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Tuning sleep to attain better outcomes

Sleep and Effort – a land to explore further

By Prof. Michael Chee

As professionals at the start of you careers, you are already acquainted with years of putting in effort to achieve what you have. The thought of applying effort in an endeavor is at once something to look forward and something we approach with a little anxiety because without sufficient ability and mental fortitude, we can stumble.

Several years ago, while studying how risky decision making is affected by a night of total sleep deprivation, we found that for some people, there was a tendency to take on greater risk and concurrently be less concerned about losses. While this finding is popular, greater risk taking is not consistently found. We thought that underlying this was variation in how impulsive people became when they were sleep deprived.

The experimental definition of ‘impulsiveness’ differs from that which is commonly understood and instead, specifies the situation when one is less willing to wait longer to receive a larger reward, preferring smaller but earlier receipt. Interestingly, we (and subsequently others) found that sleep deprivation does not alter this form of impulsiveness. Instead, something else was found that might be relevant to the lives of busy professionals –following sleep deprivation, participants were less willing to perform something cognitively demanding for a reward they may have accepted when well rested. This finding may signify concern that we may be less capable or unwilling to perform normally when deprived of sleep.

Together with the robust finding of a decline in positive mood when undergoing sleep deprivation or restriction, it emerges that a lack of sleep can hamper our ability to apply ourselves in demanding conditions, for example, when one is on call. This can affect not only ourselves but the patients we care for, colleagues we work with and our interactions with those we care about.

Our diminished willingness to deploy mental effort when sleep deprived may be exacerbated by procrastinating what needs to get done before bedtime. This can happen when we feel that we should delay a task till we feel more energetic. Often this can be related to a pleasant distraction, like exchanging gossip or indulging in media consumption. We might then end up sleep later than intended, and lament feeling washed out the following day.

Thus, while a needful break can refresh, the habit of procrastinating tasks that must be done before we can go to bed can set up a vicious cycle where inadequate sleep is perpetuated.

To improve outcomes, be cognizant that inadequate sleep affects overall performance. To recover our balance, we should recognize that it is normal to be less willing to exert cognitive effort when fatigued. We should prioritize completing essential tasks early and then going to bed to break the cycle of sleep loss. This will likely result in improved mood, better performance, and greater satisfaction.

Sleep on this.

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