Have you ever had to study for a difficult exam or solve a puzzle that was giving you lots of trouble? A common piece of advice people in your surroundings may offer is to “sleep on it.” While it may be easy to dismiss it all as superstition or vague advice that has little to no practical application, the truth is that your level of productivity can often depend on how much sleep you get the previous night, or during the week overall. The connection between sleep and productivity may not be clear to most people since they don’t understand how sleep affects your body and mind, and while they may be aware of the 8-hour sleep recommendation, they might not have any idea as to why that amount of rest is essential.
That’s where we come in. In this article, we aim to connect sleep and productivity by showing how fatigue can make you much less efficient at whatever you’re doing, as well as provide tips on how you can organize and maintain a strict, healthy sleep schedule that improves your daily performance in all aspects of life. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The Connection Between Sleep and Productivity
There are at least a few logical claims we can make that most people can relate to or at least keep up with, even without any knowledge of how sleep works. As many as 50% of US residents report experiencing problems in their daily life (especially at work) as a consequence of sleep deprivation, even if it’s not a chronic issue. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really – we associate long work hours with fatigue, exhaustion, and stress even without factoring in potentially inadequate rest. Unfortunately, most people don’t have to imagine how bad it gets when you’re sleep-deprived. Around the late 19th century, work shifts were getting reduced from 9 to 8 hours, as people came to realize that working for longer than 8 hours made workers inefficient, susceptible to accidents and generally exhausted.
Eight hours of work per day turns into 40 over the course of a work week. Now think about how many people you know that work more than that. A lot of working adults have an inadequate sleeping schedule and suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation and fatigue. A lot of fatigue symptoms and consequences are subtle and hard to notice by the person in question – but they can be crippling and potentially life-threatening under the right circumstances. For starters, your mood drops significantly – sleep-deprived people often display signs of irritability, and they’re much more prone to taking unnecessary risks. Your memory and information processing take a dip as well, making it harder to do a lot of office jobs. On top of that, your hand-eye coordination gets considerably worse, as does your awareness of your surroundings and the ability to stay focused. These issues are particularly threatening for people who drive or do jobs with inherent risk factors.
As a rule, sleep deprivation is a problem when the person in question sleeps for less than six hours the previous night. It has been determined that running on 6 hours of “gas” is almost the same as being sleep-deprived for a whole 24 hours in terms of performance and associated risks. However, it’s a common misconception that the number of hours is all there is to healthy sleep.
Think of it this way – have you ever slept for a combined total of 10 hours in one day and still felt tired and unfocused? Clearly just reaching a number isn’t what makes sleep restorative. The amount of time spent asleep (or sleep quantity) is only one side of the coin in this situation, and it’s equally as important to consider sleep quality (how efficient and healthy the sleep was).
Sleep architecture is a term most people don’t have a firm grasp on. For this majority, sleep stages and rapid eye movement are vague terms that have something to do with dreaming, but the full picture is key to understanding how sleep affects our productivity. Sleep architecture is the natural progression of sleep through specific stages. The order is light sleep, then deep sleep, and then finally REM sleep before looping back to light sleep. Each of these stages is characterized by specific repairs and chemical procedures that occur in your body. While you sleep, your brain orchestrates things like memory consolidation (primarily in light and REM sleep), muscle tissue repair, immune system maintenance, blood sugar regulation, and many other processes.
Because each stage has its purpose and benefits, it is important to cycle through them with as little interference as possible. Having your sleep interrupted reduces the amount of time you spend in deep and REM sleep. This problem is frequently called “fragmented sleep,” as it happens when someone wakes up multiple times per night. Fragmented sleep robs you of all the benefits that come with non-light sleep, making you incredibly inefficient the following day. Naturally, this affects your performance at work and even the economy overall (once you factor in how many working adults deal with sleep deprivation – sleep deprivation hurts our economy by around $411 billion each year). Students also have trouble learning things efficiently due to insufficient time spent in REM sleep. Athletes recover from muscle strain much slower if they regularly experience sleep-deprivation and fragmented sleep.
