Good Sleeping Habits Help Support Willpower

A good night’s sleep helps you get the most from your willpower, but poor sleep, particularly if it’s a regular occurrence, dilutes your willpower. Good-quality sleep also enables you to dream, because you need to attain a deep sleep state for this to happen. (If you’ve been deprived of sleep, you can dream much more quickly because you’re in a state known as dream debt – you’re owed some dream time!).

Good-quality sleep, of sufficient duration to enable dreaming, helps you consolidate memories and process emotions. This can contribute to improved willpower.

Insomnia, defined as chronic difficulty in getting to sleep and staying asleep, can compromise your willpower. This is due to a cognitive hangover, like the unwelcome ‘morning after’ feeling but more to do with your thinking and mental functioning than the classic hangover syndrome.

Getting insufficient or disrupted sleep can compromise your willpower in two ways:

  • It affects your mental concentration and short-term memory. Sustaining attention and remembering your goal and your motives are, of course, essential for willpower to be effective.

  • It can make you more emotionally sensitive or reactive than usual – especially to potentially negative events. This reaction is a bit like a conventional hangover.

    This creates a challenge from another angle as emotions compete for the same pool of mental energy as willpower. The willpower to resist the urge to express frustration or irritation, or to prevent yourself from nodding off at your desk, can’t be used twice.

Consider how insomnia-related tiredness may make it more difficult for you to generate and sustain willpower. If you experienced a setback or failure, what was your quality of sleep the night before? Your sleep may have been fine. Statistically, though, nine out of ten people experience an occasional bad night’s sleep.

Even though insufficient or broken sleep can disrupt concentration, memory and emotional control the following day, your ability to make complex judgements and important decisions is usually not impaired. Your flexible brain can compensate for lapses in attention by temporarily increasing the power of your prefrontal cortex – the brain’s CEO. Your brain needs to work harder, however, when it isn’t sufficiently rested, and this effort may well prove to be exhausting.

Insomniacs sleep more than they think they do! If you’re a poor sleeper, you very likely unintentionally exaggerate the amount of time you’re awake and minimise the time you spend sleeping. This is borne out by studies in specialist sleep laboratories where scientists can objectively measure the distinctive brainwaves associated with different stages of sleep. When the machines indicate, say, five hours’ sleep, the insomniac guest may report an hour or less sleep. Think of it this way: you’re bound to remember the periods of wakefulness more than the spells of, albeit interrupted, sleep.

Don’t confuse tiredness and sleepiness. If you’re tired, you can try resting or relaxing, but you may not be ready for bed quite yet. If you’re showing signs of sleepiness – for example yawning, nodding off, rubbing your eyes – it’s time to go to bed. You are, of course, usually likely to be tired when you feel sleepy. You’re more likely to get to sleep quickly if you’re both sleepy and tired.

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