Is your sleep getting in the way of a better decision? - Michelle Gibbings

There are warning signs to remind us that we shouldn’t drive or use heavy machinery when we are tired, and yet very rarely do we see warning signs to remind us that it can be dangerous to make decisions when we are tired.

Many Australians are chronically sleep deprived. This is because they don’t find ways to get enough sleep each night or they are suffering from what’s been dubbed ‘social jet lag’ as their sleep patterns vary significantly between the working week and weekends.

A lack of sleep and irregular sleep patterns interferes with your ability to process information and remember things, and therefore your capacity to make good decisions.

In this paper from the University of Warwick they examined research on sleep and its effect. The researchers found that an appropriate amount of sleep and good quality sleep are required for many aspects of cognitive processing, most importantly executive attention, working memory and higher cognitive functions.

As well, when we’re tired we fall into the trap of deciding the way we have always decided. This is known as ‘default thinking’.

In a working world that is complex, ambiguous and constantly changing you are often required to make decisions with incomplete information, considering a range of options and shifting variables.

In such an environment it becomes more important than ever to consider how you optimise your ability to make good decisions.

This involves you considering:

  • What’s the best time of day for me to make a decision? For most people it will be earlier in the day when the brain is rested and its pre-frontal cortex is at optimal thinking capacity
  • How do I better regulate my sleep patterns so I am consistently getting enough sleep? The average person needs 6 – 8 hours per night, and that includes ensuring you go to bed and arise at roughly the same time each day. To help do this turn off all digital devices at least two hours before going to sleep and ban the TV from the bedroom
  • When can I can schedule in micro breaks during the day? Schedule your day so you can have breaks at regular periods during the day. Ideally work in 30 – 60 minute blocks of concentration and then have a 10 minute break. At lunchtime, leave the building and go for a walk
  • How can I build a meditation practice into my schedule? With just 5 – 10 minutes a day you can get the decision-making benefits from meditation. There’s a range of studies which surface the link between better decision-making and mediation. For example, researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School found that a 15-minute breathing meditation helped mitigate sunk cost bias by encouraging those involved to consider the present moment.

Decision making – we do it every day. Every time we decide to do one thing, we are ultimately deciding to not do something else. Consequently, finding ways to elevate our decision-making capacity and capability is something that is worth striving for.

As the Greek Philosopher, Pythagoras said “Choices are the hinges of destiny”.