Debunk-Tuesday - Sleep less, achieve more?
Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time it’s about the idea of ignoring the biological need for sufficient sleep in order to “get shit done”.
Work smart, not hard
We all know these guys who are bragging about their late office nights and the amount of time they are working. The first in the morning, the last at night – four to six hours of sleep each night, every day.
They are considered the ones who are “getting shit done” (1). I mean, it seems obvious: the more you work, the more you can accomplish (2), right?
Well, yes and no. This only holds true, if you have the ability to actually get something done during your time of work. But let me explain this with an example:
In economics there is a distinction between effective work (do the right things) and efficient work (do the things right) – and sleep deprivation has a lot to do with efficient work.
“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
From an economical point of view, it is a good idea to follow Gates’ approach. Why?
Because you can save so much money. A hard-working guy will pour hours and hours of work into a certain problem until he comes up with a solution for it. A lazy (I like the term smart more) guy will take a look at the problem, do some research and eventually finds a solution for a similar problem another individual once had, so the smart guy just needs to adapt it accordingly. He might only need three hours instead of twelve – thus, can do something else afterwards and be more productive.
Ok, that’s all fun and nice to know, but what has this do to with sleep deprivation?
The problem is, the hard-working guy fools himself into believing, he achieves more, because he works more. He thinks, he is as efficient as he is effective and in assuming this, he makes a grave mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The drunken brain
People used to smile at me pitifully, when I state, that I like to sleep up to nine or ten hours a day. Apparently, in their view, I would not achieve anything, because I was almost asleep half of the day anyway. True, I cannot work while I’m sleeping. That’s self-evident.
But I was able to work so much more efficient as soon as I am awake. I was able to make the most of the fourteen hours I had left.
I know, I know, this sounds like some kind of motivational bullshit and blahblah. But since this is a blog subjected mostly to science, I will show you, why it is indeed a good idea to get enough sleep.
I’m dumb and I don’t know it
If you are interested about the different negative impacts of sleep deprivation, you can check Wikipedia for that. I will only focus on the most interesting (at least for me) ones.
In a study conducted by Van Dongen et al. (2003) (3) they measured the effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology which can result from chronic sleep restriction and sleep deprivation. Their findings are important to be aware of, this holds especially true for all the braggers and tough “work hard, party hard, sleep less” guys.
Sleep restriction to six hours or less each night was correlated with a cognitive performance deficit, which was equivalent to up to two nights of complete sleep deprivation.
Interesting to notice is, that the participants of the study were not aware at all of their increasing cognitive deficits.
That is probably the reason, why it is so easy to brag about it – I am getting dumber, but I have no idea about it. Yolo.
Some people might think, the negative effects are only happening a few times a day – but they are wrong. It is evident, that the decreased performance of the participants affected their whole life, no matter if it was about psychomotor or working memory performance – they performed significantly worse than their well-rested counterparts. Those findings were consistent over different studies (e.g. Durmer et al., 2005) (4), so it is safe to assume, they have an impact on most individuals as well.
And although the subjects performed so much worse, of which they were not aware, they did not necessarily feel sleepier. This can probably be explained with the way, how sleep restriction affects your brain and your perception.
Are you drunk?
In most civil countries it is forbidden by law to drink and drive – this is quite useful, because alcohol has high impact of your responsible usage of a vehicle.
With this in mind, it is amazing how many people are allowed to drive with chronic sleep deprivation. Let me tell you why.
Williamson et al. (2000) (5) were able to show, that commonly experienced levels of sleep restriction resulted in a similarly bad performance, which is produces by an alcohol intoxication of at least 0.05% BAL, sometimes up until 0.1%. They showed, that the participants’ performance was so low, that many countries would consider them as incompatible with safe driving.
Just think about this one: many politicians have 16-20 hours of work each day, they are making decisions, which are affecting billions of people – and they do it, while their brains are basically drunk. That’s a really scary thought.
But if your brain on sleep deprivation behaves itself like it was drunk, it seems obvious why people do not think badly of their performance after all. Alcohol boosts your confidence and induces an increased feeling of happiness and satisfaction with the things you do – so don’t be to hard with the braggers. Not only are they not aware of their situation, but they cannot help it, because they are basically drunk.
I am aware of the fact, that for a lot of people it is hard to get enough sleep because of their daily lives duties. Trust me, I do feel you.
Nevertheless, I encourage you, to pay attention of getting enough sleep. It is not only highly beneficial to your health, but to your (work) performance as well. In my humble opinion, you will be more successful, if you have enough sleep in your sleeves. Ignore all the tough guys, who are thinking they work so much more and better, because they ignore their biological need for sufficient sleep. Prove them wrong with faster, more efficient and therefore better results – because you are well-rested and able to achieve way more in a shorter time frame than your colleagues.
Most doctors and psychologists recommend at least eight hours of sleep each night, which seems quite reasonable to me. But if you have the feeling, that you need more than that – go for it. Everybody is a bit different, so it is hard to establish a general rule, which fits all.
Don’t be one of those drunken, sleep-deprived zombie-brains, I see everyday around me.
Be smart, sleep enough and get shit done efficiently.
Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and sleep well.
Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.
(3) Hans P.A. Van Dongen,; Greg Maislin,; Janet M. Mullington; David F. Dinges. The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology From Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation. SLEEP. Vol. 26. No. 2. 2003
(4) Jeffrey S. Durmer; David F. Dinges. Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep
Deprivation. Seminars in Neurology. Volume 25. Number 1. 2005
(5) A.M. Williamson; Anne-Marie Feyer. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. 2000. 57. 649–655