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Tonianne DeMaria

Health Care

Sleep: Your Workflow’s Most Important Form of Slack

Sleep better, perform better

Published: Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 13:19

“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
—John Steinbeck

In Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011), Jim Benson and I discuss how workflow should be optimized for throughput, not capacity. Work shouldn’t “fit” into your day but rather, it should flow. Much like how a freeway grinds to a halt when its capacity is exceeded, so too do people who are overloaded experience physical and mental gridlock. As with any system—animate, mechanistic, social, or ecological—the importance of incorporating slack to absorb or respond to variation, create efficient processing, and maximize performance is not simply good practice, it’s indispensable.

Recently, a series of disconcerting conversations caused me to reflect on how much we tend to undervalue sleep, our most important form of slack:
• A taxi driver shared how he works 12+ hours per day, with one hour off for lunch, seven days per week because, as he explained, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
• A nail technician who works seven days each week, 10+ hours per day, and only takes off holidays expressed pride in her “work ethic” while dismissing her colleagues who work 5–6 days per week as “lazy.”
• A software developer boasted he could—and in fact, does—exist on a diet of Red Bull, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and as little as 2–3 hours of sleep, but admitted to greeting each morning in a haze of stupor.

Sure, these folks might be “productive,” but how effective are they really in the long term?

“I spend endless days at a time without enough sleep. At first, normal activities become annoying. When you are too tired to eat, you really need some sleep. A few days later, things become strange. Loud noises become louder and more startling, familiar sounds become unfamiliar, and life reinvents itself as a surrealist dream.”
—Henry Rollins

We wear our busyness like a badge of honor. It has become our default way of existing.

Sleep, we rationalize, is for the weak and, ironically, for “slackers.” We see it not as a function essential to our existence but as a reward to be earned. And when we do finally deem ourselves “worthy” of a healthy night’s sleep, we “cheat” in an attempt to compensate for the hours we’ve been deprived.

“Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health, and safety,” notes the National Sleep Foundation. “When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to ‘pay back’ if it becomes too big. The resulting sleep deprivation has been linked to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure, negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road.”

Beyond the obvious self-destructive nature of burning the proverbial candle at both ends, fatigue impedes our brain activity, which leads to lack of clarity, which necessitates more effort, increases mistakes, and diminishes judgment.

So long as we view sleep as a luxury, we will dismiss it as waste, deprioritizing it when in actuality, it’s the only thing absolutely vital to our workflow.

Does it really need to be stated? Humans cannot live without sleep.

So I propose we begin looking at sleep as integral to our workflow. The slack of sleep is not simply vital to your personal kanban, it’s vital for smooth, efficient flow and maximizing performance.

If you frame sleep as part of your work, unfinished sleep becomes WIP. We then struggle with focus and multitasking, and task-switching become inevitable, creating a vicious cycle that interferes with the quality of other parts of our life. When we are sleep-deprived, our WIP limit should actually be reduced.

“I work in the quiet of home 7–8 a.m. to sort out things that are stuck or unresolved. Only after I have landed that thinking do I go into the office.”
—Tiffany Overton

A quiet mind, a fresh perspective, leads to improved memory, longer attention span, sustainable learning, and improved judgment.

Sleep better. Perform better. It really is that simple.


About The Author

Tonianne DeMaria’s picture

Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne DeMaria is partner and principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, and co-founder of Modus Institute and Kaizen Camp. She is co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award-winning book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and the upcoming Why Kanban Works and Kidzban. DeMaria is passionate about the roles collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which lean thinking can facilitate these ends. She helps clients create cultures where effectiveness is valued over productivity; learning and continuous improvement is ongoing; innovation can take hold; and where healthier, fulfilling, and more integrated lives can result.