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Sleep is critical for productivity, but many still aren’t getting enough

‘Fast Company’ commissioned SurveyMonkey to gain insight into how people understand their own productivity.

Sleep is critical for productivity, but many still aren’t getting enough
[Photo: urfinguss/iStock; monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

If someone asks you the image of the characteristics of a productive person, what comes to mind? Assuming you’ve read at least a few articles about time management, you’ll probably picture an individual who wakes up early, sleeps seven to nine hours a night, and incorporates meditation and exercise in their morning routine.

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Fast Company recently commissioned SurveyMonkey to conduct a study of how people view their own productivity and corresponding habits. The survey polled 3,522 respondents of differing races, genders, age groups, and income levels, about what time of day they feel most productive, how many hours of sleep they typically get, and how often they meditate and exercise.

It’s important to note that the data for this survey was self-reported. No one tracked the number of hours participants slept, and they weren’t given a clear definition of what it means to be “productive.” It’s also worth noting that people tend to overestimate the number of hours they work, as Laura Vanderkam previously reported for Fast Company. Regardless, the research provides some interesting insights into how participants perceive their own productivity and how they structure their lives.

Most people feel productive in the morning

Sixty-one percent of the survey participants reported that they felt the most productive in the mornings, while 22% reported feeling most productive in the afternoon. Just 17% felt most productive in the evening or late at night. Research on chronotypes shows that people are genetically wired to sleep and wake up at different times, which means that your “peak productivity time” will differ depending on when you typically sleep and wake up, and how many hours you need.

But the corporate world tends to reward early risers, meaning that things might be tougher for that 17% of respondents. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, for example, shows that many supervisors exhibit a “morning bias.” The authors wrote, “Even when accounting for total work hours, objective job performance, and employees’ self-ratings of conscientiousness, we find that a later start time leads supervisors to perceive employees as less conscientious.”

Meditation isn’t a big part of people’s productivity practice, but exercise is

Most tips for a productive morning tend to include some form of exercise or meditation to get your day off to a strong start. The survey findings indicate that for most survey participants, exercise is a crucial part of their routine. Forty-three percent of respondents reported that they exercise a few times a week, while 22% exercised every day. Seventeen percent said that they exercise a few times a month, while 18% reported that they exercise “less often” than a few times a month.

When it comes to meditation, however, the survey presents a different picture. More than half of respondents said that they meditated “less often” than a few times a month. Eighteen percent reported meditating every day, and 16% said that they meditated a few times a week. Just 12% of respondents reported meditating a few times a month. Although these numbers seem low, it’s important to underscore meditation’s growing popularity. A 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 14.2% of adults have a meditation practice, a significant increase from 4.1% percent in 2012.

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Stacey Gordon, CEO and founder of diversity, inclusion, and career strategy firm Rework Work, has some thoughts on why people have been slow to adopt meditation as a practice. “Most people don’t know what it is,” Gordon says, but they don’t want to admit that, or they don’t know where to look for (accurate) information. John Chisenhall, director and owner of performance training firm DeRose Method Greenwich Village, previously told Fast Company‘s Stephanie Vozza that “people don’t start meditation, because they think it’s boring and demands patience.”

Sleep is important, but not everyone is getting enough

When it comes to sleep and productivity, the research is clear. Sleep deprivation—even a little—ruins your productivity. According to an article in the Conversation, sleeping a mere 16 minutes fewer than usual can reduce cognitive performance and cause workers to be more distracted.

Nearly half of the survey participants reported getting seven to nine hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, while 44% percent reported sleeping, on average, five to six hours. Breaking down the data by race, however, point to stark differences. Just over half of white respondents reported getting between seven to nine hours of sleep, which is the amount recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. Only 36% of black respondents reported getting this amount, compared to 44% of Hispanic respondents and 46% of respondents from other races. Fifty-two percent of black respondents reported getting by on five to six hours of sleep, compared to 42% of white respondents, 45% of Hispanic respondents, and 47% of respondents from other races.

Gordon says that this figure doesn’t surprise her. “Sleep studies show that African Americans are more sleep-deprived,” she says. She points to a 2015 study published in the journal Sleep (and cited by an article in the Atlantic), which tracked the sleep quality of white, black, Hispanic, and Chinese adults in six U.S. cities. Six thousand individuals participated in the study, and the results showed that black participants were five times more likely to experience fewer than six hours of sleep on an average night, compared to white respondents. Chinese respondents were 2.3 times more likely than white respondents to sleep for fewer than six hours a night, while Hispanic respondents were 1.8 times more likely than white respondents to get this amount of sleep.

Gordon says that there are a lot of factors at play. Socioeconomic status, the safety of your surroundings, and the level of day-to-day trauma you experience can all play a big part in how much sleep you get. She also points to a growing body of research that suggests trauma may be inherited, which may shed light on the “racial sleep gap”—particularly between black and white respondents.

Gordon also says that one’s background and culture have a major influence on the way you perceive rest and sleep. As a black woman, she says she was taught the idea that “If you’re sitting around, then you’re lazy.” Marginalized communities are often taught to be twice as good, she says. That kind of pressure may cut into your sleep time or prevent you from getting the rest you need to recharge physically and mentally.

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Janice Gassam, the founder of consultancy firm BWG Business Solutions, echoes that sentiment. She wonders whether black people and underrepresented communities are working more and therefore getting less sleep. “It’s possible that people who feel more productive at work also believe that they cannot or should not be sleeping as much. Maybe the ‘grind’ mentality is more prevalent with underrepresented communities, because more is expected of them.”

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About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.

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