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Poor Sleep Changes The Way We Think — But This Quick Mental Shift Can Help

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Marc Tran / Stocksy
February 1, 2022

A bout of bad sleep can make the next workday a total drag; we don't need research to tell us that. But a useful study in the journal Human Relations gets to the heart of what makes it so terrible—and provides a helpful hint for the next time you find yourself working while tired.

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What the researchers found.

For this recent research, a team of organizational psychologists out of Europe conducted two studies with 214 employees. Over the course of 1,317 workdays, they asked workers to keep track of their sleep quality, mood, and work engagement. Due to previous theories about the role of willpower (defined in this case as the ability to control impulses, emotions, and desires) on workplace performance, they also noted participants' theories about willpower.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that poor sleep negatively affected workers' emotions and drained them of motivation, harming their ability to stay on task at work. However, those who believed that their willpower was unlimited fared better the next day.

Compared to the employees who told themselves they had a limited reserve of focus and willpower, those who were more confident that they could resist distractions and remain focused—even after poor sleep—were less likely to struggle cognitively.

"Believing that your willpower is unlimited helps you to sustain your effectiveness at work particularly on days with a lack of sleep," lead researcher Wladislaw Rivkin, Ph.D., said in a statement.

Beyond being more effective workers, Rivkin's team also found initial evidence that those who believed in unlimited willpower had better mood and vitality overall following a period of poor sleep.

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How to apply their findings.

Of course, positive thoughts alone can't make up for all the many downsides of sleep loss. Beyond cognitive challenges, previous research tells us that inadequate sleep can negatively affect immune function, heart health, and blood sugar balance, to name a few.

The best course of action will always be prioritizing a solid night's sleep. Do so by setting an early and consistent bedtime, sticking to a healthy nightly routine, and potentially taking a sleep supplement for some extra support. (Find a roundup of the best ones here.)*

However, if your sleep does get disrupted for some reason, this study suggests that tweaking your mindset could help you perform a little better in the aftermath. Instead of beating yourself up and thinking that all hope for a good day is lost, remember that you have an unlimited ability to stay content and focused. You can still do what you set your mind to; even when all that mind wants to do is crawl back into bed.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor

Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.