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The Impact of Sleeplessness on Innovation

Sleep deprivation and insomnia are very much in the news these days, with the phenomenon blamed for everything from dangerous train accidents to declining productivity, as well as for contributing to obesity and other chronic health problems. One problem that has not been getting the attention that it probably deserves is the impact that lack of sleep has had on innovation and creativity. A study done in 2008 discovered that more than half of the employees of small businesses indicated that they actually work in their sleep, experiencing dreams about work problems and potentials that they then have tried to bring to life in the workplace.

Though some might view this as an indication that more work is being done, experts in the field find that unlikely. Instead they see it as an obsession with getting more things done all the time, and they think that it may be leading to a diminishing return in terms of the quality of the ideas that are being produced. There is no doubt that our work-obsessed society finds heroism in the examples of business leaders like Marissa Mayer of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. Mayer claims to work 130 hours a week a to sleep under her desk, while Dorsey brags that he sleeps just four hours a night. This has led to a general sense that putting in a 40-hour work week isn’t good enough and drives young creative to put in more and more hours, yet their doing so has yielded fewer and fewer great ideas or products.

Nowhere is the evidence of this clearer than in the example of start-up tech company failure. Companies spring up having been driven by the notion that their ideas are innovative and will be instant success stories. Yet three out of four of start-ups fail, quite possibly because they were driven by ideas that just weren’t that good in the first place. More and more productivity and innovation experts are starting to wonder about whether the overwhelming drive to work harder, which is making people skip getting the rest that they need, is resulting in people mistakenly pursuing bad ideas.

Examples of some of these bad ideas that have been avidly pursued abound. There are countless companies that have crashed and burned after raising enormous amounts of capital in hopes of IPO success or being acquired, then being shown to be nothing but the Emperor’s new clothes. Even Google has made a number of notable miscalculations: the ideas behind Google Glass and Android Wear certainly serve as an answer to an existing problem, but perhaps not quite as promising an answer as minds that are quite probably sleep-addled had originally anticipated.

Looking back at the history of innovation, a century ago is when some of the world’s greatest innovations were created. During that same time period, the average American was getting approximately twelve hours of sleep each day. The results of a 2013 Gallup poll showed that number has dwindled to just 6.8 hours per night, and only a third of respondents got the eight hours of sleep that is believed to be optimal. According to sleep scientists, sleep deprivation at serious levels have an impact on both mental and physical health, and may even lead to extremes such as seizures, psychotic episodes and hallucinations.

Productivity and innovation concerns have less to do with extreme types of sleep deprivation and are instead focused on the impact of small declines in the amount of rest that people are getting. The American Sleep Disorders Association recently published the results of a survey that found that “divergent” thinking, which is defined as having to do with creative functioning, took a steep decline when subjects did not get enough sleep. Among the functions tested included fluency, flexibility and originality of thought, all areas of particular importance to those working in technology and innovation fields. Another study confirmed this trend and found that moderate sleep deprivation resulted in declines in long-term memory, decision-making and visuomotor performance. They also found that recovery from chronic sleep deprivation actually took longer than was true for those who had experienced short term extreme sleep deprivation.  All of this becomes even more notable with the addition of the results of a study by researchers at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, which determined that sleep deprivation can permanently damage and kill brain cells.

These reports should be of great interest to those who value their work product, because news that lack of sleep is resulting in diminishing returns in terms of creativity goes to their entire raison d’etre. When the new young Turks who imagine themselves as holding the key to the future realize that the sleeplessness that they are so proud of is resulting in diminished creativity, the appeal may quickly diminish in favor of prioritizing getting more sleep and taking it a bit easier.

The cultural pressure to constantly get things done and to keep coming up with newer, bigger better ideas has driven those who hold the greatest promise for our future to habits that are holding them back, and even yielding ideas that end up wasting their energies and resources. As more and more studies are publicized about the impact of lack of sleep on the human brain in general and creativity in particular, it is hoped that sleep will become a greater priority. Unfortunately, so far the biggest turn in technology that we have seen in response to news of a sleeplessness epidemic has been companies working harder and longer hours to come up with a technological answer to the problem that they can generate revenue from. The irony is clear.

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