How Insufficient Sleep Makes You Fat, Stupid, And Dead

If you need a reason to shut off your screens for a night, consider your waistline, your working life, and beyond.

How Insufficient Sleep Makes You Fat, Stupid, And Dead

Need a reason to #unplug? How about four: Exxon Valdex, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Challenger. As we continue to look into these man-made disasters, we discover they’re increasingly linked to insufficient sleep.


But sleepiness causes more everyday calamities, too.

As Jane E. Brody reports for the New York Times, more and more research shows how our sleeping habits affect just about every phase of our lives–be it your life expectancy, your decision making, or your ability to learn. In other words, if your attitude is that you’ll sleep when you’re dead, you’ll soon be dead.

Much of the article focuses on ways that sleep deprivation affects your health–like how it mucks up all your organs and how the corresponding loss in metabolism could make you put on 10 pounds in a year–but we, as productivity nerds, are most interested in what it does to our working lives.

Cramping your learning

For you to be able to access a memory, that memory first has to be encoded into your brain (and you have to have been paying attention when it happened). Without that time to consolidate your experiences at night, you won’t retain what happened during the day. This is an advertisement for mindfulness–and for getting enough rest.

“During sleep, new learning and memory pathways become encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is necessary for those pathways to work optimally,” Brody writes. “People who are well rested are better able to learn a task and more likely to remember what they learned.”

Stunting your thinking

But if you don’t get enough, you send your self-awareness into a productivity-crippling stupor. Dr. Timothy Roehrs did an interesting experiment to measure just how much, as the American Psychological Association reports:


Dr. Roehrs and his colleagues paid sleepy and fully alert subjects to complete a series of computer tasks. At random times, they were given a choice to take their money and stop. Or they could forge ahead with the potential of either earning more money or losing it all if their work was not completed within an unknown remainder of time.

Dr. Roehrs found that the alert people were very sensitive to the amount of work they needed to do to finish the tasks and understood the risk of losing their money if they didn’t. But the sleepy subjects chose to quit the tasks prematurely or they risked losing everything by trying to finish the task for more money even when it was 100 percent likely that they would be unable to finish, said Dr. Roehrs.

The takeaway: The sleepier you are, the less you realize how much your performance is sagging. Which can have, as we noted above, disastrous results.

Wrecking your awareness

Sleepy driving is as bad as drunk driving. And as Brody reports, “no amount of caffeine or cold air can negate the ill effects.”

But what if you’re behind your desk rather than the wheel of your car? Chances are you might cheat the people you work with.

How to know if you’re starving yourself of shuteye

While we can have a general feeling that we’re sleeping-walking through the day–20% of American adults report performance-interrupting sleepiness multiple times a week–having a clearer picture of the symptoms can help us nip somnambulance in the bud (or the bed, that is).

David F. Dinges, Ph.D., of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology and Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, describes the symtoms of sleep deprivation as coming in :

  1. Irritability, moodiness, and disinhibition
  2. Apathy, slowed speech, and flattened emotional responses, impaired memory and an inability to be novel or multitask

So if we find ourselves with a few of these symptoms, what ever shall we do? Train in the subtle arts of getting to bed the right way.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.