Work long hours? Entrepreneur? ‘Sleep is an inconvenience?’ type attitude? Maybe the number of hours you are putting in are holding you back. Hard work is important, but what is the psychology of long hours and what is the psychological effect of a 24/7 lifestyle?
Striking a work-life balance is hard, and it’s often tempting to do a few more things before calling it a day. Putting in many many hours may feel productive, but a range of evidence suggests it may actually be pretty detrimental to both your performance and your health. The surprising bit is that you only need miss a couple of hours a night for a few nights in a row to be affected! I have written before about why being tired is like being drunk, but this week I’ll be looking at this on more detail….
24/7? The effects of long hours on performance
One of the key things to know about sleep deprivation / sleep debt and performance is that you can stave it off – for a while. Psychological models of how we function under sleep debt conditions suggest that when we are tired, we have a choice of letting performance slip, maintaining performance in one domain, at the expense of another (e.g. narrowing focus, trading speed for accuracy etc) or dig into a finite reserve of energy. If we choose the latter, we cognitively pay for it later, with a performance ‘hangover’ which takes much longer to get over. So, you can 24/7 for a bit, but it will catch up, and you will pay over-the-odds for it! Sleep loss also has a number of more specific effects:
The link between memory and sleep deprivation has been fairly well established1. Being over-tired makes it harder to pull information from our long term memory storage (we have all got half-way through a sentence when tired, and then not been able to remember the key point of information, although we know we know it!). Not great if you are dealing with complex problems! Sleep deprivation also means we are less able to consolidate our learning over the day – participants taught things the day before a nights broken or missed sleep learnt (and could recall) a lot less than those who got a good night sleep. So, if you want to improve your memory, sleep!
Another key reason to make sure that you are suitable rested is that being tired kills your creativity. A few years ago I did some work with the UK Army Reserves looking at the effects of sleep debt (losing a few hours sleep over multiple nights) on a number of performance domains, including creativity2. In one experiment, soldiers who had been on a field exercise involving lots of disruptive sleep were asked to solve a set of problems. For most, only a reasonably complex solution would work. For the later problems in the set, a much simpler (and more effective solution) was also available. Relative to rested control group participants, those short on sleep were less likely to creatively spot and switch over to this option – rather they relied on the ‘tried and true’ sub-optimal solution!
Ability to respond to risk
The same batch of studies I did with the Army included a risk taking task3. I asked our participants if they wanted to make judgements of how risky it would be to bet on a series of a number of hands of blackjack. Interestingly, sleep deprivation did not impair people’s ability to judge risk – they recognised poor hands would likely lead to them losing money. However, the sleep deprived people tended to actually bet more when these risky hands came up – they need they would probably lose, but did it anyway!Hard work is important, but what are the psychological effects of a 24/7 lifestyle? :… Click To Tweet
This one is a no-brainer. Tired people often equal grumpy, irritable, impatient and short tempered people. Not great for making deals or building relationships!
Long term health
The long term effects of sleep deprivation are pretty bad too. Healthwise, your cardiac function and immune system can be compromised severely if you do not rest enough. You are more likely to get colds and full blown flu. It also interferes with your appetite system – lower the production of leptin – the hormone which tells us we have had enough to eat, and increasing ghrelin (which increases appetite) and insulin which regulates fat storage and sugar uptake. The latter disruption can even contribute to diabetes!
Should you slow down (a bit?)
For many people, especially parents, sleep deprivation in unavoidable. Luckily, for most parents, this is a relatively short part of their life. If you are not a parent, but are putting yourself through too much of a 24/7 lifestyle, maybe ask yourself- is this the best way of doing things? Perhaps taking your foot off the gas just a little will help you overall, both in terms of productivity and also health-wise….
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- Walker, M. P., & Stickgold, R. (2004). Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation. Neuron, 44(1), 121-133. ↩
- Frings, D. (2011). The effects of group monitoring on fatigue-related einstellung during mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17(4), 371-381. ↩
- Frings, D. (2012). The effects of sleep debt on risk perception, risk attraction and betting behavior during a blackjack style gambling task. Journal of Gambling Studies, 28(3), 393-403. ↩