Productivity and Sleep

Updated on August 8, 2020

We live in a culture that values productivity — “getting things done” — and sees sleep as the enemy of this goal, making it easy to come across sayings like “sleep is for the weak” or “I can sleep when I’m dead.”

While quips like these can only go so far in understanding social values, public opinion surveys have supported the idea that sleep is one of the lowest priorities for Americans. The National Sleep Foundation found that only 10% of Americans make sleep a priority; instead, it takes a backseat to things like work, exercise, and hobbies.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people don’t understand the importance of sleep. In the same study, 65% of people said that getting enough sleep made them more effective in their daily life. But despite this knowledge, few people choose to dedicate their time and energy to getting consistent, quality sleep.

The real flaw in this cultural mindset that sacrifices sleep in the name of getting things done is that it ignores just how important sleep is to actually being productive. Whether it’s college students hoping to advance their studies, workers trying to do their job well and move up the ladder, or organizational leaders managing employees and strategy, sleep is essential for high-level performance.

In this guide, we delve into the relationship between productivity and sleep, addressing different strategies for hacking sleep to boost productivity and offering practical advice for how to optimize your sleep and be at your best in school, work, or any other endeavor.

What is the Relationship Between Productivity and Sleep?

There’s a common assumption that working more hours means achieving more. You can find this concept woven into refrains that are both traditional (“the early bird gets the worm”) and contemporary (“rise and grind.”) It’s not uncommon for people to brag about studying non-stop or working extra hours, and in popular culture, including in sports and music, valor is often assigned to the person who has such grit that they virtually never take a break.

Unfortunately, this assumption leads us into dangerous territory. For one, it often throws a person totally off-balance. Workaholics in school or at work tend to sacrifice virtually everything to spend more time chipping away at their tasks. This can disrupt healthy relationships with friends and family, lead to burnout and emotional distress, and take attention away from issues of personal health, including sleep.

While those consequences are significant in and of themselves, another problem is that the assumption that more hours means more achievement is fundamentally wrong. Productivity is about quality, not quantity, and a wealth of studies have demonstrated that working more and more eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns in terms of our attention and performance.

Thankfully, there’s more than one way to understand productivity and how to cultivate it. A better approach starts by seeing productivity within a broader context that requires that we are primed to get more accomplished in less time, and quality sleep is central to achieving that goal.

How Does Sleep Affect Productivity?

Sleep has a multidimensional relationship with productivity, affecting it in a handful of different ways. Sleep deprivation can harm physical and emotional health and drag down cognitive abilities. All of these factors can play into both absenteeism (missing work) and presenteeism (attending work but getting less done).

While bad sleep hurts productivity, good sleep can boost it. As such, it is no great shock that polling has found that 90% of people who get excellent sleep feel that they work effectively in comparison to 46% of people who sleep poorly.

Taken together, researchers have attempted to quantify the effect of sleep problems on productivity and the U.S. economy. The results of those studies are startling:  they estimate that the economy suffers a loss of $411 billion every year from sleep-related absenteeism and presenteeism.

To have a fuller sense of why sleep has such a pronounced impact on productivity, we’ll look at some of the specific ways it drags us down at school and work.

Cognitive Effects

Our brain needs sleep to function properly. We know this both from in-depth research and, at least for most individuals, from personal experience. Going an extended stretch without sleep or waking up after just a couple of hours rest often puts us in a fog that makes it hard to think effectively.

As we sleep, we progress through multiple stages including light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. Sleep science demonstrates that deep sleep and REM sleep are vital to the high-level functions of the brain. Understanding and learning new concepts, remembering important information, focusing, and paying attention to detail are all examples of tasks that can be compromised when we don’t get enough sleep.

