stressful news or doom scrolling is apt to make it more difficult to settle into sleep (though this is certainly something to watch for!).
Another factor to consider is that blue light emitted from phones, computers, and tablet screens send the wrong signal to our brains and can interfere with our circadian rhythms. “These signals do not promote sleep and instead tend to keep us awake by suppressing melatonin,” Mathew says. She recommends putting your screen away at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
Get checked for medical conditions that could be impacting sleep
Most of us are sleep deprived because we are overworked, are stressed, and haven’t made getting sleep a top priority. But sometimes there are medical issues that prevent us from getting the sleep that we need. These include:
- Sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, circadian rhythm disorder, and parasomnias such as night terrors and sleepwalking
- Medical conditions like heart disease, lung disease, hormone imbalances, and neurological diseases
Some of these conditions can’t be detected or diagnosed without a sleep study (where you are observed by sleep specialists while you are asleep), so it’s important to go to a healthcare provider if you have tried all of the conventional ways to maximize good quality sleep and have gotten nowhere.
The bottom line on sleep and productivity
We live in a production-driven culture, and in some ways, pushing through the day without much sleep is seen as a badge of honor — something that shows how strong and driven you are. But walking around in a state of sleep deprivation isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. Even if you are able to do it for a few days in a row, and still remain productive, it will eventually catch up with you.
It’s time we start valuing getting enough sleep as the goal. Ultimately, the extra hours each day it takes to get enough sleep won’t take away from the hours you are able to get things done. You’ll find that you end up being more efficient, less prone to errors—and most importantly, less completely bleary-eyed and exhausted.