Sleep-Deprived? You Can Still Be Productive, But You Have to Be Selective

The hard work knowledge workers get paid to do isn’t the grunt work, even if it is sometimes what they end up doing. Who hasn’t mumbled, “You’re paying me $60,000 for this?” We often end up doing office chores that would be better assigned to an intern or an entry-level assistant, economically speaking. It might be to copy and paste information from a boss’ email into a document and format it properly. We might get stuck making photocopies or scanning paperwork. On days when we’re sleep-deprived, however, we shouldn’t complain about these tasks and instead use it as an opportunity to get them done.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t effect all abilities equally (Killgore, 2010). Some tasks become much more difficult to do, while others can still be completed with ease. There’s a surprising array of tasks we can get done when we haven’t slept enough. So what makes the hard tasks different from the easy ones when we’re hindered by lack of sleep?

First we have to understand exactly what kinds of skills we lose when we’re sleep deprived, whether it’s from one night of poor sleep or a cumulative sleep deficit caused by sleeping only six hours for several nights in a row.

  • The ability to focus decreases.
  • Cognitive throughput is lowered.
  • And motor skills become impaired.

Being sleep deprived can be as bad as being drunk:

“In practical terms, by 17 hours of wakefulness, performance was equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, while 24 hours awake was roughly equivalent to performance at 0.10%, a level meeting or exceeding the legal limit for intoxication in all states in the United States.” (Killgore, 2010)

When you’re drunk or sleep deprived, you can still do certain tasks reasonably competently, though. (A deep sense of responsibility compels me to add that those tasks should not put yourself or others in any potential harm.) After 24 hours of not sleeping, you can probably work the copier successfully, carry a package to the mailroom, and maybe even fetch coffee without spilling it. Heck, if you drink a coffee, you might even feel right as rain while doing these tasks. You could probably also juggle your calendar, reschedule appointments, and write an agenda for a meeting if you’re already well versed in the subject matter.

Why? It turns out that we can do “convergent and rule-based reasoning,” which essentially means we can give correct answers to questions when there is a clear-cut answer, or when we can figure out the answer with simple logic. “Decision making and planning tasks are also relatively unaffected by sleep loss,” according to Killgore’s work.

The breakdown comes when we’re faced with problems that require creative thinking and emotion:

“…more creative, divergent and innovative aspects of cognition do appear to be degraded by lack of sleep. Emerging evidence suggests that some aspects of higher level cognitive capacities remain degraded by sleep deprivation despite restoration of alertness and vigilance with stimulant countermeasures, suggesting that sleep loss may affect specific cognitive systems above and beyond the effects produced by global cognitive declines or impaired attentional processes. … [M]ounting evidence suggests that sleep deprivation may particularly affect cognitive systems that rely on emotional data.” (Killgore, 2010; emphasis mine)

When we’re sleep-deprived, we’re also “more easily frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, less caring, and more self-focused.” We end up becoming biased toward negativity. It also changes how likely we are to take risks. If the risk is presented in terms of a potential gain, we’re more likely to gamble. If the risk is framed by its potential losses, we’re less likely (Killgore, 2010, citing McKenna et al., 2007).

So the next time you’re sleep deprived at work, don’t try to tackle anything that requires creative problem-solving, empathy, risk assessment, or any of the hard work that you might not so easily entrust to an intern. You wouldn’t want to make bad decisions that you can’t undo. Instead, spend your time clearing out the grunt work. It’s a much better way to spend your time when you’re not equipped to do the more difficult tasks.


Killgore, W. D. S. (2010). Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition. Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00007-5. Retrieved 29 July 2016.

McKenna, B. S., Dickinson, D. L., Orff, H. J., & Drummond, S. P. (2007). The effects of one night of sleep deprivation on known-risk and ambiguous-risk decisions. Journal of Sleep Research, 16, 245–252.

Image by Henti Smith, CC.


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