Unlike data plans, sleep doesn’t rollover well. Baylor University researchers found that college-age students who skimped on sleep to meet deadlines then played “catch-up” with long periods of rest performed worse on tests of creativity and attention.

The new study measured the sleep habits (using self-reported data and a movement tracker) and cognitive performance of 28 interior design students. Students, no matter their field of study, often “restrict sleep, then rebound on sleep, then repeat” to meet deadlines, as study co-author Michael Scullin, PhD, director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, said in the study’s press release.

The students’ sleep patterns confirmed how detrimental this cycle of poor sleep can be. At the beginning and end of the study, the students completed two cognitive testing sessions: One test used word-association to measure creative thinking and the other measured memory and executive attention. Researchers found that the “more variability they showed in their night-to-night sleep, the worse their cognition declined across the week,” Scullin said. Only one participant got more than seven hours a night for the entire week of the study (adults need between 7–9 hours of sleep a night) and 79 percent of them slept fewer than seven hours for at least three nights during the week, according to the press release.

Though the sample size was small, the findings are in line with existing research showing that sleep loss negatively affects our cognitive performance. Beyond that, the consequences of poor sleep include “anxiety, depression and other mental health issues” to “the dangers of driving while sleep deprived,” King said. The researchers also suggest that aiming for consistent sleep is “at least as important as total length of sleep.”

Importantly, the findings may help to change the culture in creative fields, where people often feel the need to work into the wee hours to find inspiration. No one — no matter what type of job they have or what they study — is exempt from needing consistent, quality sleep to get their best work done.

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