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Want to Get Things Done? Stay in Bed.

We all want to be more productive. There are entire aisles at the bookstore devoted to the topic, not to mention giant web communities centered around how to get things done. I sense a shift in the idea of what productivity means. It’s a slow, resistant shift, but it’s shifting nonetheless. Let’s go back a couple of centuries. To get the most out of his day, the industrial revolution-era factory foreman would bark at his assembly line workers to move faster. Skip your break. Stay longer. Sleep less.
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That mentality never really went away, even once the assembly line worker became less common and cubicles became the image of the workplace. Thing is, there aren’t many decent-paying jobs that require mindless, repetitive tasks anymore. Coming up on 2016, we have to plug into our higher-order analytical thinking and creativity to get the job done. More time no longer equals more results. Sacrificing sleep for work hours could be moving us backward. Have you ever heard someone brag that they can run on only four or five hours of sleep? (New moms don’t count, nature steps in and makes this possible somehow!) I wonder what productivity looks like hour for hour. Does the short sleeper get things done, but have to address more errors? Does the longer sleeper get less completed but make up time with less re-work? Does everyone need the same amount of sleep? What’s the overall outcome? Someone control for all co-factors (age, gender, position, industry, pre-test productivity, whatever else) and study this, please. My guess would be that getting enough sleep would allow us to get things done and done well, if compared over time against the sleep-deprived person who clocks more hours per day but isn’t working at full capacity. Just my guess. But this isn’t The World According to Courtney. Let’s see what the science says.

Sleep and Memory

When we interact with the world fresh and rested, we can more readily make sense of the sensory input we encounter. But it doesn’t stop there. The National Sleep Foundation explains, “Sleep actually triggers changes in the brain that solidify memories—strengthening connections between brain cells and transferring information from one brain region to another.” Okay, we need sleep to retain information. Looking at you, college kids. You won’t have to stay up for a week straight cramming for finals if you could just get to bed a little earlier!

Sleep, Attention, and Focus

We have all experienced it. When we’re tired, we have a hard time focusing. The mind wanders, and information is in one ear and out the other, as they say. A Harvard Medical School article illustrates what is happening…

When we are sleep deprived, our focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and we lose our ability to access previously learned information. In addition, our interpretation of events may be affected. We lose our ability to make sound decisions because we can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose the correct behavior. Judgment becomes impaired. –“Sleep, Learning and Memory,” Healthy Sleep, Division of Sleep Medicine,  Harvard Medical School

Sounds to me like being overtired is somewhat like being drunk. Except drinking at work is discouraged while working yourself into exhaustion is cast in a positive light.

Sleep and Inflammation

Long-term sleep deficit messes with the balance between pro-inflammatory cytokines and anti-inflammatory cytokines which may not make the inflammatory response as precise as it should be. Arthritis, digestive problems, cancer and even depression and anxiety have been associated with chronic inflammation. These health issues, whether mild or severe, would slow down even the most determined workhorse.

Sleep to Keep Colds Away

In one study, participants who consistently slept less than seven hours every night were almost three times more likely to contract a cold than participants who slept eight hours or more. Yep, researchers measured baselines, exposed the participants to rhinovirus, then checked them for clinical symptoms of a cold every day for five days. Good sports, weren’t they? So, the five hour club might get an extra hour or two of work done each day, but with reduced cognition, brain fog, and time off for illness, are they really getting as much productivity out of an hour as their eight-hour counterparts? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hit the sack nice and early tonight! Because, you know, I wouldn’t want to be a bum.

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