When people go extended periods without sleep, the effects are similar to when a person has had a significant amount to drink, slowing reaction time and impairing thinking. After 17-19 hours without sleep, one study found their performance on tasks was akin to a person with a serious buzz — a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05% — and longer than that without sleep pushed performance closer to a BAC of 0.1%, which is well above the legal limit for driving in most states. Virtually no one would have multiple drinks and expect it to improve their thinking and reactions, yet frequently people forego sleep on the assumption that it will offer a productivity benefit.

For students, especially college students who are typically taking on a higher level of coursework, sleep is critical to being able to learn information in the first place, retain that information, and apply it in appropriate circumstances. Not surprisingly, then, college students who sleep less tend to have worse academic achievement.

In the workplace, diminished cognitive functions can reduce output and increase the risk of errors. In some lines of work, the consequences of those errors can be tremendous. For example, taxi or truck drivers, doctors, or others who operate heavy machinery can put lives at stake by working in a sleep-deprived state of impairment. In fact, some major, well-known disasters like the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdowns, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Challenger space shuttle explosion have been linked in part to sleep-related errors.

These cognitive impacts aren’t just limited to academic tests and performance in office and industrial jobs. Research has found that sleep disruptions can harm creativity as well, which should be of concern to artists, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs, and anyone who wants to succeed in part by applying their innovative talents and thinking outside the box.

Physical Health Impacts

Lack of sleep can be a contributing factor to numerous health problems. Poor sleep can weaken the immune system, making someone more susceptible to all kinds of bugs and illnesses. It is associated with cardiovascular issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk of obesity as well as diabetes, both of which can spur a range of complications.

Sleep helps the body recuperate, and when we don’t get good rest, we tend to pay the price physically. This can take a toll on productivity by increasing absenteeism from the days when we’re not healthy enough to go to school or work.

Mental and Emotional Health Impacts

Sleep is also vital for our emotional wellness. Without enough regular sleep, we’re prone to being irritable and short with the people around us. This can make work environments unpleasant and can detract from group or team performance in school and work. These effects on mood can harm important relationships with friends and family, creating added stress.

Sleeping problems can instigate or exacerbate mental health problems like depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder. It can worsen the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In older people, it may heighten the risk of memory loss including mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia.

All of these issues can negatively reinforce sleep problems, creating a vicious cycle that continues to worsen sleep and symptoms. The cumulative effects on personal health, well-being, and productivity can be substantial.

Is Sleep Quantity or Consistency Most Important for Productivity?

Some people may wonder what kind of sleep loss affects productivity. The answer is that multiple types of sleep disruptions, including a lack of total sleep quantity, reduced sleep quality, and inconsistent sleep, can all harm productivity.

Short sleep duration in any given day reduces alertness and cognitive function. That effect tends to be bigger when the sleep duration is shorter. Smaller amounts of curtailed sleep that occur frequently accumulate over time to have effects that are similar to going days without sleep. Fragmented sleep at night and big swings in sleep on a nightly basis have also been found to be detrimental.

All of this goes to show that overall sleep is fundamental, and the best results for productivity come as the fruits of consistently getting a sufficient amount of quality and quantity of sleep.


Hacking Sleep: Can You Sleep Less And Be More Productive?

In an era of optimization and “lifehacking,” some people have sought to “hack sleep,” or in other words, figure out how to sleep less and be more productive.

While these strategies are innovative, there are limited data to support any of them. For the vast majority of people, there’s no shortcut to achieving maximum productivity without consistently getting around eight hours of sleep each night.

In this section, we’ll examine three approaches to hacking sleep and their potential benefits and downsides.

Biphasic and Polyphasic Sleep

Most people sleep in one main chunk or phase each night. This is known as monophasic sleep. While this is the standard today, there is evidence that in the past some people got their sleep in multiple smaller phases. Proponents of this method often argue that great thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin slept in this manner.

Biphasic sleep is generally having two chunks of sleep at night that are broken up by a couple of hours of being awake. Polyphasic sleep involves a greater number of sleep periods throughout the day in what most of us would view as multiple naps.

