Sleep and Productivity – why it’s so important

Sleep is a fundamental physiological need for humans, and forms the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. But we as a society don’t get enough sleep. We stay up all night studying, partying, texting, watching Netflix. Going without sleep carries both short and long term health consequences. Lack of sleep can affect judgement, mood, ability to learn, ability to retain new information, and may increase your risk for injury. That’s just in the short term. Long term sleep deprivation carries chronic health problems like depression, obesity, and diabetes. And studies have indicated that sleep-disordered breathing in adults can be associated with impaired cognitive function. These, in turn, can contribute to poor work performance, accidents and injuries, and a decrease in quality of life. Sleep and productivity and correlated strongly.

One of the most interesting but deadly proof points for the dangers of sleep deprivation happens by design once a year in the United States. In the Monday following Daylight Savings Time ‘spring forward’, there are noticed increases in heart attacks and driving accidents   – a fine but sad example of how bad sleep deprivation actually can be. The time change causes shifts in our internal clock and researchers have found that when the clocks change, peoples’ sleep cycles are interrupted just enough that they tend to be drowsy.  The general idea is that subtle enough changes occur in sleep patterns and circadian rhythms that can affect your alertness in just that one hour of difference.

Sleep deprivation also has an economic impact as well. Mathew Gibson and Jeffrey Scrader studied how cities on different edges of time zones see an impact as well. They found that permanently increasing sleep by an hour per week for everybody in a city increases the wages in that location by about 4.5%. All else being equal, getting more sleep is better for your mind, body, and wallet!

History of Sleep Patterns

Sleep patterns have definitely changed over the course of human history. Until the invention of the electric light bulb, we got up with the sun and spent our evenings sitting by candlelight.  Now, most of us spend our days bathed in artificial light.  Total darkness is a thing of the past. Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night and noticed how light your house actually is? Many electronics now emit a glow, including laptops, TVs, and even electric toothbrushes.  The end of waking with the sun and going to sleep when dark out is having serious ramifications on our ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Other changes have been affected by the invention of the electric lightbulb.  Being able to light up the world all night long helped build the big cities, helped us with technology, and gave us an all nightlife. A move to the city and away from agricultural jobs means we our connected almost 24/7 with emails and text messages. We love our devices, but artificial nighttime lighting decreases our duration of sleep and affects the type of sleep we get, which we’ve learned can affect our total health. What I’m most concerned with, though, is how lack of sleep negatively impacts personal productivity, as sleep and productivity are strongly linked.

Sleep and Productivity

We know that sleep is good for your brain, but new research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue-related productivity losses, which in turn can cost an employer $1,967 per employee per year. Not getting enough sleep impairs your brain functions.  It slows your ability to process information, kills your creativity, and increases your stress levels.  When you sleep, your brain has time to remove toxic proteins that are a build-up of normal neural activity during the day. When you don’t get enough sleep, those toxic proteins remain, wreaking havoc on your ability to think and having long-term career impacts. But, it’s not enough just to get a full eight hours of sleep a night — you need quality, uninterrupted sleep.  You need to afford yourself adequate time to fall into a deep sleep because this is where your brain is working, making connections from your day, and clearing out that toxic junk.

If you aren’t getting enough nighttime sleep, think about trying to fit in a nap. Even a short, 15 minute nap, can give you a rest and help restore wakefulness which promotes performance and learning. Naps offer several benefits including improved mood, increased logical reasoning and reaction time. Increase sleep and productivity improves, even if it’s a small amount.

Why it’s so hard to sleep well

Modern life isn’t necessarily easier than it was when we woke up with the sun and went to bed with the moon. We are stressed, there are deadlines, mile long to-do lists, and family obligations. But these aren’t the only reasons you and me and everyone you know is having trouble sleeping.

Too much caffeine or alcohol during the day can cause jitters. Too much light in your bedroom at night or the wrong temperature can affect one’s sleep patterns. Winding down with television or your tablet sounds nice, but artificial light from screens can affect our brain’s functioning, making it to harder to fall asleep. Being stressed out is a huge factor in our sleeping lives.  When you’re feeling stress, it triggers internal survival systems – your adrenal glands release hormones that keep you amped up and struggling to snooze. Obviously the best outcome would be completely eliminating stress, anxiety, to-dos and deadlines from your life, but  assuming that isn’t happening anytime soon, how can you put away your worries for the night to fall asleep and stay asleep?

Turn off disruptions to sleep well
Turn off disruptions to sleep well

Improving sleep life

As someone who strives for self-improvement, the impact of poor sleep and productivity are pretty scary. But what can you actually do about it? Here are 11 tips I think can help you improve

1. Consistent sleep routine

Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, helps set your internal clock and gives your body a consistency it craves. When your brain and body acclimates to this new routine, it can move through the sleep cycle easily, gradually releasing hormones to help you wake up feeling rested, alert, and ready to start your day with an improved mood than if you had to drag yourself out of bed feeling tired and cranky.

2. Relax before bed

Have a nighttime routine that includes restful activities starting at least one hour before bed. This could include a bath, reading a book, meditating or doing some sort of relaxation practice, or journaling. Avoid stressful or stimulating activities if at all possible.  For folks who lose track of time at night and then realize it’s later than they though, employing a bedtime alarm can help remind you to start the sleep cycle, especially if this is a new practice for you and you’re trying to change your hours. Everyone has their own ways to relax – do use whatever works best for you to get comfortable and ready to sleep.

