There are a lot of distractions challenging us in modern life. There’s an excellent chance you’re reading this article on your smartphone. That ever-present device is a prime opponent in your battle against distractedness.
Another major contributor to distraction? Lack of sleep. Recent research on sleep deprivation looked specifically at how lack of sleep affects distractedness. In the largest study of its kind, scientists found that sleep-deprived people have a much harder time rebounding from distractions than people who are well rested.
Distractedness can seem like a minor problem, not least because it happens to so many of us with such frequency. An incoming email pulls us away from completing a timely task at work. The blip of a news alert causes us to lose our place in an article or a book we’re reading. But distractedness is a real and serious issue, with costs to productivity, accuracy, and safety.
Here’s what the latest research has to say about how poor sleep may be contributing to your distraction.
Lack of sleep magnifies distractedness
This research comes from scientists at Michigan State University, who looked specifically at the effect of sleep deprivation on people’s ability to complete a task that involves following directions and executing multiple steps. The study included 234 people, who came to the sleep lab in the evening. Between 10 p.m. and midnight, each of them worked individually on a procedural task that required several steps to complete. While they were working, participants were periodically interrupted. These repeated distractions meant participants had to reacquaint themselves with where they were in the sequence of steps required to finish the task.
At midnight, half the group went home to sleep. The other half remained in the sleep lab and stayed awake for the remainder of the night.
The next morning, all participants gathered again in the sleep lab, where researchers had them work on the same procedural task, with the same periodic interruptions.
The night before, everyone had successfully completed the task, meeting basic criteria for accuracy established by the scientists. The next morning, however, things went very differently. Researchers found a significant divide had opened up between the performance of the rested group and that of the sleep-deprived group.
Among the sleep-deprived participants, 15 percent failed to complete the task. Among the rested group, only 1 percent failed to do so.
The sleep-deprived people who were able to complete the procedural task made more errors than their well-rested counterparts. And the number of errors made by sleep-deprived individuals increased the longer they worked on the task.
The costs of sleep-related distraction
Scientists in this new study found the increased distractedness among sleep-deprived people was related to a cognitive skill known as “memory maintenance.” That’s our ability to hold relevant information in our memories and retrieve it efficiently.
In the case of the study, impaired memory maintenance meant the sleep-deprived people were less able to pick up where they left off in their task sequence and carry on without making errors after being interrupted.
In our regular lives, the implications of impaired memory maintenance are pretty vast.
This research strongly indicates that small distractions have magnified complications when we’re sleep deprived. That stands to have a major impact on our productivity. Someone pops their head into your office, and it takes you longer to settle back into focusing on the project in front of you. A text message interrupts your monthly billpaying or bookkeeping, and you linger that much longer on your phone before returning your attention to your finances. Think about all the unavoidable distractions you face during a day, and it’s not hard to see how these small, seemingly insignificant interruptions could add up.
As the study shows, impaired memory maintenance that results from sleep deprivation can also affect accuracy. When that question comes at you at work, and it takes longer to get back to your proposal, you may be more likely to forget to include a key piece of information. Taking a test? You’re likely to have a harder time retrieving the right answers when you need them if you’re sleep deprived.
This study also showed us that the longer we try to focus on tasks that involve multiple steps, the more likely we are to make mistakes when we’re sleep deprived.
When we’re talking about sleep deprivation and distractedness, safety is another huge issue. For people with jobs in sectors such as public safety, health care, and transportation, the degree of their distraction can mean the difference between life and death. Catastrophic events, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Three Mile Island and the Challenger space shuttle explosion have all involved human error believed to be related to sleep deprivation. We hear all too often of rail, air, water, and road accidents that involve lack of sleep. Sleep-deprived doctors are more likely to make mistakes during surgery and non-surgical procedures, misdiagnose conditions, and dispense the wrong drugs. Police officers who don’t get enough sleep make more administrative errors, become more aggressive and are more likely to fall asleep when driving on duty.
Then there’s our own sleepy driving to be concerned with. Drowsy, distracted driving contributes to more than 100,000 car accidents a year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board—and that’s an estimate that many safety experts think is actually way too low.
It’s not only motor vehicle accidents that need to concern us when it comes to sleep deprivation and magnified distractedness. Accidental injuries at work and at home all become much more likely when we’re lacking sleep.
The relationship between sleep and memory
Scientific research has established powerful links between sleep and memory. High-quality, restorative sleep helps the brain make and store memories effectively. On the other hand, a lack of sleep, as well as poor-quality, restless sleep, impairs our ability to make memories, making it harder for us to learn, store, and retrieve information.
But we haven’t yet learned all there is to know about the relationship between sleep and memory. Far from it. Scientists continue to break new ground in understanding the role sleep plays in helping—and hindering–our brain’s memory functions.
Just a few years ago, we saw the first study showing specific evidence that sleeping well may improve our memory organization. Memory organization is a term that describes our brain’s complex ability to strategically sort, categorize, and summarize information, to make it the most useful and easiest to retrieve when we need it.
Another fascinating study from a few years ago found that sleep deprivation can actually increase the risk of developing false memories. And in a separate, but potentially related study, the same Michigan State scientists who conducted this latest research on sleep and distraction found that sleep-deprived people are significantly more likely to sign false confessions during police interrogations.
Scientists at the U.K.’s University of Birmingham have discovered that distinctive brain activity that occurs when we remember things while awake reappears during sleep. Identifying memory-related brain activity that occurs during both wakefulness and sleep could help scientists gain a better understanding of how memory works, and how sleep contributes to memory working well. This new information may also pave the way for a better understanding of memory disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
How to preemptively deal with distractions
While we can all work to limit the distractions in our lives, much of what distracts us in any given day is beyond our control. To limit the negative impact of distractedness on your productivity, accuracy, and safety, keep these strategies in mind.
Get plenty of sleep. You knew this was coming, right? As the latest research suggests, getting enough high-quality sleep is one way to protect yourself from excessive distraction. Schedule regular bedtime and wake times that allow you plenty of time to get the sleep you need (for most of us, that’s between 7-9 hours a night), and stick to that schedule consistently.
Don’t drive when you’re sleep deprived. This is another fundamental piece of advice that bears repeating. Your safety and the safety of others may depend on it. This is about more than not driving when you’re feeling actively sleepy. That’s a no-brainer—or at least it should be. We’re pretty terrible at gauging our own sleepiness, and we tend to overestimate our abilities to focus and concentrate. Even if you’re not feeling sleepy, sleep deprivation on its own puts you at greater risk for falling asleep—or having a magnified moment of distraction—behind the wheel. Play it safe and get someone else to drive, or make other arrangements.
Schedule—and re-schedule—the time you spend in complex, concentrated work. As this new study shows, the longer you concentrate when sleep deprived, the more likely you are to make errors. If you’ve had a poor night of rest, think about limiting or re-scheduling the time you’ll spend engaged in more complicated work until you can catch up on rest. If you can’t reschedule it entirely, at least organize your concentrated work into short stints, with plenty of breaks.
Create extra buffers against distraction. While the most sleep-friendly solution is to not be short on sleep at all, we all know that’s not realistic for everyone all the time. When you do find yourself short on sleep, be extra attentive to removing possible distractions from your path. Power down your phone, turn off email, text, and news alerts. Close yourself in a quiet room to read, or work from home to allow yourself additional protection from distractions.
If you feel challenged by distractions in your life, that’s yet another great reason to pay more attention to getting the sleep you need.