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  • Writer's pictureAnda Bolojan

The Science of Sleep and Productivity

Mounting evidence suggests that a good night's sleep seriously boosts productivity. One study of 4,188 workers found "significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes" among those who slept less, and estimated a $1,967 loss in productivity per worker due to poor sleep.

Yet, paradoxically, what is the main driver of poor sleep? "Work overload," according to another study.

So many of us are not getting enough sleep because we're working too much. And we're not working efficiently because we're not getting enough sleep. Sound like a bad pattern? It is!

Here, we'll dig into the research to find out how much sleep we need, what are its actual benefits, why we're not getting enough of it, and what we can do to improve our sleep—and, in turn, our productivity.

Sleep and productivity

The Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

To find your motivation to prioritize sleep, we first gathered a couple of superpowers that you’ll get from a good night's rest, so you can understand why you need to get it.

1. Sleep Is Restorative

When you sleep, you allow your body to repair and rebuild. During this time, the body is able to clear debris from the lymphatic system, which boosts the immune system. Other important processes that happen, include muscle repair, protein synthesis, tissue growth, hormone release.

2. Sleep Reduces Stress

Sleep is a powerful stress-reliever. It improves concentration, regulates mood, and sharpens judgment and decision-making. A lack of sleep not only reduces mental clarity but our ability to cope with stressful situations.

3. Sleep Improves Your Memory

The link between sleep and memory processing is well established. Sleep serves as an opportunity for the mind to process all the stimuli that we have taken in while we are awake; and triggers changes in the brain that strengthen neural connections helping us to form memories and to improve our memory consolidation.

4. Sleep Helps You Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

When you are sleep deprived your body alters the hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. These hormones include: leptin (suppresses appetite and encourages the body to expend energy) and ghrelin (triggers feelings of hunger). Both of these hormones are thrown off when you are short on sleep—leptin goes down and ghrelin goes up.

5. Sleep May Prevent Illnesses

Sleep deprivation can have very detrimental health impacts and has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease and can even lead to obesity. The reason lack of sleep makes you more prone to illness is because your immune system isn’t performing at its peak.

6. Sleep Is Important for Your Mental Health

Evidence suggests lack of sleep contributes to the formation of new mental health problems and to the maintenance of existing ones. In fact, disrupted sleep is commonly seen as both a symptom and consequence of mental health disorders, although sleep deprivation is rarely treated as the cause of mental health conditions.

The Connection Between Sleep and Productivity

A recent study of 1,000 adults tracked productivity and sleep quantity and quality. The conclusion was clear: "Sleep duration (both short and long), insomnia, sleepiness, and snoring were all associated with decreased work productivity." Their recommendation was unambiguous: "Sleep should be considered an important element in workplace health."

No matter what type of work you do, impairing your creativity, problem-solving, and memory probably won't help your performance. Yet many of us continue to lose sleep because we're so busy. Carter explains:

One of the biggest reasons that people don't get enough sleep is because they feel they have too much to do or because they are stressed about what they need to work on. So we're not getting enough work done because we're sleep-deprived and we're not sleeping because we're not getting enough work done.

And how widespread is this problem? A Harvard study of 7,480 adults found a 23.2 percent population-wide prevalence of insomnia and estimated 11.3 days of lost productivity among these poor sleepers. Another 2014 survey by the National Sleep Foundation pegged the percentage of adults who lacked adequate sleep at 45 percent. Poor sleep is causing 23-45 percent of the population to lose more than two work weeks worth of productivity every year.

If you saw a bunch of people routinely smoking, you would think they have an unhealthy smoking habit. If you saw a bunch of people routinely eating junk food, you would think they have an unhealthy diet. But if you see a bunch of people tired, you think they must be working hard or having an important, demanding job.

The scientific jury has reached its verdict: Sleep = productivity. Still, many of us struggle to get our full eight hours.

Or is it six hours…?

How Much Sleep Do We Need to Be Productive?

