Sleep vs. Pulling All-Nighters for Work? Pick Sleep.

School and university are both stressful environments. The education system seems to just buckle down on students even harder every year. Keeping up with school work can feel like swimming against the current and priorities all point north to GET WORK DONE. The first thing most of us do to meet deadlines is to compromise our sleep.

You’ve got a super important exam the next day and you’ve barely revised any of your notes. What’s the plan? Sleep on it? Nah, you’d much rather stay up most of the night revising till your eyes bleed. 

Don’t deny it. We’ve all been there. 

Sleep deprivation has detrimental effects on memory.  Here’s a breakdown of why you should trade your textbooks for a nice pillow and blanket.

How does memory work?

Memory is the ability to encode, rehearse and retrieve information. To put it crudely, we’ve got two memory stores: short-term and long-term. For information to get into your short-term memory, you have to pay attention to it. Seems kinda obvious, doesn’t it? Unless something really catches your attention, you pay it no notice. Next, in order for information to move from short-term memory to long-term memory, rehearsal is absolutely crucial. Hence, it explains why teachers are always telling you to keep practice, practice and practice?

There have been several models of how memory works which have been updated and revised over the years. One approach to understanding memory is the Working Memory Model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (2003). In this model, there are three main components: the visuospatial sketchpad, the central executive, and the phonological loop.

  • Visuospatial sketchpad: This has to do with remembering visual or spatial tasks, essentially anything you can see. It’s associated with the occipital lobe of the brain.
  • Central executive: This is meant to be the chief processing system that, essentially, orders around the other aspects of memory. It’s thought to be associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
  • Phonological loop: This deals with any auditory information you hear. This includes subvocalization. (You know that little annoying voice in your head? Yeah, that’s processed by the phonological loop.) It’s thought to be associated with Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.
Image courtesy of Frontiers Media

Together, these components contribute to different aspects of memory. 

*Here to a better summary of Baddeley’s work if the actual paper is too much to comprehend.

But does sleep really affect memory?

Short answer: YES.

Long answer: Also yes, with loads of evidence for support:

Krause et al. (2017) analysed the sleep-deprived human brain and found several (terrifying) effects of sleep-deprivation. 

After pulling an all-nighter, have you felt your eyes stinging and your movements become erratic? You kind of faze out only to be brought back to the present when your chemistry teacher calls on you to solve an organic chemistry problem? (No? Just me? Fine then.)

Well, sleep deprivation actually affects your ability to pay attention. This fact seems SO obvious — you’d think more people would pay heed! Functional MRIs, or fMRI’s, have shown that there’s reduced activity in the frontal and parietal regions (which play a role in attention) and you’re unable to focus on anything for extended periods of time. 

Working memory is also impaired. There is reduced activation in associated brain areas which can negatively affect your memory and performance. So, that exam you were cramming for? Probably didn’t help much.

Also, in order to stay active, your body is constantly producing a substance called adenosine. Staying awake for huge amounts of time causes adenosine to build up in the hippocampus — an area of the brain thought to be responsible for memory storage, and reduces the amount of signalling that can take place in the brain. 

Sleep also consolidates memory. This mainly happens during slow-wave sleep (SWS) which is, in a nutshell, the third stage of deep sleep. You can’t just attain this level of sleep with an hour or two every night. Think of sleep as a kind of video game where the longer you play, the higher the levels you reach.  This transfer of information into long-term storage is crucial.

Why should you be prioritising sleep?

Because memory isn’t the only function that is affected by sleep deprivation. Take a look at this TED Talk to learn more about other effects lack of sleep can have.


How do you expect me to prioritize sleep??? I’ve got TEN MILLION assignments to complete!

Now, I definitely agree with the fact that we should aim to get work done. But consider this: unless sleep was crucial in some way, humans wouldn’t have been designed to get some shut-eye. I mean, we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re asleep. Surely, that’s got to count for something. Surely this means we’ve got to prioritize it.

There are several strategies you can implement in your daily life to reach those oh so treasured eight-hours of sleep:

Set a time by which you should be in bed. At first, you may find that you’re not finishing all your work by that time. That’s absolutely fine so long as you force yourself to put your work down. This will force you to work more efficiently during the day so you’re not spending hours doom scrolling through social media. 

Don’t study on your bed. Your bed space is for relaxing and sleeping in (duh). Studying in this environment will definitely make you slothful and unproductive–yes, I know it’s super comfortable but in the long run, it won’t be helpful at all.

Avoid consuming caffeine after 4 PM. A study showed that drinking coffee six hours before sleeping STILL impaired sleep. So if you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee, consider lugging around a ginormous water bottle instead.

Stay off your phone and other electronic devices at least thirty minutes prior to sleeping. This feels like an impossible feat especially because of online learning taking over our lives and texting/calling being the only way to stay in touch with friends. But research shows that the bright screens of your devices can actually affect sleep quality.

You can’t build a “bank” of hours of sleep. If you sleep for three hours one night and try to make up for it the next day by sleeping a million hours, that won’t help. That’s not how sleep works. It’s far better to have a consistent routine–sleep at the same time every night (as mentioned) but wake up at the same time too. This may seem hard at first but humans are creatures of habit and it’ll benefit you in the long run.

So, the next time you feel guilty for not studying enough and want to pull an all-nighter, think about how different parts of your body are affected by sleep deprivation. Perhaps getting a lower grade is worth conserving your mental and physical well-being.

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