What would your computer guy say to you if you had 6 programs running simultaneously and you shut off your computer? He would say thank you because you would be doing damage to your computer which means more work for him and orthodontia for his daughter. Every one that has ever used a PC knows that we need to shut down each open program, one at a time before saying good night to our beloved PCs. Have you ever noticed the similarities between the human brain and the personal computer; no coincidence since the PC is a creation of the human mind.
Our efficiency and accuracy in performing tasks runs parallel to our sense of wakefulness which peaks soon after awakening and gradually degrades as the day progresses until evening time when we become sleepy and the cycle starts anew. While feeling sleepy is something with which everyone can identify, diminished executive functioning (our ability to identify and fulfill tasks) is not as obvious. Never the less our executive functioning diminishes as the day progresses being the first brain function to decline when we are sleep deprived or drowsy. To prove this point, a major review conducted in 1996 suggested that the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl (costing over 4,000 lives) and the near nuclear accidents at the Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom reactors were all associated with sleep deprivation of the people involved. Sleepy driving causes as many car crashes as driving under the influence.
During the course of our hectic days we too have a whole host of open programs in our brains, which is as it should be when we need to execute tasks and move our agendas forward. Just like our personal computers, our brains cannot go from having 6 open programs to off without some adverse consequences when we go to re-open these same programs tomorrow. In order for sleep to fulfill its restorative function we must get both the proper quantity and quality of sleep. People that work right up until the time that they fall asleep are deluded if they think this increases their productivity; however this habit actually decreases productivity due to their inefficiency and error of performing tasks while drowsy. Just like with our computers, we need to start shutting down our open programs, one at a time, starting well before sleep time. Time management, as it relates to human performance and productivity is not a zero sum game. The 90 minutes we spend “chilling” before we sleep is not 90 minutes of work lost; it is actually a pre-requisite for restoring our ability to function “executively” the next day.
My message is, shut down your open programs and chill out for a while before trying to go to sleep tonight; it may just prevent a disaster from happening tomorrow.
Mitchell R. Weisberg, MD, MP