How Working Late Is Harming Your Brain

Working late on a project? Why staying up all night is the worst thing you can do.

When running up against a deadline, pulling an all-nighter may seem your only option to complete a project, but a recent study published in the Swedish journal, Sleep showed that, rather than boosting productivity, staying up all night is actually harmful to your brain.

The researchers measured blood levels of certain proteins associated with brain injuries such as concussions and found protein levels were 20% higher in those who pulled all-nighters compared to when they got a full night's rest. Although not as high as protein levels post-concussion, the study proves skimping on sleep can do real brain damage.

Dr. Emerson Wickwire, Sleep Medicine program director at Howard County Centre for Lung and Sleep Medicine in Columbia, Maryland, and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says that while many executives have habituated to chronic sleep loss, they are losing out on key productivity benefits of sleep by depriving their brains of a nutrient just as vital as food or water.

Why are all-nighters so harmful?

1. Burning the midnight oil results in a higher risk of mental errors.

"Sleep loss has been associated with many manmade disasters," says Wickwire. From the Exxon oil spill to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, sleep deprivation has been associated with deficits in cognitive processing, concentration, memory, and increased mental errors meaning that, while you may pull the project over the finish line, it may be riddled with mistakes you’ll have to fix later.

2. Sleep makes you smarter.

"Sleep facilitates memory and learning," says Wickwire. It also allows the brain to filter all information received during the day. With synapses firing all the long, the brain is flooded with electrical activity, but not all of the relationships that develop between synapses are important.

“It's during sleep that unimportant synapses are discarded and the important synaptic ties are strengthened," says Wickwire. Skimping on sleep means depriving the brain of this opportunity to improve your intelligence by strengthening these important connections.

3. You can't catch up on sleep.

While you may think you can use the weekend to catch up on lost sleep, Wickwire says the brain doesn’t work this way. He cites a study in which one group of subjects was asked to restrict their sleep to three to five hours a night for a week and were then allowed to sleep as much as they wanted the second week. Even though the subjects performed better during the week of recovery sleep, they still didn’t perform as well as those who had full nights of sleep during the entire two-week period.

However, sleep banking--the process of purposefully oversleeping before a busy week--can help. If you know you’re going to be burning the candle at both ends for a few days or a week, planning ahead and oversleeping a few days in advance can help to minimize the errors you may make because of your sleep loss.

4. All-nighters eliminate the benefits of dusk.

Extending working hours and immediately collapsing into bed late at night or in the early hours of the morning means you miss out on the wind-down period, traditionally known as dusk. “Creativity and innovation need space to emerge,” says Wickwire.

Creating rituals that slow things down can help to improve productivity when you return to engage in the task at hand. “If you focus on the lows, then the highs will get higher,” says Wickwire. Fight the urge to stay up all night and plow through a problem by writing down your thoughts before bed or making a to-do list for the next morning and giving your brain the time and space it requires to sort through the problems during your rest.

[Image: Flickr user amboo who?]

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8 Comments

  • Bragging about 70 hour work weeks tells me you do not know how to prioritize, analyze or delegate. If you can't take better care of yourself, how are you going to take care of a team?

  • Lots of assumptions here., John. Generalizations without context aren't helpful.

    Some objectives/roles/businesses require significantly more effort than others. Some people simply have the luxury of a shorter work week.

    A 70 hour work week tells us absolutely nothing about a person without first identifying and evaluating the underlying reasons.

  • Brandy Luscalzo

    I believe it depends upon your own Circadian Rhythm. I get my burst of brain energy at about 4pm, and work well into the night... I find it best to sleep from 3-11am.... I agree with Alex, it's about getting quality and quantity of sleep.

  • Leo Bolaños Cacho

    Nonsense...! I have worked late for many years without any harmful effect, and I still very productive, healthy and alert. One study doesn´t make it solid science. More similar studies are needed.

  • Theo Oeht

    Well reasoned argument. I shall be making an artificial dusk for myself from now on, even if I don't stop crashing at 4am