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In This Article

  1. The ABZzz’s: Why You Need Sleep
  2. What Sleep Deprivation Does to You
  3. The Benefits of Sleep
  4. Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation
  5. How to Sleep More Efficiently
  6. Sleep On It

Do you skimp on sleep so you can get more done during the day? Do you brag about how you can go hours and hours without rest and still feel alive? If so, it’s time to wake up to the realities of sleep deprivation.

On average, 36 percent of your life will be spent sleeping. If you live to be 90, that means you will be asleep for 32 years of your life.

That seems like a lot of wasted time, doesn’t it? One whole third of your life is spent with your eyes shut.

In the past hundred years, inventions like the lightbulb and the laptop have helped us build a world of 24-hour productivity. We’ve hacked our brains into thinking it’s still daytime even at odd hours of the night. We overload our schedule and pull all-nighters, then chug coffee to stave off our yawns and droopy eyelids.

Seems like progress, right? Maybe not.  

There’s a wealth of evidence telling us that sleep is crucial. The less sleep you get, the less productive you actually are. In fact, it’s estimated that sleep deprivation costs the United States an estimated $411 billion a year in lost productivity.

The ABZzz’s: Why You Need Sleep

Man looking at the brain and analyzing how sleeping well can boost productivity

So, why do we need to sleep in the first place?

The brain is a beautiful and intricate organ. It’s in charge of everything from controlling your breathing to piecing together complex ideas and equations.

When you’re awake, your brain is busy. It needs to focus on about twenty different things at once without much time to decompress.

During this time your brain is making proteins. In fact, it’s making them right now. The same way people wait to clean their homes until after they get off work, your brain waits to clean out the waste products from these proteins until after you’ve gone to sleep.

When you sleep, your brain gets a chance to tidy up. It gets rid of the waste in our heads leaving you literally clear-headed for the next day.

What Sleep Deprivation Does to You

zombies on the street is a result of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is hugely inconvenient when it comes to getting things done. It can even be downright dangerous. When you don’t sleep, you’re not operating at full capacity. This can take a big toll on every part of your lives.

Here’s how sleep deprivation can affect you at work.

Sleep Deprivation Makes You Error-Prone

In 1979, there was a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that exposed an estimated two million people to radiation. Just seven years later, there was another nuclear accident, this time in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Tragically, that accident led to the deaths of dozens of people.

A significant factor in both of these accidents? Sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation bankrupts the brain of its ability to focus, making you more prone to slipping up. How are you supposed to zero in on a task when your brain is still sorting through clutter from the day before? It’s hard, if not impossible.

In study after study, researchers discover links between workplace injuries and a lack of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleep deprived workers are 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than well-rested workers.

While most of the research on job-related errors is centered around shift workers, office work doesn’t make you immune to sleep-related accidents. Although, if you’re behind a desk, your errors probably won’t be the difference between life and death.

Lack of Sleep Affects Cognitive Function

Sleep deprivation doesn’t only push us to make mistakes. A lack of sleep can also cause our cognitive abilities to decline.

Sleep deprivation has been shown to have a negative impact on almost all of our brain’s functions: speed, accuracy, concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning. This seriously impacts your ability to learn and retain new information.

In one study conducted on 4,000 workers spanning four American corporations, researchers discovered a correlation between sleep and motivation. Those who didn’t sleep well were, on average, the least motivated to perform well. The group getting less sleep also had greater difficulty focusing on tasks, remembering information, and making good decisions.

This lowers the quality of your work. When you’re sleepy, your overall performance suffers. It’s a little bit like being drunk on the job— for real. Another study found that pulling the equivalent of an all-nighter reduce response times to 50% slower than someone with a .1% blood-alcohol level.  

Feeling Moody? Could Be Exhaustion

Couple is fighting because they didn’t have enough sleep

Have you ever missed out on a few hours of sleep and woken up feeling irritable? You’re not alone. Inadequate sleep can cause you to feel more agitated and stressed out.

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who got only four and a half hours of sleep per night reported higher levels of stress, anger, and sadness than their well-rested counterparts. This study only lasted about a week, but it’s safe to say things would only get worse over a longer period of time.

