Sleep & Decision Making

Sleep & Decision Making

Every New Year, millions of people around the world resolve to improve important parts of their lives, like their health, relationships, and productivity. Were you among them this year? Whether or not you actually wrote a list, you probably experienced a surge of motivation to make strides in certain areas that slipped by the wayside in 2015.

They say it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. With February right around the corner, that must mean we should all have lost five pounds, read ten books, quit smoking, and be well into training for our first marathon...right?

Maybe for the superhuman among us. The rest of us mortals may not have checked quite as many items off that list as we had planned. If you’re in this camp, don’t beat yourself up about it, as you are certainly not alone. Setting goals is healthy, but committing to an over-ambitious list of resolutions often results in guilt and disappointment. Research shows that lasting change is most often slow and incremental. Willpower is not an inexhaustible resource, and getting back to work after the holidays can be a difficult distraction. To make matters worse, many people have a hard time getting their sleep schedules on track this time of year. This week’s Sleep Centre blog is about the critical role that adequate sleep plays in your ability to stick to your decisions.

The part of your brain responsible for planning and carrying out complex tasks, like sticking to a diet plan, is known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the home of what psychologists call executive function. This includes the working memory, impulse control, emotional control, and organization required to construct a meal plan and stick to it. Your executive function is also one of the first things to suffer when you don’t get enough rest.

Even short-term sleep deprivation hampers your working memory, dilutes your will-power, and clouds your ability to consider the consequences of risky decisions. Sleep-deprived people show decreased activity in the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. That’s the part that would help you control yourself in the presence of your favourite dessert. Moreover, sleep-deprived people show increased brain activity in the rewards centre of the brain — the part that remembers how good chocolate cake tastes. No wonder research shows that sleep-deprived gamblers make riskier decisions, dieters eat more junk food, and drivers are significantly more likely to make poor snap decisions that cause accidents.

Most New Year’s resolutions require consistent effort, planning, and concentrated impulse control. Everything we know about sleep suggests that getting enough rest will positively affect your judgement across the board, which will increase the likelihood that your actions will align with your goals. Sacrificing sleep for the sake of increased productivity is an illusion since this is well demonstrated to have disastrous effects on your functioning — even in the short term. Remember to take everything step by step, be fair with your expectations of yourself, and ask for support when you need it. We wish you the best of success in accomplishing all your goals this year.

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