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

Emma Loewe
Author:
October 13, 2023
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
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."
Brunette woman lying on her bed wearing a grey tank top, looking tired or distressed, resting her forearm on her forehead.
Image by Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy
October 13, 2023
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A bout of bad sleep can make the next workday a total drag—we don't need research to tell us that. But a study in the journal Human Relations1 got to the heart of what makes it so terrible and provided a helpful hint for the next time you find yourself working while tired.

What researchers found

For this study, 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.

The takeaway

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.

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