During this year of improvement, we are taking the month of March to explore time management. Once you’ve tracked your time, set your priorities, and scheduled a bit of unscheduled time, then it is on to getting the most out of whatever is left.
When trying to find more time for something you want to do, the easiest approach is to take time away from something else.
Sleep takes up hours of our day every single day.
These two facts make it tempting (and common) to try to get more done by sleeping less.
While this may make sense intuitively, research shows that it is actually making things much worse.
Sleep is Time Consuming
Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to function at our best.
This is a third of our day! That’s a lot of time.
Add in the fact that work hours are often non-negotiable and when combined with our commute can suck up 9-11 hours of our day, and it can feel like we have very little time for anything other than work and sleep. It makes sense that we would want to spend less time sleeping.
The problem is that cutting back on sleep negatively impacts our health, mood, thinking, and memory. Any extra productivity that we gain by sleeping a little less is more than offset by the lost productivity caused by these negative impacts.
The Importance of Sleep
For a long time I did not get enough sleep.
Over the last few years, however, I have been very conscious about my sleep. I actively worked at spending more time getting z’s.
It was like discovering a super power. All of a sudden I was sharper, more energetic, healthier, better at my job, and more productive.
That last sentence kind of sounds ridiculous. And I don’t know that I would’ve believed it if I hadn’t lived it.
And then I brought a newborn home at the end of January.
Let’s just say that my sleep habits haven’t been great since then.
On the plus side, I am now in a pretty good position to add my own experience to the data on the importance of sleep.
Sleep and Your Health
Perhaps the most obvious negative effects of lack of sleep are the health consequences. And while health and productivity are usually considered in two separate categories, think about the last time you tried to work through illness. You just can’t function at full strength and full cognitive capacity.
We know that tired people have more health issues, because we know that tired people end up spending more on health care services than the rest of the country.
Beyond that, though, we’ve learned that even a small amount of sleep loss can mess with your immune system and make you more likely to get sick.
We’ve also learned that people who sleep seven hours or less per night are three times more likely to catch a cold than people who sleep eight hours or more.
In addition, driving while tired has a similar effect to driving while drunk. And if you are one of the 1,500 people killed every year in a car crash caused by sleepy driving, your productivity instantly drops to zero.
I can’t gotten sick yet since bringing the baby home, so I’ve got that going for me. However, I have been getting some pretty brutal headaches that really get in the way of working at full speed. I’ve also been generally sluggish and slower moving. Plus I’ve skipped out on activities because I was too tired to drive safely.
Sleep and Your Mood
Even more noticeable and immediate than the health impacts are the impacts on one’s mood. And while some grumpiness may seem trivial, try to think about how productive you are when you’re in a bad mood.
Again, you are nowhere near 100%.
Multiple studies have shown the huge effect that a lack of sleep has on our mood. And when we’re in a bad mood, we’re more likely to work poorly with others, struggle to maintain focus, and be easily frustrated and interrupted.
One study found that “sleep loss amplifies the negative emotive effects of disruptive events while reducing the positive effect of goal-enhancing events.” Basically, we take longer to bounce back from interruptions and annoyances and we don’t get much of a boost from things that would normally help us along the way.
This one I’ve definitely felt.
I have far less patience with others and get annoyed much more quickly when I am low on sleep. There have been days when I have closed my office door to discourage people from dropping in because I don’t want to spend my limited patience on small talk. This is very much counter to my normal personality.
I am also much quicker to frustration, anxiety, and negative thoughts when tired, which leads to more procrastination and lost time.
Sleep and Your Brain
Being short on sleep negatively affects the way that your brain works. While getting solid sleep will improve your problem-solving skills, sleep loss will negatively impact your problem-solving skills as well as your concentration and your productivity.
A study of medical interns found that those with less sleep made 36% more serious errors than their well-rested colleagues. And if the idea of your doctor messing up doesn’t scare you, sleep deprivation was at least partially to blame for the Challenger explosion.
Don’t let yourself off the hook just because nobody’s lives are in your hands at work, either. The cognitive impairment comes home with you. One study suggests that tired people are twice as likely to die in an accident.
I don’t think I have made more errors since moving into this new tired phase of life. That said, I have definitely felt the loss of concentration and focus. I have found that I spend so much more time procrastinating before starting a task when I am tired versus when I am well-rested. For whatever reason it is just harder to convince my brain to get moving.
Sleep and Your Memory
It may not be surprising to you that sleep impairs your memory. I am sure that the number of people who have left the house without their keys after a short night of sleep is legion. But in case you doubted, there is scientific proof that more sleep is better for your short-term memory.
This matters more than just locking yourself out of your house, however. Sleep plays a major role in memory consolidation. What this means is that when you learn something, you need a good night’s sleep for your brain to securely store that information. (Obviously this is a gross oversimplification, but it gets us to where we’re going here.)
Multiple studies have shown that without a full night of sleep, it is much harder to learn new facts and skills. Think of the massive hit to productivity you are taking by undermining your own ability to learn.
You know that feeling where you walk into a room and immediately forget why you did? I do that every day now. I used to think it was just a lazy sitcom joke, but apparently it is a real thing.
I can’t speak much to the long term effects of memory consolidation, but I will say that I have largely given up on reading dense non-fiction for a while based on how it is suddenly difficult to pick up where I left off with full comprehension.
Still think it’s worth cutting back on sleep for a little extra time to work?
Consider that when you miss out on sleep, you start building up a sleep debt. If you skip out on two hours of sleep per night during the work week, you can’t get back to 100% by grabbing an extra hour or two on the weekend. Like with personal finance, you need to pay back that loan to get back in the black. Unless you’re sleeping for twelve hours each on Friday and Saturday night, you’re still going to be sleep deprived when Monday comes.
Similarly, little bits of lost sleep can pile up. Cutting back on sleep by an hour a night may not seem like much. And maybe you don’t notice any effects at first and decide to keep going with it. But after eight nights of it you’ll face the same effects as if you had pulled an all-nighter. We don’t notice it as sharply because we get used to it as our sleep deprivation builds one hour at a time like the proverbial frog in boiling water.
I recognize that the sleep debt I take on while caring for a newborn will need to be paid back in full. Correcting this will need to be a long term project rather than a weekend fix. If you’re looking to borrow from a few hours of sleep, keep in mind that you’ll have to pay it back later. The more you borrow, the deeper the hole you dig.
Join the Conversation
How much sleep do you get? Do you experience any of these side effects of sleep loss? Do you have any tricks for getting more sleep? Let us know in the comments!