Can You Sleep Your Problems Away?

How often do you face a hard choice, perhaps related to your work team or hiring, only to receive the advice “just sleep on it”? Does that feel like just putting the problem off for another time? Conversely, have you ever rushed into a decision about something only to regret it and wish you’d left it another day or two? There have been several studies over the years supporting the notion that lack of sleep can lead to poor judgement and an increase in risk-taking behavior. Sadly, Western culture (particularly the puritanical work ethic pervasive in the US) romanticizes the notion of burning the candle at both ends; missing meals or sleep because of work is all-too-often seen as a badge of triumph. Of course, many of us can attest to how it feels to drive, or go through a regular work day, without much sleep. You might feel disoriented, foggy, and unable to focus. Needless to say, this can be dangerous. Sleep helps the body cleanse the brain of toxic proteins (it’s probably not a coincidence, notes Professor of Neurosurgery and author Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, that Alzheimer’s and all other diseases associated with dementia are linked to sleep disorders). But beyond the obvious problems of extreme lack of sleep, what value does regular, healthy sleep have for decision-making?

Sleep plays an important role in memory; it is during sleep that your brain moves a lot of memories from short-term to long-term storage. A 2004 study explains: “Sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behavior.” They found that those with 8 hours of sleep were three times more likely to figure out a math test correctly. A Lancaster University study tested whether sleep or time spent awake helped people solve problems. The sleep group solved more difficult problems than the other group, but for easy problems, researchers found no difference between the two groups. Similarly, a 2016 study made the news by challenging the common wisdom that sleep leads to better decision making, but this study looked only at consumers choosing between product options for laptop bags (which the Lancaster study would define as an “easy problem”); even the authors caution against saying this applies for more important decisions.

Previous Building Bridges Leadership articles have referred to the imbalance of information coming into our brain: 11 million bits of information enter our brain for processing, yet we can only consciously process 50 of those, leaving 10,999,950 bits of information to be processed subconsciously, leading to biased decisions that mostly serve us well, but often serve us (and, more to the point, others around us), very poorly. One major benefit of sleep is similar to the benefits of turning off your phone, stepping away from screens, or spending time in fresh air and nature: doing so consciously reduces the amount of information that your brain needs to process, and instead, allows it to do it’s job of processing well.

How can this be helpful this week?

This week’s tip:

Prioritize getting the sleep that will benefit your decision-making. Refer to our previous article “Combat Bias by… Sleeping?” for practical tips on prioritizing sleep, but don’t let sleep get in the way of taking action on every decision!

  1. For important decisions: Don’t rush to a decision. Do sleep on it – and treat sleep as the most important meeting of your day; the one that will help you solve problems. But also take steps to slow down your sensory input while you’re awake, allowing your brain to become more consciously aware of the decisions it’s making.
  2. For less important decisions: Don’t sleep on it! Don’t unnecessarily put it off and agonize over decisions that ultimately won’t make much of a difference to you or your team. Sleep won’t make much of a difference – use sleep to solve the important problems instead!

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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