I’m fascinated by entrepreneurs and the work they do. I think a lot of us are. To be an entrepreneur is to work at the cutting edge of society, culture, and industry. Conceiving new ideas, imagining new applications for existing technology—and shepherding those ideas from concept to marketplace—takes a particular combination of creativity and insight, keen perceptive skills, tremendous focus and attention, as well as foresight and judgment.
The entrepreneurs I know are always pushing themselves to work harder and smarter, and to squeeze the absolute most out of every single day.
There are some pretty big myths surrounding sleep and the entrepreneur, namely the misguided idea that being brilliant, driven, visionary, and successful is somehow attached to the ability to function at the absolute highest levels on minimal sleep.
The real relationship between sleep and entrepreneurial success couldn’t be further from the truth. Sleep is intricately involved in fostering creativity, vision, analytical prowess, and the judgment to see ideas successfully to fruition. There’s a powerful body of research emerging that shows how sleep contributes specifically to the entrepreneurial skill set. Still, even today, that message has trouble breaking through, and myths about sleep persist.
I’m always paying attention to research about sleep and performance, and some brand-new research about how sleep influences some of the most critical cognitive skills for entrepreneurship really caught my eye. A team of researchers from universities in the United States and Canada did a deep, specific dive into exploring how the entrepreneurial brain is affected, positively and negatively, by sleep and a lack of it. Specifically, they rigorously examined how sleep influences abilities at the core of entrepreneurship: the capacity to generate viable, attractive new ideas for business ventures, and the ability to make accurate assessments of new venture ideas that have been generated by others.
The publication of this study seemed a great opportunity to take a look at sleep’s influence on the cognitive abilities of entrepreneurs. These are skills that are critical for entrepreneurial success—but it’s not only entrepreneurs who need them, or who benefit from sleep’s role in boosting skills of perception, attention, creativity, and insight.
Sleep’s role in entrepreneurial success
Before we look at this latest research, let’s take a look at some of what we already know about sleep’s influence over entrepreneurial performance. There’s a fascinating emerging body of research that explores the physiological, emotional, and biological factors that affect entrepreneurs’ day-to-day performance. No surprise here: sleep is emerging as one of those key factors. Studies show entrepreneurs are at high risk for sleeplessness, and that poor sleep contributes to exhaustion and psychological distress that directly interfere with their work. In turn, the stress of entrepreneurship can have a highly negative impact on sleep.
Sleep boosts the brain’s cognitive capabilities, strengthening our ability to learn and analyze new information, and enhances long-term and working memory. For entrepreneurs, that can mean a greater ability to see ahead to how the pieces fit into a puzzle that doesn’t even exist yet. Sleep also strengthens the brain’s associative networks, opening up the entrepreneurial mind’s ability for insight, and to combine individual pieces of information in fresh, novel ways.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the specific areas that sleep has influence over entrepreneurial thinking and performance:
Sleep’s effects on perception
Entrepreneurship rests on the ability to conceive of new ideas, and to see new potential in technology and products that already exist, an ability to imagine doing things differently, whether by introducing entirely new products or by re-imagining how existing tools might be used in new ways. Research (including this latest study) shows sleep affects perception—how we see things, both big picture and small detail—in the world around us. Studies have also shown sleep can enhance or inhibit our ability to look beyond superficial details to see the structural similaritiesthat can allow technologies, products and processes to have applications far beyond their original ones.
Sleep’s effects on attention
Entrepreneurs rely heavily on the mind’s ability to pick up what are often small, subtle cues and details from the world around them, which are a key element in forming new venture ideas to bring back to society and the marketplace, to meet its unmet needs. This is another critical part of the entrepreneur’s ability to recognize opportunity. There’s an abundant amount research showing that lack of sleep significantly impairs the brain’s attentional capabilities; poor sleep makes us distracted, and less apt to notice details that may signal promising opportunities.
Sleep’s effects on risk
Lack of high-quality sleep compromises the brain’s ability to effectively assess risk. That’s true broadly, and it’s also true specifically for entrepreneurial risk. Studies show sleep lowers inhibition, increases both aggressiveness about seeking gains and expectations about what those gains will be. Not getting enough sleep makes us less risk averse, and more likely to pursue short-term gains even at the expense of longer-term advantages.