3. Lay off the (bad) substances

Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake, so avoid coffee, teas, chocolate, and sodas at least four hours before bedtime. There are decaffeinated versions of all of the above to help you get your fix. Alcohol might seem like it’s helping you by making you sleepy, but after a few hours it acts like a stimulant and can increase the amount of nighttime awakenings and ruin the amount of REM sleep you get.  Therefore, it’s best to limit alcohol consumption and try not to drink within a few hours of bedtime.

4. The sound of silence

Noises can interrupt quality sleep, even when it doesn’t necessarily wake you up. If you are in a noisy environment like a city, consider using earplugs or noise cancelling headphones. I personally use the various sleep playlists available on Spotify if I need to block out other sounds.

5. Put up your electronic ‘do not disturb’ sign

If you can turn off notifications altogether, the better, but at least turn them off or use nighttime mode on your phones during sleep hours so you can rest uninterrupted.  The key here is to eliminate any interruptions that are under your control. So if you have loud neighbors, wear earplugs, or to limit friends buzzing you too late, put your phone either on silent or use apps to keep certain people from being able to disturb you. Most phones come with a Do Not Disturb mode that you can turn on during certain nighttime hours to shut out the disturbance.

6. Turn off other electronics

Short-wavelength blue light, which most electronics emit, plays an important role in your mood, energy level, and quality of sleep. As the sun goes down, so does our ability to handle the blue light that naturally occurs during the day, and we become sensitive to it, especially when it’s very bright and in our face – like when you’re staring at your phone, tablet, or laptop. This exposure impairs melatonin production and can interfere with your body’s ability to sleep well.  The best thing to do is to avoid these devices after dinner, let your body’s sleep cycle get back to it’s natural processing to help with your sleep.

7. Track your sleep patterns

Using a fitness tracking device, like a FitBit, to track how long you sleep and the quality of sleep you’re actually getting might give you some patterns to look at, some habits that you might have control over – like drinks, meals, sleep and wake times, and other activities that might be affecting your sleep during the day. These trackers use a sensor, called an accelerometer, to detect motion along with the direction and speed of the motion.  When the tracker realizes that the person hasn’t moved in over an hour, the algorithm assumes you are asleep. Your morning movements, such as rolling over or walking, tells the device you’re awake and it records your sleep patterns.

8. Herbs, teas, and other natural sleep aids

Natural sleep remedies might be useful to try if you don’t want to take prescribed sleep medication. One simple thing you can try is herbal tea. Not only is drinking a hot cup of tea before bed relaxing in and of itself, but certain herbs have been found to increase sleepiness, like Chamomile, Lavender, Lemon Balm, and Peppermint.

Other natural things you can try are melatonin, St. John’s Wort, and herbal supplements.  Melatonin is a hormone your body already produces which plays a key role in regulating your internal body clock.  St. John’s Wort is most commonly used as an antidepressant, but since worry and stress are common reasons why people can’t sleep, it makes sense to utilize as a sleep aid. Other herbal supplements can be taken in lieu of over-the-counter or prescribed sleep medication, like Sominex Herbal, for example.

9. Meditation and yoga

Many people who meditate during the evening report that it has improved the quality of their sleep. Meditation helps quiet your mind, giving space to breathe and think clearer about things. It gives you a way to let your day go, as it were, and can help make an environment of peace before settling down to sleep. If you want to give mindfulness a try, you can try apps for your phone like Headspace or Insight Timer.

Yoga can have similar effects with the added benefit of being good exercise for your body.  By lowering your stress levels with certain yoga poses, you can relieve the tension in your body and soothe the mind.  This practice can be an effective natural sleep remedy, particularly helpful in combating restfulness, anxiety, and insomnia.

10. Journaling your way to better sleep

Journaling is often not something you would think about as an anxiety reduction tool, but it can be surprisingly effective. Writing down your thoughts at the end of the day gives you an opportunity to get your feelings out on paper, in a safe space, a place where no one is going to judge you. It’s always available and can give you a much needed outlet for frustrations, worry, and stress. Journaling might not cure your stress and anxiety, but it will make sleeping with stress easier. Sleeping with a notebook next to your bed is also a best practice — if you get any brilliant ideas in the middle of the night, write them down so you don’t feel like you have to remember them.

11. Lay off the heavy meals and bedtime snacks

Eating that jumbo slice of pepperoni pizza at 10pm sounds awesome, and might make you drowsy at first, but it won’t help your sleep or your health through the night. Heavy foods close to bedtime can cause indigestion, heartburn, gas, or just an increase of discomfort that will have you tossing and turning or waking up altogether.

A light bedtime snack, with adequate protein and carbohydrates could be recommend, if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night hungry. Otherwise, try to finish most meals at least 2 hours before your normal bedtime.


As you have seen, sleep deprivation is commonplace in modern society and it can have dire effects on your productivity, your mood, and your health.  It’s far reaching effects on your cognitive performance can have consequences at work and at home.  Sleep better – you’ll feel better and perform better.