Home » The Science of Sleep and the Art of Productivity: Dr. Matthew Carter (Transcript)

The Science of Sleep and the Art of Productivity: Dr. Matthew Carter (Transcript)

So… I did not do that last night.

So, I know this just as well as everybody else, and it’s just really awful to be sleep-deprived, but here’s where there’s good news. Because the good news is that the opposite is also true.

The opposite being that people who are chronically sleep-deprived, when they develop habits to get a regular amount of sleep every single day, they all of a sudden feel like years have been taken off their life. They’re suddenly alive, and awake, and have the energy of someone much younger, and they just feel great, and they wonder why they didn’t do it before.

But there’s also a lot of sleep science to back this up. One of my colleagues ran lots of studies on varsity athletes at Stanford University. And she recruited varsity athletes for sleep studies in which they were essentially forced to get a good night’s sleep over several weeks.

And what she found was that compared to players who didn’t take part in this sleep study, everything about these athletes who slept in improved: their speed improved, their strength improved, the number of mistakes and errors they made went way down, their chances of getting a concussion went way down, and they were generally much better at the sport.

The same thing happens in the classroom. When students were recruited for sleep studies where they get much more sleep, their creativity increases, their problem-solving increases, their test scores increase and their grades increase.

And so, it just seems that everything gets much better once someone declares themselves that they’re going to get a good night of sleep every single night, very consistently.

And the greatest paradox in this, I think, is that the people who don’t get enough sleep because they’d like to accomplish more during the day actually find that they’re more productive when they get more sleep, and not less productive, because even though they’re not awake as long, they’re much more productive when they’ve gotten enough sleep.

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There’s lots of measured studies on this, that you’re actually able to get more done when you get a good night’s sleep, not less.

So, why are we so bad at this? If this is all true, then why, as a society, are we not good at this? And this is actually where I feel like the analogy between sleep deprivation, junk food and smoking goes down.

It’s because when people smoke or have junk food, they’re doing it for the short-term reward. It’s immediately satisfying when people choose to do those things.

But there’s nothing satisfying about sleep deprivation, like we’ve already talked about.

So why do people do it? And I ask my colleagues this, I survey students all the time, and the same three answers come up again and again and again.

One, we have busy lives and we’d like to get more done.

Two, we’re stressed. Stress and anxiety keeps us awake sometimes, and there’s lots of stressors in our life.

And three — and this is a very new trend — is that we’re addicted to our gadgets at night. We love looking at our smartphones, tablets, computers, and there’s all sorts of apps now that just occupy our time before we go to bed.

There’s email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, not to mention YouTube, Netflix, and a long list of great TED Talks that we can see.

So what do we do about all of this? And this is where I actually get some insight from the mice that we study in our lab, because it actually turns out that all animals need sleep, all animals get the same benefit of sleep that humans do, but it’s amazingly easy to keep a mouse awake.

To sleep-deprive a mouse, you don’t really have to do very much. If you want to stress out a mouse a little bit, you can give him a new roommate. Giving him a new roommate will keep him awake for a little while. Or you can move him to a different cage that he’s not used to, and the stress of going to a new home will keep him awake hours past his bedtime.

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You might ask, “What is the mouse equivalent of watching YouTube or being addicted to email?”

And it turns out we can duplicate this as well with something as putting a paper towel in a mouse’s cage — We wad up a paper towel, give it to the mouse, the mouse is entertained by this for hours. It’ll explore the contours of the paper towel, it’ll kick it around, it’ll play with it, and again, it’ll stay up hours past its bedtime.

So, the take-home point from this, I think, is that we’re hardwired to need sleep, but we’re also hardwired to be sleep-deprived at a moment’s notice based on stressful things and exciting things happening in our lives.

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