Career Guide

If you snooze, do you really lose?

Lack of rest results in poor performance

When was the last time someone asked “How are you?”, and the answer was “busy”? It seems like everyone I talk to is busy. Being busy is the new normal.

But what are the side effects of busyness?

There’s the usual culprits of lack of sleep and increased stress, while on the positive side busyness is usually associated with getting things done and achievement.

What may surprise you is that busyness can interfere with ethical decision making. In fact, research shows that when people feel pressed for time they can make decisions that normally they wouldn’t have made.

Knowing how your brain functions

In the early 1970s, John Darley and Daniel Batson (Princeton University) examined how time pressure affects behaviour. They invited seminary students to participate in a series of experiments. In one of these experiments the students were told to move from one building to another. The testers varied the amount of “urgency” in this message.

To move between the buildings the seminary students had to go past a person slumped on the floor and moaning.

What the researchers found is that the more urgency in the message, the less likely it was for the person to stop and offer assistance. At the same time, for those who didn’t stop many of them appeared agitated when they got to the next building. This was because they were conflicted in their desire to help and the instructions they were given to get to the new building quickly.

People can fail to see what is going on around them when they are busy and preoccupied with timeliness.

This has interesting implications for leaders who are leading in an increasingly complex and ever-changing environment. Ask yourself:

-Are you paying attention to what is going on around you?

-How conscious are you of the decisions you are making? Are they reactive or planned?

-Are you taking time to reflect on how you and others are coping with the change?

-How can you best create space in your day so you can take stock?

We all make many, many decisions every day. Every time you make a decision you use up precious resources in your brain.

Do you think about how and when you are making decisions? If you don’t, you’re in danger of making decisions when your brain isn’t at its peak.

Your brain is like a muscle. When you work out at the gym your muscles get tired and need to be rested. If you want to be at peak performance you need to get the right balance between “working” your muscles and “resting” them.

It’s the same for your brain.

Your pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s involved in thinking, analysing and reasoning, gets tired easily.

Consequently, your brain, very cleverly, has found a way of conserving energy. It takes short-cuts. A mental short-cut is known as a heuristic. Your brain uses heuristics to make big things and complex issues easier to manage, and ultimately remember.

As your brain takes in new information it tries to make sense of it, so that it knows what it needs to do. To ease the cognitive load this processing takes, it compresses information and sorts it into patterns. It looks for things that are familiar and goes – “I now know what to do”.

Of course, the brain’s short cutting process isn’t always reliable, and it gives rise to bias in decision making. For example, your brain may expect to see something in a certain way, and so it will seek out information to validate that view. It filters out information that doesn’t fit with its view of the way things should be.

Bias can easily, and usually unconsciously, invade your decision making.

Sleep on it

When your brain is tired it eagerly takes the path of least resistance, and this is where it gets dangerous. Because taking the path of least resistance means that you will let expectations and assumptions drive how you think and act.

If you want to make better, more deliberate decisions you need to be conscious about when you make decisions.

The concept of “sleeping on it”, isn’t silly. Your brain processes overnight, and you are far more likely to make better decisions early in the morning, when your pre-frontal cortex is rested.

Next time you need to make an important decision – get some sleep.

And. . .don’t check social media as soon as you wake up. If you want to process and think about something use that precious time in the morning wisely. Checking snapchat, Instagram and Facebook isn’t a good use of your brain’s precious energy reserves!

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work. To contact Michelle, email