Even partial sleep deprivation can affect your mood dramatically. So, those Monday mornings when you wake up feeling grumpy? You can probably thank a lack of sleep Sunday night, or even the shift from your weekend to your weekday sleeping schedule.

The Benefits of Sleep

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?”

Mark Walker, Why We Sleep

Any idea what that treatment could be? You guessed it. It’s sleep.

While sleep deprivation makes you less productive, there’s growing evidence that a good night’s rest can boost your mood, your productivity, and your creativity.  

But it’s not just the quantity of sleep that matters. It’s the quality.

There are three different types of sleep: light sleep, REM sleep, and deep sleep. Deep sleep is when most of our brain’s restoration occurs. It leaves us fresh to tackle new problems— with heightened memory, mood, and motivation on our tool belt.

One study tested people’s abilities on a creative test before giving them 90 minutes to rest quietly, lightly nap, or sleep deeply. When their creativity was tested after the 90-minute period, those in the deep sleep group were the only ones to improve their creativity score, and they did so by a whopping 40 percent.

Sleep also boosts your memory, an important component of productivity. Take, for instance, a study done on teenagers in North Carolina.

Assistant professor Finley Edwards found that by delaying school start times one-hour, standardized test scores increased a statistically significant amount. It was surmised that this was because students with later school start times were getting more sleep hours per night.  

When you sleep more, you perform better. There’s really no way around it.

Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation

lack of sleep affects cognitive function of the man

Maybe you have a lot on your plate. Maybe you have insomnia or sleep apnea. Maybe sleep just isn’t a priority right now. All of these things are understandable— but dangerous.

And it’s about more than your productivity.

The long-term effects of sleeplessness can be far worse than a bad attitude or some slip-ups at the office. Poor sleep is linked to Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and a heightened risk of strokes.

Poor sleep can also lead to psychiatric issues. Depression and anxiety are two mental illnesses that are often accompanied by sleepless nights. Going as few as three days without sleep can cause you to manifest delusions, paranoia, and vivid hallucinations— although these symptoms won’t likely stick around once you start sleeping again.

Your productivity is important, but your health is everything. Don’t gamble it away for a few extra hours awake.

How to Sleep More Efficiently

Walker offers five main tips for better sleep:

1.    Establish a Regular Sleep/Wake Time.

Try to get yourself on a schedule. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning can improve your overall sleep patterns.

Yes, that means weekends too.

2.      Dim the Lights.

About an hour before bedtime, dim half the lights in your home and stop looking at LED screens. Because LED screens emit blue light, they can trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime.

If you can’t put down your phone, apps like flux monitor what time of day it is and adjust your screen’s light and warmth accordingly so that your brain can stay on the right schedule.

3.     Chill Out.

The optimal sleeping temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s because your brain and body need your core temperature a couple degrees lower for you to get a good night’s sleep. Try turning down the AC or putting a fan next to your bed to help optimize your sleeping experience.

4.     Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine.

Alcohol disrupts sleep, causing people to wake up all throughout the night. An evening cup of coffee prevents you from sleeping as deeply as you could. For those reasons, Walker recommends avoiding both.

5.     Get Out of Bed.

If you’ve been lying in bed for about 20 minutes and still haven’t fallen asleep, get out of bed and read in another room. Don’t check any of your LED screens or grab anything to eat. Once you start to feel sleepy, you can return to bed. The point of doing this is to help your brain associate your bed with sleeping, rather than being awake.

Sleep On It

While you might feel like a go-go-go mentality makes you a go-go-go-getter, it’s important to take care of your brain and your body. It’s admirable to push yourself, but not when it’s at the cost of your quality of work or— more importantly— your mental and physical health.

Sleep deprivation makes you less productive, less healthy, and less happy. So, rather than trying to shortchange yourself on sleep, aim to get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night.

Not only will doing so improve your overall health and happiness, but it will also help you get even more done than you ever managed to on a sleep deprived day.

Now that you have the facts, the rest is up to you.