The enhancement of these cognitive skills simply can’t happen under conditions of sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep. Long hours of work broken up by a handful of hours of sleep doesn’t deliver the brain the rest and rejuvenation it needs from longer, deeper stretches of rest. The brain’s most restorative work which fuels creativity, memory, insight and analytical skills happens most substantially in the stages of deep sleep and REM sleep. To reach these sleep stages in their entirety, we must sleep somewhere in the range of 7-9 hours a night, which takes us through 4-5 full sleep cycles, each one containing shifting amounts of deep sleep and REM.
Identifying the next great business venture more likely with sleep
The latest study, led by scientists at the University of Oregon, builds on this emerging scientific knowledge of entrepreneurship and sleep. In a series of three experiments, this latest research examines how sleep influences entrepreneurs’ ability to generate new ideas, and to identify the most promising, viable, attractive business venture ideas from a group. Researchers found that sleep enhanced entrepreneurs’ ability to develop new venture ideas, and to accurately identify the most promising venture ideas created by others. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, interfered with entrepreneurs’ new idea generation, and hindered their ability to see clearly the strengths and weaknesses of others’ venture ideas—especially when those strengths and weaknesses were structural, rather than superficial.
In one of the experiments, researchers had entrepreneurs from around the world spend two weeks keeping daily diaries of their sleep. Every morning, entrepreneurs would report how they slept. Every afternoon, the entrepreneurs would evaluate a series of business venture ideas. The less sleep entrepreneurs got, the less able they were to spot the ideas that seemed superficially promising, but had structural vulnerabilities. On the other hand, the more sleep entrepreneurs logged, the more likely they were to give lower ratings to those ideas that looked superficially attractive, but lacked structural promise. In short, sleep helped entrepreneurs be more skeptical about questionable venture ideas.
Sleep also led entrepreneurs to better identify the promise in venture ideas that didn’t have a lot of superficial attractiveness, but had more underlying, structural attractiveness. Sleep helped entrepreneurs identify these “hidden gems.” And lack of sleep did just the opposite. With less sleep, entrepreneurs couldn’t see past the superficial weaknesses to the root strengths of these venture ideas.
In another of the experiments, researchers directly manipulated sleep to see how it would affect entrepreneurs’ ability to imagine new ideas and to assess venture ideas well. A group of business students at a large research university in the U.S. were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was put through two days of sleep deprivation, having to stay up all night before undertaking a series of venture-idea-generating tasks and questions. No naps were allowed, and the students were allowed neither caffeine nor alcohol.
The non-sleep deprivation group slept a minimum of 7 hours that night, before undertaking the same venture idea work as the other group.
Researchers measured the students’ ability to generate new venture ideas, and they also measured the students’ ability to pick the strongest business venture ideas from a group of several.
They found the non-sleep-deprived group was better able to create better, more structurally sound and viable new venture ideas than the sleep-deprived group. When ranking business venture ideas that weren’t their own, the sleep-deprived group gave more positive scores to the less attractive business ideas than their well-rested counterparts in the non-sleep-deprived group.
Across the series of experiments, researchers found that sleep specifically influenced entrepreneurs’ ability to perform structural reasoning—pattern recognition, seeing structural similarities amid superficial differences, putting together pieces of existing information in new ways to create structurally viable venture ideas.
That’s a pretty essential, specific, quantifiable benefit—or impairment—that sleep delivers to entrepreneurial work. Sleep’s influence over these venture-idea-producing skills are variable from day-to-day. Even a single bad night of sleep means entrepreneurs will be less likely to be able to pinpoint and cultivate great new venture ideas, and less adept at picking out the biggest potential winning ideas from a group of ventures. On the other hand, entrepreneurs who maintain a healthy sleep regimen and don’t shortchange their sleep for the non-stop hustle of their work will have a built-in advantage when it comes to their ability to produce and to spot great new venture ideas.
You don’t need to be Elon Musk to recognize the tremendous benefits from sleep in this realm of sharp, analytical, creative thinking. (And let’s face it: Musk could use a whole new sleep routine, with a lot more nightly rest.) Entrepreneur or not, investing in a full night of sleep—every night—pays big-time dividends to your cognitive performance, no matter what you do.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™