The law of diminishing returns tells us that, at some point, the marginal amount of output obtained from each additional unit of input will start to decrease. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually simple and applies to a lot of situations. For example, everyone needs to put in a solid effort at work. But if they’re not sleeping enough, it will have a negative impact on their output and performance.
Whether you’re at the bottom of the ladder or at the top, sleep is an essential, non-negotiable part of your day. You may be angling for a promotion or competing for market share in a saturated industry, in which case it can be tempting to give up a few hours of sleep. But make no mistake: healthy sleeping habits actually provide several advantages.
The Benefits of Body Balance
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The Japanese are famous for many things, one of which is their sense of dedication and professionalism. Japanese office workers have gained worldwide notoriety for putting in an insane number of hours on the job. But of course, that has also led to cases of karoshi, or death from overwork — a threat that at least 20% of Japanese workers are exposed to. A large part is due to heart attacks and strokes, which can be linked to fatigue and lack of sleep.
Sleep maintains the balance between two hormones: leptin, which suppresses appetite, and ghrelin, which stimulates it. The less sleep you get, the more your body craves for food. You’ll tend to want something to wake yourself up, so that means more caffeine and sugar. Since being in a state of fatigue puts your brain reward centers on overdrive, you tend to crave flavorful foods that are sugary and fatty. Many people who lack sleep have no energy to exercise, and they settle for fast food as they rush to work. The upshot: an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
Clearly, getting enough sleep provides physical benefits. It will help you maintain a healthy diet, and you’ll have more energy to stay fit. That’s not even mentioning the effect on your immune system: the better you sleep, the stronger your protection against infectious diseases. Showing up at work in good shape may not sound like a big edge, but every day you’re physically healthy adds up over time.
Maximize Your Mental Performance
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Sleep also impacts your mental abilities. For example, although they don’t fully understand it, memory experts agree that sleep helps the brain form new pathways to help people learn and remember information. Whether you’re trying to learn how to use a new piece of software, getting used to a newly established workflow or just have to remember important points and names for a meeting the next day, sleep is an essential part of that process of mental preparation and training.
Insufficient sleep can also affect your ability to perform on the job. Sleep-deficient individuals have been shown to do poorly at decision-making, problem-solving, and even just paying attention. That’s partially due to microsleep, which is when you fall asleep for brief moments during your normal waking hours. At those times, you might miss critical pieces of information.
Several nights of lost sleep — even if it’s just one or two hours a night — could be just as bad as not having slept at all for a day or two. It’s not just a question of amount, either; if you have erratic, unpredictable sleeping habits, you’ll still struggle to stay alert throughout the day. Imaging studies have also shown that sleep-deprived brains are less efficient. In such cases, the prefrontal cortex has to burn more energy to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation.
Keep Calm and Composed
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The incidence of overwork among the Japanese doesn’t just affect their physical health; it also has psychological effects. Before they die, a lot of those who succumb to karoshi report severe levels of depression and stress. So if you want to know how sleep affects you, you should consider your mental health too.
In most cases of karoshi, victims put in as many as 20 hours a day at the office. But it doesn’t take an extreme situation for lack of sleep to take its toll. Even one night of inadequate slumber can decrease people’s ability to be emotionally neutral. This leads them to become more irritable, so their personal and professional relationships suffer. This could also explain the fact that people working through fatigue tend to take unnecessary and uncalculated risks, and are less able to cope with pressure.
Lack of sleep also has an impact on people’s motivation. Their lack of physical energy spills over to their mental state; they find it hard to be motivated or inspired to do anything, including their work. Some type A personalities might be able to will themselves through it in the short term, but it still puts them at risk of burnout down the road.
Best Practices (and Practitioners)
For a lot of people, it’s useful to think of sleep as an investment — the time they spend asleep today will help them work better tomorrow. And to get the most out of this investment, you have to know a few things.
How much sleep is enough? The generally accepted number is seven to eight hours — a number that Arianna Huffington sticks to. But some people could get by on less. For example, Richard Branson reportedly sleeps no more than six hours a night, which is the same number Elon Musk goes for. Martha Stewart gets up early and sleeps late, giving herself a four-hour window for shuteye. Ultimately, you’ve got to figure out what works for you.
Experts recommend uninterrupted sleep, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the occasional power naps. Winston Churchill famously kept a bed in the Houses of Parliament; he claimed that sleeping on a mattress for two hours a day let him get one and a half days’ worth of work done within 24 hours. You probably can’t take a four-poster bed to your office, but you can always find a good place to power down somewhere in the office, even for a few minutes.
The quality of sleep is also a factor. If you don’t go to bed comfortable, you’ll probably still be physically and mentally compromised when you get up. You have to set up ideal conditions by keeping your room dark and cool — a habit Eminem has taken to extremes by putting tinfoil on the windows of hotel rooms he stays at. You should also consider what your sleeping habits say about your health; if you toss and turn or snore too loudly, that could be a sign of underlying problems.
The general attitude toward work has changed so much over the years. Thanks to extensive research and a myriad of success stories, people have realized that it takes more than monetary benefits and harsh penalties to make workers productive. It takes psychology, motivational skills and, last but not least, work-life balance. Sleeping is important, but it’s just one of a number of healthy things you have to do outside of your job or business. You must realize that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking time off from work will help boost your productivity and lift your career in the long run.