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The importance of sleep for efficient thesis writing

Thesis writing is hard. And it is common for students at all levels to feel stressed during this phase. Prioritising sleep may sound counterintuitive. But there are very good (scientific!) reasons to prioritise sleep for efficient thesis writing.


Sleep deprivation among postgraduate students

Ideally, adults should sleep 8 to 9 hours. Every day. Without exception. Adolescents may need even more. In reality, however, many people fall short of even 6 or 7 hours. Postgraduate students are no exception to this.

Numerous studies have mapped sleep deprivation and low quality of sleep among university students in various contexts. And it is not too surprising: Following postgraduate studies is intense. And thesis writing is a tedious process.

While working on their thesis or dissertation, postgraduate students often still have coursework to complete. Many also have part-time jobs to finance their studies. And just studying and working is unhealthy, but hobbies and meeting friends requires time as well. As a result, sleep often suffers.

Negative effects of sleep deprivation

Unfortunately, when sleep is sacrificed, our physical and mental health suffers as well. Some commentators call the inadequate sleep that large parts of society get a ‘sleep deprivation pandemic’ that is raging across the world, reducing our quality of life.

Sleep deprivation among students has been connected to lower academic achievements, delayed graduation or higher dropout rates.

In general, sleep deprivation can have physical consequences such as a reduced functioning of one’s immune system, obesity, and high blood pressure. Even higher risk of death by traffic accidents due to drowsiness.

The mental consequences of sleep deprivation include irritability, higher levels of stress, a higher risk of depression, and reduced cognitive performance.

Cognitive capacities required for effective thesis writing

Cognitive performance matters when writing a master’s or PhD thesis. According to C8 Sciences, there are eight core cognitive capacities. Their relevance to thesis writing is striking:

  • Sustained attention: Thesis writing requires you to stay focused for longer periods to make progress.
  • Response inhibition: How often do you get distracted by an incoming email? Or quickly check the news or social media on your phone? Response inhibition refers to the ability to ignore distractions.
  • Speed of information processing: If you are slow with processing a high load of information, thesis writing becomes tricky. The faster you get a grip on academic literature and empirical findings, the better.
  • Cognitive flexibility: Thesis writing requires you to critically reflect on your current knowledge, consider new perspectives and in some instances change your mind.
  • Multiple simultaneous attention: Thesis writing requires multitasking. Reading literature, analysing data, contacting study participants, transcribing interviews, reviewing supervisor comments… Plus, dealing with whatever else is going on in your life.
  • Working memory: A good memory helps you to work effectively. Imagine you make a discovery. Do you remember which scholars discussed similar phenomena? How fast can you find sources to support your argument?
  • Category formation: Thesis writing requires categorising and abstracting. This is both true when it comes to literature reviews and empirical findings. Without forming categories, writing up your thesis will be difficult.
  • Pattern recognition: Pattern recognition forms, as C8 Sciences states, “the basis for all scientific inquiry.” So to contribute to your thesis, you need to engage in finding patterns.

Impaired cognitive performance through sleep deprivation

After having established the importance of cognitive capacities for thesis writing, here comes the shocking news: sleep is connected to all of them. And a lack of sleep can have a huge negative impact on your cognitive performance!

Decreased memory, concentration problems, impaired judgement. You name it. Sleep is essential in absorbing and processing information. And with inadequate sleep, your ability to learn can drop by up to 40% according to the National Institutes of Health.

To everyone who wants to learn more about the fascinating effects, I recommend the book “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker. The book is a page-turner and hence a great bedtime reading. It is also a wakeup call (pun not intended 🙂 ) for all academics to prioritize sleep, and to teach their students the same.

If you know that you struggle with sleeping (enough), no need to worry. The book is not depressing. Instead, it helps you to understand what affects sleep, and how to better take care of your sleep.

Sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression

One more point that deserves attention when linking sleep to effective thesis writing is the connection between sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression.

The mental health crisis among PhD and master’s students is omnipresent. For those writing their thesis, it may start with the infamous imposter syndrome kicking in. Others struggle with full-on anxiety and depression.

There is, of course, much more at stake than just a lack of sleep. But prioritising sleep, especially during difficult periods of thesis writing, should be part of your mental health care.

Studies have scientifically proven that attention paid to sleep can lead to “reduced anxiety, an improved physical state and a better quality of life” (Friedrich et al. 2018: 268).

Simple tips for PhD, master’s and bachelor’s tudents to sleep better

There are a few simple tweaks that can affect your sleep and sleep quality immensely:

  • Reduce caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon.
  • Exercise and move your body during the day.
  • Develop an evening ritual, such as taking a bath or listening to calm music, to wind down
  • Dim your lights in the evening.
  • Avoid screens (TV, laptop, phone) before or especially in bed.

Carving out enough time to sleep is challenging. But remember that stopping to work on your thesis in the evening and making sure to sleep early will probably pay off, as you will function better cognitively the next morning. This is effective thesis writing.

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