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How Better Sleep Helps Your Memory and Productivity


Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t simply a suggestion for growing children and teens who need to study for exams; it’s mandatory for anyone who wants to learn something new and retain the information. But how can you improve your memory and boost your productivity simply by having a few quality hours of lounging in bed? 

Memory and sleep are intertwined; while we sleep, our brains remain active, organizing data we collected during the day, allowing us to form and retain memories. Achieving deep sleep through the four sleep stages is crucial to our mental well-being, which allows us to improve productivity, creativity, memory retention, and even emotional processing. Once you implement our strategies to improve sleep for enhanced memory and productivity, you’ll find yourself able to learn skills and retain information at a faster pace.

The Four Stages of Sleep and the Brain

While a good night’s sleep is essential in retaining information, it’s also crucial to sleep well the night before learning something new. There are four stages in an adult’s sleep cycle, during which our brains strengthen and stabilize new information and consolidate them into memories. 

The first two stages are light non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, in which your muscles relax, eye movement, breathing, and heart rate drops, and brain waves lessen. The third is known as deep or slow-wave NREM sleep, in which your heart rate and breathing are at their lowest. 

During these sleep stages, your synapses, the connections between neurons, shrink in order to filter and eliminate non-essential memories of the day prior. This allows your brain to create new space to form new memories the following day. The memories that remain during these stages will become more permanent as you move into slow-wave NREM sleep and eventually to the fourth stage, known as REM sleep.

Dreaming occurs during REM sleep, in which your eyes are rapidly moving while your body is basically unable to move. During this stage, your brain’s thalamus begins to transmit sensory cues such as images and sounds to your cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that translates and processes memory. These can integrate into your dreams, which is why language learners may soon find themselves dreaming in a new language, or students may have a stressful dream in which they are completely unprepared for an exam or presentation.

Another part of the brain plays a large role in better memory formation: the hippocampus. Studies have found that during REM sleep, the brain transmits theta waves within the hippocampus, which replays and reactivates recent memories by firing off synapses. This strengthens the neural pathway, thereby enhancing memory.

sleep and the brain

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation

Getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults isn’t always possible. Sometimes you have to stay up studying for an end-of-semester exam or preparing an important presentation. Furthermore, society is living in a modern age of screens that emit blue light that disrupts your circadian rhythms and the body’s ability to emit melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel tired. 

Lower Memory Retention

A night of poor sleep (acute sleep deprivation) or a pattern of insomnia (chronic sleep deprivation) can impair your brain’s ability to retain short-term and long-term memories. Less sleep disrupts the REM cycle which is essential to processing memory. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived brains demonstrate decreased synaptic activity, in which the brain is not cementing as many memories. 

Sleep deprivation also leads to poor retention of verbal, visual, and motor memories, lowered attention span, and impaired concentration in comparison with groups who slept well. This means pulling an all-nighter before an exam may actually be more detrimental than helpful to your overall performance.

Poor Focus

Do you ever feel groggy after 3 to 4 hours of sleep? This is likely influenced by adenosine, another chemical your body produces to feel tired. After a restful night, adenosine levels are low in the morning, but they begin to build up every hour you’re awake. Without proper sleep, your brain is unable to rejuvenate and adenosine build-up continues at a more rapid pace. 

As a result, you may find yourself feeling less alert, unable to concentrate, and struggling to complete tasks. The sustained focus and energy you need to perform complex jobs are simply not there, and may find yourself with impaired judgment that results in a higher number of mistakes.

The Benefits of Good Sleep on Work Life

What would your day look like after a good night’s sleep where you fully experience all four stages? Not only would you enjoy better memory, enhanced concentration, and improved problem-solving, but you’d also find yourself with increased creativity and better emotional regulation skills.

Increased Cognitive Ability

When you enjoy sufficient sleep, your brain has properly processed memories and consolidated data. Therefore you can think clearly, maintain longer periods of focus, make better judgments, and operate at a higher level of productivity. In one study, students demonstrated stronger memory retention for both facts and skills over a 12-hour period that included sleep versus a 12-hour period while awake. 

Enhanced Creativity & Problem-Solving

Your creative abilities will also grow. A 1993 Harvard Medical Study had their participants ask themself a question right before bed, writing it out in a journal every day for a week, and recording their dreams upon waking. Over half of them dreamt about the issue, and a quarter of them found a solution to their problem. Because your brain is able to form connections between new data and memories during REM sleep, you’ll be able to access innovative thinking that may guide you to solve problems in unexpected ways.

Resilient Emotional Processing

Sufficient sleep also works to regulate emotions and enhance your resilience to stressful situations. The amygdala acts as our emotional center and can activate our “fight or flight” response under stress. The prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala and processes emotional events and experiences during REM sleep, which takes the sting out of an emotionally stressful situation of the prior day. This allows us to better respond to emotional stimuli in the future and can improve working relationships, familial communication, and overall well-being. 

