With so many of us now working remotely or hopping online after a full day at the office, the 9-to-5 work day is a myth. It can be easy to cut corners on sleep when our devices make it possible to be “productive” at all hours.
You probably know instinctively that by staying up late to get just a few more things done, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. A raft of studies on sleep and productivity will confirm your hunch.
Does Sleep Make You More Productive?
The rest you give your body and brain with a good night’s sleep pays off. In general, insomnia is the biggest drag on work productivity when compared with other factors like stress and interpersonal problems, research shows. One study even quantified this productivity loss in dollars, estimating that fatigue-related slowdowns cost nearly $2,000 per employee.
The real cost of poor sleep for the average person, of course, is much steeper, given that consistent, quality rest boosts our health and immune systems. It also boosts your judgment and creativity, two key ingredients for a job well done. A recent study of 784 practicing entrepreneurs, for example, found those who received fewer hours of rest ranked ill-conceived ideas above others, suggesting that people who are short on sleep cannot properly identify the strongest business idea or model. And when asked to think of potential business ideas, the entrepreneurs who were sleep-deprived performed worse.
The study compared entrepreneurs not only with each other but with their own performance across days with more or less sleep. Those who shortchange sleep, the researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “analyze business opportunities differently than their well-rested counterparts, and even differently than their well-rested selves.”
A Sleep Expert’s Opinion
Dr. Sujay Kansagra agrees Harvard’s findings demonstrate just how important sleep is to overall cognitive performance. While we have ample data to support the role of sleep with brain function, the real-world application of these skills is really what’s important.
With so many people working until they reach burnout and exhaustion, these findings highlight an important part of our culture, Kansagra believes. We might think lack of sleep means working harder and getting more done—we might even brag about it. In fact, the opposite may be true, especially if you make a vital mistake at the beginning of a long-term project.
How to Get Better Sleep and Still Be Productive
You can still be a hard-working high-achiever and get the sleep your body needs to function at its peak ability. Some tips:
1. Get Your Best Rest Consistently
Based on studies, we know that the longer you are sleep deprived, the worse your performance is on cognitive tasks. The key to performing at your best is a commitment to getting the sleep your body needs every night. Sleeping adequately for one night just before an important meeting or test is great, but if you have built up a large sleep debt, you will still perform less than your best.
2. Don’t Let Sleep Deprivation Become the Norm
It's important to recognize that we are not good at predicting how sleep deprived we are. “Our subjective feelings of sleepiness plateau over time, even if we remain chronically sleep-deprived,” Kansagra says. This allows our objective performance on tasks that require prolonged attention to worsen over time.
3. Use Napping to Your Advantage
Keep in mind that strategic napping may help boost your productivity and improve mental agility, so if you have skimped on sleep and you have an obligation that will require extra mental efforts, consider a 20-30-minute nap before your big meeting. While it’s not a long-term solution to your sleep deprivation, it can help give you the boost you need to perform your best when it really matters.
So, if you are exploring a new idea or putting extra time in at work, remember that sleep helps and enhances your ability to evaluate business opportunities. Before pulling an all-nighter or reducing your sleep schedule, consider the cognitive risks. Sleep is essential for strong performance, especially before any ideation or evaluation tasks. After all, you need to dream to make your dreams come to life.