Forget the coffee; we’re here to tell you that you that one of the best research-backed strategies for increasing productivity is to sleep.
Skeptical? Just ask yourself this: Who do you trust more—friends and celebrities who humblebrag about how little sleep they can get while still kicking ass at work? Or scientists who heard those same stories and decided to put them to empirical tests? Yeah, we’re on team science.
As it turns out, science has a lot to say about sleep—why you need it, how much of it you should get, and what it has to do with your (lack of) productivity. We’re breaking down the sleep-productivity connection by answering questions that range from basic sleep stats to how sleep influences your creativity. And don’t worry, they’re all backed up by research.
Everything You Need to Know about Sleep and Productivity
1. How much sleep do I really need?
Probably more than you’re getting: 7–9 hours. That’s the latest official recommendation from the National Sleep Foundation for adults.
2. But aren’t some people exceptions—like Martha Stewart?
Yes, but you’re probably not one of them. An expert from Loughborough University told the BBC that only one percent of people fall into the category that can run on less-than-recommended hours. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that you’re in that elite group.
3. Why do I need sleep anyway?
Good question and one that scientists have disagreed about. Until recently. The consensus? Sleep is essential for cleaning and memory-formation processes in the brain. Researchers continue to debate whether these processes are driven by flushing out toxins or fine-tuning synapses, but for now, know that your memory depends on it. Are you starting to see how sleep is related to increasing productivity yet?
4. How many people are sleep deprived?
The bad news? More than you think. According to the American Sleep Association, 37 percent of those aged 20 to 39 report sleeping less than seven hours a night. This doesn’t get better as you get older. Forty percent of people in the 40 to 59 age group aren’t getting enough either. The good news? You might not suck at being productive; you might just be sleep deprived.
5. How does sleep deprivation kill your productivity?
Your attention span sucks…which probably leads to a chain of related cognitive problems. The most insightful research review on sleep deprivation we found suggests that a wide range of cognitive problems—working memory, processing speed, and reasoning, among others—can be traced back to a lack of sleep’s effect on simple attention. Out of six categories and 147 tests, the effects on simple attention were strongest and overlapped with the related but weaker other effects.
Do we really need to spell out why having a short attention span can derail your productivity? Say goodbye to high-focus work and hello to pounding espresso shots. (…which, for the record, we don’t recommend.)
You can’t tell if your colleague is exasperated or ecstatic. People who are sleep deprived struggle with identifying facial expressions, including recognizing when people are feeling angry or happy, according to a small study in the journal Sleep. The problem happens for facial expressions in the moderate intensity range. So if you sleep-walk your way around the office, you might not be sharp enough to pick up on subtle but important social cues. And in a professional setting, that can be dangerous.
You’re so tired that you feel low-key drunk. That’s because you kind of are. A well-known experiment from 2000 concluded that sleep deprivation has roughly the same effect on overall cognitive and motor performance as being buzzed at about a 0.05 percent BAC level. In English, that means you’re showing up to work after drinking two of your favorite cocktails. And we don’t know about you, but we’re off our game once the gin and tonics start flowing.
6. And how might sleeping well lead to increasing productivity?
Getting that good sleep boosts your mood. Being well-rested buffers against stress, reduces irritability, and enhances feelings of well-being throughout the day. Think of it as a foundation for a work day when the little things won’t stress or bum you out. At least not as much.
…and deep sleep boosts creativity. Work in a creative field? (Us too.) This one’s for you. In an experiment that moved sleep and creativity from theoretical to legit, people were primed for creativity tests and then given 90 minutes to either quietly rest without sleeping, sleep lightly, or sleep deeply with rapid eye movement. The results? The deep nappers were the only ones to significantly improve their creativity scores compared to their initial results. They did so by a striking 40 percent.
What’s interesting is the effect only emerged for types of creative problems that the deep nappers had been exposed to earlier. As such, it supports the theory that important brain processes for making sense of the world happen during deep sleep.
Your memory and learning will improve. Everyone needs to learn on the job, and most of us could afford to even remember what we learn. That’s why sleep is so important to increasing productivity. Experts agree that sleep plays an important role in all stages of learning and memory formation. Long-term studies link healthy sleep patterns to learning gains, and lab experiments back up those results in a way that neatly maps to the stages of sleep.
7. What if thinking about tomorrow’s productivity affects tonight’s sleep?
Truth: Sleep and productivity can sometimes feel like enemies. How many times have you lied awake in bed thinking about everything you need to accomplish the next day? In a somewhat cruel turn of events, such tossing and turning will only hurt your productivity in the morning.
Here’s a simple, research-backed way to make sleep and productivity to get along: Jot down a to-do list just before you head to bed.
Yup, that’s it. In a study complete with overnight brain monitoring, people who spent five minutes writing a to-do list at bedtime fell asleep significantly faster than people who spent the time journaling about the day’s events.
That doesn’t mean journaling is bad. But it does mean that something helpful happens when you move your task-oriented thoughts from your racing brain to a piece of paper.
8. How can I make my life more productive?
Just get more sleep.
We hope we’ve convinced you to block out seven to nine hours per night for nothing but blissful rest. With a goal of increasing productivity, this much sleep is crucial for your attention span, emotions, creativity, and ability to learn. And probably how much your colleagues like you. Just saying.
Your turn: What’s your best tip for increasing productivity? Share in the comments.
If you like this article you’ll also like This Meditation for Sleep is the Key to a Better Night
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.