How Better Sleep Can Increase Productivity

Restored Brain and Body

Quality sleep does more than enhance your cognitive abilities; it also boosts your body’s immune and motor systems. A lack of sleep may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases because we often search for that lost energy in food the day after poor sleep. However, quality sleep lowers the risk of all the above conditions and promotes cell repair to recover quickly from exercise, illness, and injury. 

Recipients of quality sleep are also found to enjoy increased motor skills after experiencing a stroke, especially in younger adults. Quality sleep also positively grows “muscle memory,” which contributes to playing sports and learning musical instruments. Furthermore, a physically healthy person is more likely to perform well at work and experience fewer absences from illness. 

Higher Learning and Skill Acquisition

As we’ve mentioned, a full night’s sleep has a vital role in memory and learning as the brain clears out unimportant memories to make space for new ones while making essential information concrete. You’ll be able to better recall information and apply knowledge, which is quite beneficial in learning a second language, remembering your new coworker’s name, recreating a delicious recipe, identifying native flora, understanding color theory in your art class, and more. 

Memory Retrieval

Did you know naps are linked to better memory retrieval? If you’re able to squeeze a power nap in your day that includes REM sleep, you can improve your long-term memory to enhance school or work performance. If you aren’t able to achieve REM sleep, you can still benefit from a sleep spindle, a burst of brain activity during NREM sleep associated with memory consolidation. 

Motivation & Job Performance

You’ll be able to enjoy increased productivity at work after a restful night. Due to better memory and improved focus, you’ll find yourself able to start and finish tasks in less time with fewer mistakes. You’re also less likely to experience mid-day drowsiness that can negatively affect concentration and judgment. 

When you make sleep a priority, you’re also less likely to be absent from work due to fatigue-related illnesses or experience issues that impact your performance. You also lower the chance of burnout, a state of physical and emotional exhaustion from exposure to long-term stress made worse by chronic sleep deprivation. 

Quality sleep aids you in completing tasks quickly and effectively, and allows you to enjoy a better work-life balance. In your time off, you’ll be able to truly rest and recharge through fostering close relationships, engaging in creative passion projects, and of course, enjoying a full night’s sleep. 

Strategies for Improved Sleep

Establishing a Consistent Sleep Schedule

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the week, weekend, or vacation; do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day for better sleep. This will regulate your body’s internal clock to help you fall asleep easily and wake up feeling refreshed by accessing all four sleep stages. 

Create rules for your sleep schedule that help your body produce melatonin. If you want to manage your internal clock for maximum productivity, try to increase your sunlight exposure in the morning if you have trouble falling asleep, or shift it to later in the day if you find yourself feeling tired too soon.

Putting away all electronic devices an hour before bedtime will eliminate the blue light that disrupts your circadian rhythm. Instead, reading a physical book by lamplight can help relax your mind. If you need to use a screen, utilize blue-light filters or blue-light-blocking glasses at night. 

If you find yourself struggling to limit your screen time, there are many helpful apps that can regulate your screen usage. Freedom is an app that allows you to create customized lists that block your access to particular websites and apps that may keep you up all night instead of sleeping.

Create a Sleep-Friendly Environment

Maintain a bedroom that promotes relaxation and tranquility through a quiet, dark atmosphere. Utilize curtains that block out light, white noise machines to earplugs to reduce auditory distractions, and invest in a quality mattress and comfortable pillows. 

Do your best to keep anything work-related out of your sleeping environment so your brain doesn’t subconsciously associate your bed with work. Instead, keep your space cozy and inviting, full of calming colors, textures, and scents. Aromatherapy has been known to promote relaxation through certain smells such as lavender. 

Practice Relaxation Techniques

How do you best prepare your body and mind for sleep? Everyone is different, but some relaxing common strategies include taking a warm bath, engaging in a short meditation, listening to soft music, breathing deeply, or gentle stretching that releases tension in the body. Doing a combination of these before you hit the hay will signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep. 

Address Sleep Disorders

Do you struggle to sleep due to stress and anxiety? Try to practice stress management techniques that promote relaxation, such as journaling before bedtime. Regular exercise is another way to release stress and physically tire out the body, but make sure to do it earlier in the day to avoid overstimulating your body too close to bedtime.

If you have insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or another sleep disorder, it’s best to seek professional help. A doctor will be able to fully understand your family history and daily life to prescribe techniques and medicines that can help you achieve better sleep. 

Better Sleep Leads to Better Memory

Now you understand how important it is to get a good night’s sleep to achieve better memory and improved productivity. When you access all four stages of the sleep cycle, you give your brain the opportunity to remove irrelevant information, process emotionally stressful situations, and retain important long-term memories to enjoy heightened cognitive ability, enhanced innovation, and better emotional processing.

When you prioritize and improve sleep, you’ll be able to focus, communicate, and work productively and effectively. Create healthy habits around sleep, from stretching before bed to removing blue-light emitters with website-blocking tools like Freedom, in order to prevent sleep deprivation that affects both physical and mental health. It’s time to improve your memory; now hurry up and get to bed!

Written by author Lorena Bally