Sleep Materially Impacts Performance – Make It A Top Priority Today


We all know that sleep is important. Of the hundreds of people who have taken part in OwnLife programmes sleep is consistently recognised as the most important area to get right - 87% of people feel it is important to make sleep a priority in their life right now. Despite this acknowledgement, 65% of the same group of people feel that their current sleep routine is significantly far from optimal.

The purpose of this article is to explore the reasons why so many people who recognise that sleep should be a priority are not sleeping anywhere close to what they consider to be optimal.

Sleep is slightly different to other lifestyle factors like nutrition and exercise. You can decide on the spot to choose a healthy option for lunch or to get your trainers on and go for a run, but you can’t just ‘decide’ before going to sleep that you are going to sleep well. However, we do have significant control over how well we sleep, we just need to ‘decide’ that we are going to make sleep a priority and alter our behaviours holistically and consistently before we get in to bed over a prolonged period. Adjusting our sleep routines often takes a bit of persistence, but with sustained effort we all have the power to make a positive difference.

The Productivity Trap

There are a multitude of reasons that get in the way of establishing a positive sleep routine. To use one example, a common theme that comes up in our workshops relates to productivity and feeling in control. The internal narrative and thought process typically goes something like this:

“I am very busy and don’t have enough hours in the day, so I work late to get everything done. After work I need some time to relax so I stay up to unwind. I know I go to bed too late but if I don’t relax first, I won’t sleep.”

When you unpack what is really going on, usually one or other of two things are happening. Often, going to bed late is actually causing people to be more tired, and consequently more distracted and less productive the next day. After frittering away several unproductive hours in the afternoon they haven’t achieved everything they needed to and consequently work late or into the evening to make up for it. A related process is that if they are busy non-stop and constantly feeling slightly out of control throughout the day, by the evening, they are really craving time to zone out, de-stress and have at least some period each day where they feel in control of life and able to do something that they get pleasure from.

The irony of both these situations, is that staying up late is directly contributing to people performing worse, and therefore being less productive, having less time and feeling more stressed. The big ‘a-ha’ comes when people start implementing strategies that increase their performance, so they experience being more productive and in-control during the day, so that by the evening they have time and energy to do something genuinely relaxing or enjoyable for them. Rather than needing to vegetate in front of the TV they are already fulfilled, relaxed and ready for bed.

More on productivity in the next article.

Impact of Sleep on Performance

Our research shows that whichever way you look at the data, out of every lifestyle factor, sleep has the biggest impact on our cognitive performance.

  1. Sleeping well is defined as a top quartile sleep score and is compared to sleeping badly which is defined as having a bottom quartile sleep score
  • Sleep scores take into account: Total sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep, bedtime variability & sleep quality
  • ‘Form’ is a combination of 4 metrics of relative cognitive performance and is captured 4 times each day
  • ‘Peak-Form’ is defined as operating at between 75-100% of an individual’s ability

People ‘sleeping well’ record an average cognitive performance 20% higher than people ‘sleeping badly’. This is a game-changing difference with profound effects. It is the difference between going from operating on average form every day (the average person operates at 56% of their potential) to spending 8 hours every day, almost half your waking life, on 40% better form. See below.

Sleeping well also equates to spending over two and a half times as much time on ‘Peak-Form’. For senior leaders in cognitively demanding roles, this is disproportionately beneficial in helping them fulfil the high impact aspects of their roles. Leaders report that it is only when they are on Peak-Form that they have the clarity and confidence to make the big decisions, the insight to solve the complex problems and the energy and motivation to tackle the difficult issues or have the challenging conversations.

Sleep & Stress

A side-benefit of elevating your cognitive performance, is that not only will you achieve more, but you will feel more in control. A lot of the stress we feel is actually a function of how well we are able to deal with what is being demanded of us within the timeframe that we expect/need to deal with it. When we are on better form, we are more able to deal with whatever comes our way and as a result get stressed less often. Our research shows that people who sleep well report spending significantly less time (45%) feeling out of control or overwhelmed. If you don’t buy into that, wait until the next time you are feeling stressed and ask yourself, ‘would I be less stressed if I was less tired or if I was on great form’?

We like to blame external events and other people for getting stressed, but often we feel stressed in circumstances we otherwise wouldn’t, and it is because we aren’t functioning at our best that we feel out of control and less able to cope.

Sleep’s Effects on Other Lifestyle Factors

Not only does sleep directly impact our cognitive function, but it also has a knock-on impact on other lifestyle factors that in turn further destabilise us and impair our mental performance.

Sleep helps balance out our hunger hormone ghrelin which helps reduce food cravings, snacking and helps with portion control. Have you ever noticed feeling more hungry when you wake up tired? When we don’t sleep well, we are more likely to crave and consume refined carbohydrates the next day. More on this in another article, but our research also shows that increased consumption of refined carbohydrates is associated with significantly lower cognitive performance characteristics. Sleeping badly can lead to eating badly and combined they really impact our form.

In addition to this physiological effect where a lack of sleep directly increases our cravings for certain types of food, a series of experiments by psychologist Roy Baumeister found that tiredness directly impacts our willingness to exert self-control. Not only are we more likely to succumb to our cravings for certain foods when we are tired, but we are less likely to reign in any other physiologically-led behaviour. If we are mentally tired, we are more likely to succumb to an urge for an extra coffee and less likely to find the motivation to go to the gym.

Sleeping badly can impact a lot of our other behaviours, and if we are habitually tired, over time, it is possible to lose sight of feeling or behaving any differently and then start to accept, ‘this is how I have become’, ‘this is how my life is’.

Sleep as We Age

The older we get, the more important maintaining good sleep hygiene becomes. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) helps us sleep more soundly and is especially associated with promoting more deep sleep, which is the most restorative sleep stage which research shows is linked to memory and recall. When we are younger, our body has high levels of HGH, but as we age, our growth hormone levels decline quite steeply, roughly halving between the ages of 20 and 40 and then almost halving again between the ages of 40 and 60. This is one of the reasons why whilst we might have been able to sleep soundly in any setting as a teenager, we find it much harder to get the same level of restorative sleep as we get older.

Whilst we can’t fight a natural part of the aging process, we can increase our efforts to ensure that our sleeping environment, timing and routine give us the best chance possible of getting enough deep sleep. This is particularly important as not only does HGH impact how we sleep, but how we sleep impacts our levels of HGH. The more time you spend in deeper, lower wave sleep, the more HGH your pituitary gland will secrete. Sleeping well is a virtuous circle and sleeping badly can be a vicious one.

The best time to have prioritised getting a good night’s sleep was when you were 20 years old. The second-best time is now.


Making sleep a priority will have a big positive impact on your life, and sleeping well is something that you have control over. Sleeping well will help you achieve more, stress less and perform significantly closer to your potential.

To receive a free copy of our Practical Optimisation Strategies, which includes practical tips for sleeping better as well as optimising other lifestyle factors that influence cognitive performance, please email: with the subject line “POS”.

Jason Batt is a co-founder of OwnLife, a pioneering consultancy that combines analytics with structured coaching to help people optimise how they live so they can increase their productivity and sustainably perform closer to their best.

Jason has 20 years’ investment banking experience, spent 10 years as Managing Director and Global Head of Electronic Trading for Deutsche bank then NatWest and has spent the last 3 years focussed on optimising cognitive performance in highly-demanding environments.

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