The research about biphasic and polyphasic sleep is limited, and it’s hard to definitively state which is the best sleep pattern for productivity. But some research studies in college students have pointed to reduced academic performance in people with fragmented sleep and who have polyphasic sleep schedules.

The bigger picture about these variations from monophasic sleep is that even if they work for some people, getting around eight hours of sleep per day is still critical. As a result, these approaches don’t facilitate being more productive while sleeping less; they just change when you sleep. A plethora of studies show that cutting down on total sleep time will wind up hurting productivity.

Another challenge with biphasic and polyphasic sleep schedules is that they can be harder to implement logistically in modern life. For many students and workers, their daily schedule doesn’t permit multiple sleep phases each day. This can mean trying to sneak in naps at varying points, creating inconsistency in sleep routines that has been shown to reduce productivity.

If you find that you’re naturally inclined to biphasic or polyphasic sleep, that you can sleep this way in a consistent and disciplined manner, and that it works for your productivity, you don’t need to try to adapt to monophasic sleep. But for the majority of people, biphasic and polyphasic sleep are impractical and unlikely to be beneficial.

Productive Sleep

Some people try to hack their sleep by making it productive. This might mean trying to induce a certain type of thinking or dreaming that can spur creativity or problem-solving while sleeping.

There’s nothing wrong with this goal of productive sleep, and in fact, the idea fits with the broader understanding of sleep as contributing to the overall functions of the brain at multiple levels.

Letting your brain try to accomplish tasks while you sleep, though, doesn’t mean that you can try to reduce your total sleep time or your sleep consistency. If anything, for your sleep to be productive, it needs to be high-quality and shouldn’t be cut short.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that you may not be able to summon a stroke of genius while you’re sleeping, and that’s okay. Sleep serves your overall productivity even if it doesn’t generate that “aha” moment. For this reason, you don’t want to put so much pressure on your sleep that it could induce worry or anxiety that itself could become an impediment to good rest.

Intensive Sleep Tracking

New technology has made it easier than ever to collect data about all aspects of our lives. Various types of sleep trackers apply sensors to assess how much sleep you get and the quality of that sleep. Some people hope to hack sleep by utilizing this data and optimizing their sleep habits.

Sleep trackers can be useful tools, but they aren’t perfect. Their accuracy is still uncertain because the way they collect data can be compromised in some situations (such as when sharing a bed), and the algorithms that analyze your sleep are often not public or scientifically verified.

For this reason, trying to use a sleep tracker to manage your sleep down to the minute, at least using present-day technology, may be a fool’s errand. Even worse, it may provoke orthosomnia, an obsession with perfect sleep that itself can become a sleep disruption.

This isn’t to say that a sleep tracker can’t contribute to better sleep. Sleep trackers can help identify trends that allow you to improve your sleep habits and sleep hygiene. But as with all of the approaches described in this section, a sleep tracker can’t eliminate the need for sufficient, consistent, and high-quality sleep, and you should only use one if it advances that goal.


How Can You Get Better Sleep to Be More Productive?

With the importance of sleep for productivity clearly established, it’s time to turn our attention to how you can get more done by improving your sleep. In this section, we’ll review some specific steps that you can take to boost sleep and productivity.

If you’re a college student looking to improve your academic performance by getting better sleep, you may also find it helpful to read our list of Tips to Sleep in College Dorms.

Make Sleep a Priority

With so many demands on our time, it’s hard to sleep better simply by accident. It takes some effort, including making sleep a priority. This means scheduling more hours for sleeping and not deprioritizing rest compared to other activities and obligations.

Part of this process is trying to rid yourself of the notion that working more hours is valuable in its own right. Focus on the quality of the time you spend studying and working rather than on sheer quantity.

When talking with friends, family, classmates, and co-workers, try not to reinforce the idea that it’s positive to be a workaholic. This point takes on added importance in colleges for professors, school counselors, and academic advisers, and in the workplace for managers, career coaches, and human resource departments. People in these roles have heightened influence and ability to emphasize the importance of sleep to those around them.