Then there’s the concept of our circadian rhythm. It is a biological rhythm managed and influenced by a “master clock” in our brain stem that uses light receptors to tell our body when it’s time to go to sleep through hormone production and secretion. A lot of our bodily processes are affected by our circadian rhythm, but this rhythm is incredibly easy to disrupt and throw off-balance by a quick series of bad sleep decisions or unfortunate events (such as workplace emergencies). Because our hormones control much more than when we sleep, a disrupted circadian rhythm can cripple us in many aspects of our daily life. It can be very hard to get your rhythm back on track if you have to deal with something like shift work or a sleep disorder.
Improve Productivity Through Better Sleep
There is no shortcut to healthy sleep. Bad sleeping habits are just another lifestyle situation that you have to approach strategically and with dedication, much like diets or exercise routines. Being disciplined enough to manage your sleep is not always easy, but it pays off in more ways than you can imagine. Here’s a list of tips you can work on to achieve better sleep, and thus increased productivity:
- Establish and maintain a strict and smart sleep schedule. While the amount of sleep we would recommend to adults is 7-7.5 hours each night, your individual needs may differ. People have what’s called a chronotype, which basically determines when they like to sleep and when they’re most productive. If possible, adapt your work schedule (or whatever other obligations) to your chronotype, not the other way around. That way, you ensure that you’ll wake up feeling more refreshed than you normally would. Make it a personal goal to follow your new sleep schedule to the letter, with no exceptions unless an emergency occurs (which is rare).
- Train your brain to associate your bed with sleeping and sex only. Cognitive therapy often involves something like this, as it’s effective and takes very little if any money. Simply avoid doing any unnecessary activities in your bed, such as eating, watching TV, making phone calls, etc. If your mind treats the bed as a source of comfort and relaxation, it becomes that much easier to fall asleep without unpleasant delays – and to follow your sleep schedule!
- Create a bedtime routine. This routine normally takes anywhere between 30-90 minutes, depending on the person’s available time and other factors. The idea is that you want to make a strict routine of relaxing activities that you perform every single day before bedtime. These activities can include a warm bath, some light exercise, meditation, writing down a shopping list for tomorrow, drinking warm tea, etc. This method trains your body to relax automatically as bedtime approaches, as humans like sticking to routines.
- Maintain a steady and healthy diet. Some of the most harmful factors that lead to sleep disruption come from what we eat and drink. Coffee and alcohol are common in practically every adult household, but they both damage your ability to fall and stay asleep. Avoid sugary and greasy foods, as your blood sugar levels are also connected to your ability to produce sleep-related hormones like melatonin and cortisol. You’re allowed to have cheat days, but don’t get stuffed full of sleep-ruining foods and drinks close to bedtime.
- Get some exercise, preferably outside. Exposure to sunlight goes a long way towards synchronizing and maintaining your circadian rhythm, and exercise has a whole host of benefits even if you remove sleep from the equation. When it comes to sleeping, it helps to get physically tired before bedtime, although we recommend avoiding massive strain and difficult routines. Much like how you open your window to get fresh air and relax, try to have a jog or fast walk right before you begin your bedtime routine.
- Try establishing a morning routine, too. Being able to wake up at the same time each day takes some discipline and often practice. Come up with a routine that helps you kickstart your day, whether it involves a tasty cup of coffee (or tea), some light exercise, a morning shower, or whatever you think helps you break the morning drowsiness. Nothing feels worse than going into your office while groggy and exhausted, so teach yourself to prevent that issue.
- Separate yourself from your smartphone during the evening and morning. Blue light has been shown to damage our sleep, and while any electronic device can do this, smartphones are the most common source because we use them to stay in touch with anyone and everyone. Avoid obsessing over emails before bed or first thing in the morning. A simple and small change like this can have a surprisingly positive effect on your sleep every day. If you have the technology and a really important need to do so, program your notifications to only make noises and draw attention if it’s work-related or similarly important to your productivity.
- If you’re experiencing serious difficulty falling asleep, consult your doctor as soon as possible. You may be dealing with one of many sleep disorders that are preventing you from getting the rest you need and deserve, and the sooner you get checked out, the better.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic