Using Sleep Science To Maximize Your Daytime Productivity

by Kevin Morton from
(Stanford, CA, USA)

Myself with Dr. Dement and the original Web Design Team.

Myself with Dr. Dement and the original Web Design Team.

It's amazing to think that only about 60 years ago the scientific community (and by extension, all of us) knew very little about sleep - how it works, what happens during it, and how exactly it affects us during our waking life. Sleep was always a subject that inspired many great thinkers and writers throughout history (think of all the classic stories written or inspired by dreams or dream-like sleep disorders, such as sleep terrors), but it wasn't until the 1950s that Dr. William Dement, inspired by his mentor Nathaniel Kleitman, pioneered the field of sleep research and we actually began to find out some objective insights into sleep.

I've had the pleasure and privilege of learning under Dr. Dement the last couple of years as a teaching assistant in his well-known Sleep and Dreams class at Stanford University. Last year I launched with his support the website to share what I and many of his other students have learned from him with other people who could benefit from it.

The most immediately practical aspect of sleep that I've learned from him is one that involves understanding my alertness levels during the day - levels that are controlled by what's known as the opponent process model.

The opponent process model consists of two factors - sleep debt and the circadian rhythms controlled by your biological clock - that plays the most significant role in determining your tendency to fall asleep, and thereby how alert you are, at any given time of the day. For anyone who values their productivity and strives to optimize it, this is crucial information that, as I will show below, one can behaviorally manipulate to achieve that optimization. In order to do that though, you first must understand the factors that influence the opponent process model.

Sleep debt is a concept discovered by Dr. Dement that refers to the cumulative acquisition of sleep deprivation when you sleeps less than your sleep need. Say your sleep need is 8 hours and on Monday you only slept 6 - you accumulate 2 hours of sleep debt that night. If you do that for a week straight, you will have accumulated 14 hours of sleep debt that will influence how alert you are until you pay the sleep debt back with naps or sleep in excess of your sleep need. People's sleep needs vary, but the influence of sleep debt is pretty consistent across the board, whether the individual who carries it is aware of it or not. This is a brief explanation of sleep debt and you can learn more about it on our site.

The other factor in the opponent process model has to do with your circadian rhythms, and in this case specifically the mechanism known as clock-dependent alerting (CDA). Clock-dependent alerting refers to the chemicals your body releases throughout the day that help wake you up, keep you alert, or make you fall asleep. In a traditional biological clock schedule, one is alerted by these chemicals for much of the day, with the exception of an obvious dip in alerting that occurs typically around 1-4 PM, just after lunch. The timing of the dip can vary because the biological clock can be shifted (as in delayed or advanced sleep phases, which you can learn about on our site), but having enough awareness of your feelings to know when this dip occurs in you is the key part in utilizing this information to optimize your productivity.

The opponent process model is named as such because sleep debt and the clock-dependent alerting chemicals essentially compete against each other, or oppose each other, to determine how tired or alert you are at any given time in the day. The higher your sleep debt, the stronger the clock-dependent alerting must be for you to be alert. This means that during the mid-afternoon dip in clock-dependent alerting you are especially vulnerable to feeling tired and not at peak performance level.

If your sleep debt is moderately high, this would be a great strategic time to get in a nap if your schedule permits it. Not only are you lowering your sleep debt so that you will be stronger against future dips in CDA, but your doing so at the most logical time - when your performance may not be at its best anyways.

If your sleep debt is low or if you're not able to nap in the afternoon, you can also combat the CDA dip with strategic caffeine consumption. If you're a coffee drinker, think about drinking a cup a half hour before you normally feel your dip (caffeine takes about 30 minutes to have an effect). The same logic applies to energy drinks or pills. I recently started to take caffeine pills 30 minutes before my dip because I find them to be a much more convenient and cost-effective way of maintaining my alertness through the dip.

Whatever strategies you choose to implement, it's clear that we are not by any means at the complete mercy of the ebb and flow of our circadian rhythms. With knowledge of how the opponent process model of sleep and wakefulness works, we can take measures to influence them in a way that is safe, natural, and maximizes our productivity.

Kevin Morton is an undergraduate at Stanford University in California and the founder of, a website made in partnership with Dr. William Dement's Stanford Sleep and Dreams whose goal is to empower individuals through sleep education to live healthily and alertly.

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