How Sleep Affects Your Decision-Making Skills

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Written by: Guest | Best Company Editorial Team

Last Updated: March 28th, 2020

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Guest Post by Matt Shealy

Did you know that not getting enough sleep not only is detrimental to your physical health but can also lead to poor or risky decision-making?

That’s right, shortchanging yourself on those Z’s can affect how your brain works and in turn, how you think and act.

Many well-known accidents can be attributed to faulty decision-making caused by severe sleep deprivation, including the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

Lack of sleep leads to poor decision making

Many studies have been done to understand the effect of sleep deprivation on our ability to make sound decisions. Here’s how sleep affects your decision-making abilities:

Drives high-risk actions

In a study conducted at Duke University, researchers found that an area in the brain involved in reward anticipation becomes selectively more active when high-risk, high-payoff choices were made by a subject that was sleep deprived.

While the number of high-risk decisions didn’t increase with sleep deprivation, the expectation of being rewarded for making the high-risk decision was elevated. Such perception can affect the likelihood of a subject taking a particular action.

Meanwhile, another study conducted by the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital of Zurich found that as sleep deprivation accumulates over the course of a week, participants tend to take on increasingly bigger and more impulsive risks.

Reduces cognitive flexibility

Sound decision-making requires the ability to change our thinking based on new information, which is also called cognitive flexibility. Researchers at the Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center found that cognitive flexibility is particularly affected by sleep deprivation, more so than other cognitive processes involved in decision-making.

When we’re sleep deprived, our brain chemistry — namely, dopamine and adenosine — interact differently, causing cognitive flexibility issues. Essentially, sleeplessness short-circuits the brain, preventing people from making the right choice no matter how hard they try.

Lowers the ability to avoid negative consequences

Sleep-deprived participants in the Duke University study not only take higher risks but also exhibit reduced concern for negative consequences. This led them to take actions that are disadvantageous or didn’t even make sense under normal circumstances.

When asked to self-evaluate, participants in the Zurich study consider the actions they took when sleep-deprived to be more risky than normal after they were given a few more hours of sleep. 

Is linked to attention deficits

Lack of sleep is also linked to attention deficits and ADHD, especially in younger people. In fact, research had pointed to the possible reinterpretation of ADHD as a sleep-related disorder. Since attention and decision-making operate from a shared axis in the brain, it’s not surprising that the inability to stay focus is likely to affect how we make decisions.

Leads to poor dietary choices

Researchers in Sweden found that sleep deprivation can lead individuals to make poor food choices by impairing higher-level thinking while increasing impulsivity, hunger, and cravings. The bad news is that the foods we crave when sleep-deprived are often junk food that will cause brain fog, send us on a blood sugar rollercoaster, induce mood swings, and impair our ability to think clearly to make sound decisions.

Improve decision-making ability with better sleep

There’s no doubt that sleep deprivation is detrimental to our mental capabilities and abilities to make sound decisions. To make sure you’re at the to of your game every day, you need to get enough high-quality sleep every night. Here’s how:

  • Choose a comfortable and supportive mattress that meets your needs. For example, some mattresses are designed for side sleepers while others are best for back pains. A typical mattress has a life expectancy of 9 to 10 years and an old mattress may impact the quality of your sleep.
  • Stick to the same bedtime and wake time schedule, even on weekends, to regulate your body clock so you can fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
  • Design a bedtime routine to prepare your body and mind for sleep. For example, try reading a book and drinking a cup of warm herbal tea. This is very personal and there’s no right or wrong answer to what you should do before bed. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine.
  • Wind down before you go to bed by doing activities that help relax and prepare your body for sleep. Take your work outside of your bedroom environment, so you don’t associate stress with the place you sleep.
  • Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and evening. Alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals can also impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Incorporate exercise in your daily routine and consider adding a yoga or meditation practice to help you relax at the end of the day.
  • If sneezing, congestion, or breathing issues have been affecting your sleep, make sure that your room is allergen-free. You can also use a humidifier or air filter to help improve your breathing.
  • Seek treatment for health conditions, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, that can affect the quality of your sleep.
  • Minimize TV streaming, social media usage, video gaming, etc. in the evening hours. These addictive activities can easily encroach your bedtime.
  • Eliminate naps during the day, especially late in the afternoon, if you have trouble falling asleep at night.
  • Design a bedroom environment that’s conducive to relaxation and sleeping. Keep your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit and free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. Consider using blackout curtains, eyeshades, earplugs, etc. to help you block out light and distractions.
  • Avoid bright light during the evening because it makes your body thinks that it’s daytime. In particular, blue light from the TV, computer, and smartphones is known to affect the circadian rhythms. If you can’t avoid screens altogether, use a blue light filter to minimize your exposure.
  • Keep a sleep diary, which can help you understand patterns that are affecting your sleep quality. You can then adjust your lifestyle, sleep environment, and evening routine to help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.

Final thoughts

Many people downplay the importance of sleep in today’s hustle culture, but the reality is that if we don’t get enough sleep, we can’t make the right decisions so we can work smart instead of just hard!

Getting high-quality sleep is one of the key habits of highly productive people. When you prioritize sleep and make it part of your success routine, you’ll be surprised by how much more you can accomplish during the day!

Matt Shealy is the President of ChamberofCommerce.com. Shealy specializes in helping small businesses grow their business on the web while facilitating the connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.

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