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How Sleep Affects Our Performance, Productivity And Success, Backed By Science

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May 15, 2014

At Future Startup we have talked about creativity, productivity and sleep before. Recently I came across a bunch of surprising research findings that suggest how sleep can affect our creativity, thinking, productivity and even how sleep deprivation can contribute to a high rate of Startup failure.

I personally have a problem with having steady sleep. I have a sleeping ritual of my own but more often than not I break it. I was looking for motivation to make me sleep more. So, I wanted to explore how sleep affects our thinking process, creativity and productivity.

Importance of Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a thought process or approach that is used to find solutions to a problem by exploring various ideas at a time. It involves breaking down a problem and thinking from multiple perspectives to find a number of possible solutions to it.

The importance of divergent thinking comes from its ability to generate a breakthrough by generating ideas that are seemingly disconnected.It is a great approach to generate ideas and select the best one from a set of ideas. For entrepreneurs and startups divergent thinking is critical to allow them to come up with new ideas, to find viable solutions to problems and to keep things fresh.

How Sleep Affects Us

Sleep has lots of health benefits that include better heart function, better memory function, improved metabolism as well as boosting creative thinking and improving performance at work. On the hand, the affects of sleep deprivation are also well documented. Lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, weak physique, mental disorder and even death.

Recent studies suggest there is a link between lack of sleep and higher rates of failure in Startups. Among many other variables, Startup success depends on cognitive capabilities like quality of ideas, implementation and focus. However, researchers suggest continuous sleep deprivation degrades our cognitive capacity.

Sleep and Divergent Thinking

There is an intense relation between how much sleep you get and how creatively you think. Studies suggest significant decline of creative thinking ability due to sleep deprivation. In a Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking conducted on 24 subjects, where 12 went on without sleep and another 12 took normal sleep, researchers found that subjects with adequate sleep outperformed sleep deprived subjects on all test scales. 

“Although much is known about the impact of sleep loss on many aspects of psychological performance, the effects on divergent ("creative") thinking has received little attention. Twelve subjects went 32 h without sleep, and 12 others acted as normally sleeping controls. All subjects were assessed on the figural and verbal versions of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

As compared with the control condition, sleep loss impaired performance on all test scales (e.g., "flexibility," the ability to change strategy, and "originality," generation of unusual ideas) for both versions, even on an initial 5-min test component. In an attempt at further understanding of whether these findings might be explained solely by a loss of motivation, two additional short and stimulating tests were also used-a word fluency task incorporating high incentive to do well and a challenging nonverbal planning test. Performance at these tasks was still significantly impaired by sleep loss. Increased perseveration was clearly apparent. Apparently, 1 night of sleep loss can affect divergent thinking.”

sleep deprivation & performnce
sleep deprivation & performance 1

On Performance

We have a misconception about productivity that more hours of work helps us to get more things done, but it is a pure lie. A study conducted by Colonel Gregory Belenky at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research suggested that loss of sleep decreases our performance and reduces our ability to do critical mental work. 

“Sleep deprivation impairs alertness, cognitive performance, and mood. The ability to do useful mental work declines by 25% for every successive 24 hours awake. We studied cognitive performance using a variety of computer-based performance tests during 72 hours of total sleep deprivation in normal volunteer subjects (Thorne et al., 1983).”

Sleep deprivation & performance
Sleep deprivation & performance

Benefits of Sleep

Sleep studies have shown that adequate sleep improves productivity, creative thinking, can boost energy, reduce burn out, increase attention and alertness and improve overall performance.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison
Image: Henry Ford Foundation

‘Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application’~ proclaimed Thomas Edison and sleep is what helps you to put things together.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison
Image: National Museum of Education

Edison himself was a great napper and many of his co-workers claimed it helped him to be more productive and focused during his waking hours.

Productivity and Performance

Productivity depends on hourly output of your work. It has been found that with more sleep our cognitive process works better and our level of attention remains at the top, resulting in improved performance. Studies mentioned in this post suggest that adequate sleep in essential for making our cognition work properly and for keeping us productive. While sleeping less we make serious errors, produce derivative ideas which ultimately lead to more damage than not working. On the other hand with adequate sleep under our belt we perform better, think better and work better.

“A critical element in self-care at all levels of command and control is getting adequate sleep. Our Sleep/Performance Model, grounded in empirical findings in the laboratory and the field, suggests that 7-8 hours of sleep each night are necessary to sustain high levels of performance over days and weeks.”

Improved Memory

A study published by a group of German researchers’ claims that sleep can improve memory. Researchers worked with two groups of participants where each group had to memorize two sets of illustrated cards in 40 minutes of interval between each. After memorizing the first set one group took a nap and another group just took a break. Research found that the group who took a nap during the break memorized the second set of cards way faster than the other one.

“Much to the surprise of the researchers, the sleep group performed significantly better, retaining on average 85 percent of the patterns, compared to 60 percent for those who had remained awake.

"Reactivation of memories had completely different effects on the state of wakefulness and sleep," said lead author Susanne Diekelmann, also from the University of Lubeck.”

Memory_and_Sleep
Memory_and_Sleep

On Startup Success

Studies suggest that startup success largely depends on quality of decisions, ideas and focused productivity. However, as we have seen loss of sleep reduces the quality of all above mentioned ingredients. In a recent Forbes report Michael Thomsen wrote that sleep deprivation drives the rates of high tech startups failure. Michael claims that sleep deprivation causes degradation in thought capacity and performance. He also claims:

“How can any work ethic connected to such dimming of cognitive function produce anything worth having? Any culture that celebrates the loss of sleep as a virtue must inevitably become a backwater of degraded thoughts and fragile idealism that can’t survive without the struts of venture capital, eager to inflate market value to the point of IPO or acquisition before moving on to the next dim widget that seems like it’s come from two years in the future but arrives seeming like salvage work from five years past.”

How To Get Regular Sleep

‘We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive’ claims journalist David K. Randall in his wonderful book ‘Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep’. But we must break the barrier and make it to our optimum level. As I said earlier I maintain a sleep ritual of my own and many entrepreneurs said they maintain a sleeping ritual of their own as well. Below are a few lessons I have learned while trying to have a steady regular sleep:

  1. Discipline: Having good nights sleep is indeed a major problem for many people. We can’t shut our eyes. But the remedy is simple: discipline. You need to work on it. Get away from your computer or any electric device at least 30 minutes before your bed time.
  2. Create a sleep mood by stopping your activity and shutting down your devices
  3. Create a sleep ritual for you: Develop a sleeping ritual and stick to it without any exception till the day it becomes effortless and a habit.
  4. Be on time: sleep at the same time everyday without exception

Thanks to Samantha Morshed for editing this piece.

Image credits: Rowland Hall Psychology,


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Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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