How Sleep Can Fast-Track Your Career

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sleepingPost written by Helena Pilih.

In recent years, we’ve been hearing much about the (negative) effects of sleep deprivation. Well-known and successful people are picking up the baton from sleep researchers, trying to get it through to us that sleep does matter. If however, you are still getting by on a handful of hours’ sleep, the following research might just help you understand why you should be making sleep a top priority.

There are three key areas where sleep and career success seem to overlap:

1. How you present yourself

No matter how sharp you dress, the tell-tale dark circles under the eyes of a sleep-deprived person are unlikely to help you make the first impression you desire.

According to recent research, we may be able to subconsciously spot differences between well-rested and sleep-deprived faces. In fact, participants in one experimental study overwhelmingly rated photographs of well-rested faces as being more attractive [1]. In each case, they chose between photographs of an unknown person after a good 8 hours sleep, and another depicting the same person after significantly less sleep.

2. Your social experiences

Networking is consistently touted as being crucial to career success. But just one night of poor sleep may well undermine your efforts to connect with others and build relationships.

Lack of sleep can also take the ‘social’ out of the social animal, leaving people irritable and more impulsive [2]. When we’re sleep deprived, we tend to overreact to situations perceived as threatening [2b], even if they are innocent provocations. In fact, research suggests that cutting your sleep short on a regular basis, can affect next day’s mood more than not sleeping at all [3].

However, sleeping more doesn’t necessarily equal social success either. One study revealed an early bedtime to be a much stronger predictor of, not only better mood, but also better social interactions the next day [4].

3. Your output at work

There’s no doubt that sleep can make or break your performance at work. Lack of sleep impacts on every stage of your flow. It can erode your motivation and engagement, whilst extending the time it takes to complete whatever you are doing. Finally, the quality of your work may be compromised as we have been shown to make significantly more errors when we’re sleep deprived [2].

Naturally, there will be other factors influencing our work output on a given day, such as stress, but when we feel refreshed, as we do after a good night’s sleep, these obstacles may be easier to deal with. Not to mention that by not sabotaging mood, we may boost our happiness levels. This can in turn improve productivity, increasing workload at no expense to the quality of the finished work [5].

Who hasn’t heard of the motto ‘work smarter not harder’! Well, sleep may just be the thing to help us work smart and hard, rather than wasting time attempting to focus on a task or ‘pushing through’ when we’re sleep deprived. Your coping systems may also fare better when your mood isn’t as volatile as it has been found to be after a period of sleep deprivation [4].

How to tell if you are cutting your sleep short

With longer working hours and intense schedules that continue past sundown, many of us are used to ignoring our body’s natural sleep signals in favour of getting those last few emails sent off. As a result, we tend to lose out on a lot of valuable sleep time.

Instead, try embracing the familiar signs of sleepiness and retreat to your bed when they appear. Signs to watch out for include: eyelids becoming ‘heavy’ or even having to close your eyes for short periods of time and, of course, yawning. A lack of concentration and focus are also thought to ‘announce’ forthcoming sleep.

Although very pleasant, falling asleep very quickly, after getting into bed, can actually be a sign of sleep deprivation. 15 minutes is considered a ‘normal’ length of time to get to sleep, with anything below 5-10 minutes being considered a sign of built-up sleep debt.

Finally, at the end of a long week at work it’s tempting to sleep in on the weekend. But if sleep is the first thing on your mind when 5pm rolls around on Friday you might be in trouble. People who sleep for longer on the weekends compared to weekdays are more likely to belong to the part of the chronically sleep deprived part of the population. The difference between our wake-up times on weekends versus the rest of the week shouldn’t exceed a couple of hours.

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of forever ‘catching up’ on lost sleep. When you have success on your mind, sleep can seem like a time-wasting obstacle to quicker progress – to getting that report done or showing up at work hours earlier to impress the boss. However, plenty of evidence suggests that, rather than being an obstacle, sleeping might just fast track you to success by boosting your performance, whilst your sleep-deprived competition trudges snoozily behind.

[1] Axelsson, J., et al. (2010). Beauty sleep: experimental study on the perceived health and attractiveness of sleep deprived people. British Medical Journal, doi:  10.1136/bmj.c6614.
[2] Lim, J., Dinges, D.F. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
[2b] Anderson, C., Platten, C.R. (2011). Sleep deprivation lowers inhibition and enhances impulsivity to negative stimuli. Behav Brain Res, 217(2), 463-466.
[3] Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.
[4] Totterdell, P., Reynolds, S., Parkinson, B., Briner, R.B. (1994). Associations of sleep with everyday mood, minor symptoms and social interaction experience. SLEEP, 17(5), 466-475.
[5] Oswald, A.J., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. (2009). Happiness and productivity. IZA Discussion Paper No. 4645.

Helena Pihil, a night owl turned sleep enthusiast, contributes to the blog of the sleep improvement programme, Sleepio grounded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Visit Sleepio for the latest articles on sleep and insomnia help.

photo source: sleepnbeauty.com

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