If you want to innovate, get some rest

The macho sleep-deprivation culture of global business is dangerous to companies, states Dr. Charles A. Czeisler in an interview from the October issue of Harvard Business Review. Dr. Czeisler, an expert in sleep studies at Harvard Medical School, goes beyond the standard refrain of “we should sleep more” and states categorically that lack of sleep is harming workers, managers and business. (The abstract to the article is here. Of course, HBR gives nothing away–the entire article will cost you $6.00.)

One of many provocative quotes from Dr. Czeisler: “It amazes me that contemporary work and social culture glorifies sleeplessness in the way we once glorified people who could hold their liquor.” He goes on to say that a week of sleeping five hours a night makes you perform as if you had a 0.1% blood-alcohol level.

What does this mean for innovation? A lot. The 80-hour-per-week culture simply cannot innovate. At some point, you get so tired that simply taking the next step in a task seems all you could possibly do. There’s a term borrowed from warfare for that phase of a software-development project where everyone is overworking: the “death march.” And my experience was that, while we met some deadlines, we made mistakes during death marches that we had to repair, at great cost, months and years later.

For innovation you need clear thinking, a quiet mind and reflection. And more than these, you need to make good decisions. Says Dr. Czeisler: “The analogy to drunkenness is real because, like a drunk, a person who is sleep-deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is.”

So, remember that advice your mentor gave you when you were faced with a difficult decision–”Why don’t you sleep on it?” It turns out he was more right than he knew.

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