Ask a dozen people how much sleep is enough, and you'll get a dozen answers. Some people believe in a solid eight hours, while others say they're fine with five or six.

"In reality, most people need somewhere between six and eight hours," Carter says. "A small percentage of people only need five hours, and another group of people are on the other side of the scale and can need nine to ten hours of sleep."

In other words, "it depends."

Luckily, there's a simple, free test you can take right now to determine if you're getting enough sleep: Do you feel sleepy? If so, you probably need more sleep. End of test.

Research also shows that quality of sleep matters as much or more than quantity. One study of college students found that "average sleep quality was better related to sleepiness than sleep quantity."

Sleep quality is determined by many factors and can be much harder to assess than total hours slept. "Some people get six to eight hours of sleep but have terrible quality of sleep based on their levels of stress, what they ate just before bed, and how much light they received in their eyes before bed," Carter says.

So how can you determine the quality of your sleep? The past few years have seen a surge in technologies that offer sleep-tracking. These are loads easier than a full inpatient sleep study and can give you an overview of your overall sleep duration and cycles between different phases of sleep.

Tips to Improve Your Sleep

For an activity that involves literally doing nothing, we know that, at times, sleep can be surprisingly challenging. Sleep expert Matthew Carter has three main pieces of advice to help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep:

1. No screens before bed

"No phones, tablets, TVs, computers, etc. one hour before you go to sleep." Carter advises. "This is both because of the bright light hitting your eyeballs and also because what you are looking at on these devices is likely to excite you or stress you out."

Blue light, in particular, can disrupt circadian rhythms and regulation of melatonin (a sleep hormone). Apple's Night Shift helps reduce blue light from screens at night, but adopting a strict screen curfew is still a better bet.

2. No carbohydrates or alcohol before bed

"Carbohydrates can keep you awake and negatively affect sleep quality," Carter explains. "And alcohol is metabolized in the blood into carbohydrates."

Nevermind the health benefits, skipping a sweet midnight snack or nightcap can actually improve your daytime productivity.

3. Prepare for sleep and make a routine

Carter explains, "Many people expect sleep to just happen—in reality, you have to get yourself ready for it." This step is probably the most important. Like a Pavlovian dog salivating at the sound of a bell, creating a routine at night will signal to your body that it's time to wind down. For a double-dose of benefit, you can make this routine involve other sleep-promoting behaviors:

  • Turn down the lights around the house an hour before bed.

  • Change into sleepwear before bed only.

  • Once you're in bed, read a book.

4. Extra: Create a Good Sleep Environment

  • Make it Dark: Light can make sleeping difficult. Try a sleeping mask or dark curtains to keep light out of the room.

  • Eliminate Noise: Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can block out excess noise.

  • Cool the Room: Your body temperature decreases as you sleep. Find a temperature that doesn’t make you wake up feeling too hot or cold.

  • Use Your Bed for Sleep Only: If you struggle to fall asleep in bed after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity. Return to your bed when you feel sleepy.

  • Consider Napping During the Day: If you find yourself drooping midday, consider taking a power nap. Napping at work for no longer than 10 to 20 minutes can give you the alertness boost you need to perform well.


There's no gray area here: Good sleep improves productivity.

And it's not just that a good night's sleep will improve your work for a single day. Improving your productivity can actually improve your sleep, which improves your productivity — and so on, in a virtuous cycle. Carter explains:

If a person gets more sleep, then they are more focused and better at performing tasks. Therefore, they get more done and can feel better about their work. This, in turn, can help sleep because people feel like they have "earned it."

What we need to understand though is that positive changes to our sleep habits won’t happen overnight. With patience and practice, you will find in time which sleep routines work best for your body and health.




  • Why We Sleep - Matthew Walker

  • The Sleep Revolution - Arianna Huffington

  • The Science of Sleep - Heather Darwall-Smith

  • The Nocturnal Brain - Dar. Guy Leschziner

  • The Sleep Solution - W. Chris Winter



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