Colleges, universities, and businesses can also implement programs to encourage sleep and offer resources to students and employees to make it easier for them to get sleep help if they need it.

Address Sleep Disorders and Underlying Health Problems

Some people have problems sleeping because of underlying disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (a breathing condition that interrupts sleep) or restless leg syndrome (RLS, a condition marked by strong urges to move the limbs). Other issues like depression and anxiety can undermine sleep and make it more inconsistent.

For people with a sleep disorder or sleeping problems caused by an underlying physical or mental health issue, working with a health professional can help. Treating these causes can improve sleep and overall well-being, both of which can make it easier to be high-performing and productive.

Improve Sleep Hygiene

If you’re really looking to hack your sleep, the best way to do so is to focus on sleep hygiene, which includes all the elements of your sleep habits and environment. Optimizing sleep hygiene makes it easier to get to sleep and stay asleep so that you wake up refreshed and ready to win the day.

Sleep Habits

Getting better sleep starts with having healthy sleep habits and sticking with them.

  • Have a regular schedule: try to follow fixed times for when you wake up and go to bed every day. This includes days when you don’t have to be up for class or work. Studies have found that this improves overall sleep and boosts resilience when something comes up — like a project or emergency — that interrupts that schedule.
  • Follow a routine before bed and when you wake up: having the same set of steps before going to bed and right after you wake up helps you get in the right mindset for rest and for work.
  • Keep your bed free of multitasking: you want to build a connection in your mind between your bed and sleep, and it helps to limit activities in bed to sleep and sex only. Avoid working, studying, watching TV, or eating in your bed.
  • Don’t drink coffee too late in the day: caffeine can remain in your system for hours, so it’s best to stop drinking coffee, tea, or energy drinks well before bedtime.
  • Limit alcohol before bed: while drinking alcohol can make you sleepy, it disrupts sleep quality and can make it harder to get consistent sleep.
  • Incorporate relaxation into your day: relaxation techniques like meditation can reduce the stress that can harm your productivity, your overall well-being, and your sleep.

Sleep Environment

Optimizing your bedroom is one direct way that you can make it easier to get solid sleep night after night. Some tell-tale signs of a good bedroom for sleep include:

  • A welcoming bed: you’re counting on your bed to help you rest easy and wake up ready to face the day. Help your cause by choosing a supportive mattress, and if a new mattress isn’t in your budget, consider a mattress topper. Compliment the mattress with a top-notch pillow, high-performance sheets, and a cozy comforter.
  • Limited light pollution: light exposure can throw off your circadian rhythm and can make it harder to easily doze off. Try using blackout curtains to block exterior light and low-wattage bulbs in any bedside lamps. A sleep mask can also help keep light from reaching your eyes.
  • Peace and quiet: ideally, your bedroom is insulated from significant noise, providing a quiet place to relax. If that’s not the case in your home, you can use a white noise machine, headphones, or earplugs to keep noise from disturbing you.
  • A comfortable temperature: shoot for a cooler bedroom temperature because that’s what works best for most people, but adjust the thermostat so that you don’t find yourself being too hot or too cold at night.
  • Minimal use of electronic devices: the blue light that is emitted by devices like cell phones and tablets suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, which is important for sleep. To let your body produce melatonin naturally, and to keep your brain from being overstimulated by these devices, try not to use them for at least a half-hour before bed. If possible, keep them out of the bedroom entirely.

Make Better Use of Your Working Time

Improving productivity is often about “working smarter, not harder.” Taking advantage of tips and tricks to improve your workflow can pay dividends for your productivity and can amplify the effects of getting better sleep.

While there are whole sections of libraries devoted to productivity strategies, we’ll highlight just a few resources that suggest methods to get more out of each minute that you are studying or working.