Why You Should Make a Good Night's Sleep a Priority - Harvard Summer School (2023)

The time you spend in high school and college can be both fun and rewarding. At the same time, these can be some of the busiest years of your life.

Balancing all the demands on your time—a full course load, extracurricular activities, and socializing with friends—can be challenging. And if you also work or have family commitments, it can feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

With so many competing priorities, sacrificing sleep may feel like the only way to get everything done.

Despite the sleepiness you might feel the next day, one late night probably won’t have a major impact on your well-being. But regularly short-changing yourself on quality sleep can have serious implications for school, work, and your physical and mental health.

Alternatively, prioritizing a regular sleep schedule can make these years healthier, less stressful, and more successful long-term.

The sleep you need versus the sleep you get

According to the National Sleep Foundation, high school students (ages 14-17) need about eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. For young adults (ages 18 to 25), the range is need between seven and nine hours.

How do you know how much sleep you need within this range?

According to Dr. Edward Pace-Schott, Harvard Summer School and Harvard Medical School faculty member and sleep expert, you can answer that question simply by observing how much you sleep when you don’t need to get up.

“When you’ve been on vacation for two weeks, how are you sleeping during that second week? How long are you sleeping? If you’re sleeping eight or nine hours when you don’t have any reason to get up, then chances are you need that amount or close to that amount of sleep,” says Pace-Schott.

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Most students, however, get far less sleep than the recommended amount.

Seventy to 96 percent of college students get less than eight hours of sleep each week night. And over half of college students sleep less than seven hours per night. The numbers are similar for high school students; 73 percent of high school students get between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep.

Of course, many students attempt to catch up on lost sleep by sleeping late on the weekends. Unfortunately, this pattern is neither healthy nor a true long-term solution to sleep deprivation.

And what about those students who say that they function perfectly well on just a couple hours of sleep?

“There are very few individuals who are so-called short sleepers, people who really don’t need more than six hours of sleep. But, there are a lot more people who claim to be short sleepers than there are real short sleepers,” says Pace-Schott.

Consequences of sleep deprivation

The consequences of sleep deprivation are fairly well established but may still be surprising.

For example, did you know that sleep deprivation can create the same level of cognitive impairment as drinking alcohol?

According to the CDC, staying awake for 18 hours can have the same effect as a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 percent. Staying awake for 24 hours can equate to a BAC of 0.10 percent (higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent).

And according to research by AAA, drowsy driving causes an average of 328,000 motor vehicle accidents each year in the US. Drivers who sleep less than five hours per night are more than five times as likely to have a crash as drivers who sleep for seven hours or more.

Other signs of chronic sleep deprivation include:

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  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • Irritability and short temper
  • Mood changes
  • Trouble coping with stress
  • Difficulty focusing, concentrating, and remembering
  • Brain fog

Over the long term, chronic sleep deprivation can have a serious impact on your physical and mental health. Insufficient sleep has been linked, for example, to weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The impact on your mental health can be just as serious. Harvard Medical School has conducted numerous studies, including research by Pace-Schott, demonstrating a link between sleep deprivation and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Importance of sleep for high school and college students

As difficult as it is to prioritize sleep, the advantages of going to bed early and getting quality sleep every night are very real.

College students who prioritize sleep are likely to see an improvement in their academic performance.

If you are well rested, you will experience less daytime sleepiness and fatigue. You may need less caffeine to stay awake during those long lectures. And you will also find you are more productive, more attentive to detail, and able to concentrate better while studying.

But the connection between sleep and academic performance goes well beyond concentration and attentiveness.

“Sleep is very important for consolidating memories. In any sort of experimental setting, study results show better performance if you learn material and then sleep on it, instead of remaining awake. So there’s lots and lots of evidence now indicating that sleep promotes memory strengthening and memory consolidation,” says Pace-Schott.

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There is also a strong connection between sleep quality and stress.

Students who prioritize sleep are better able to cope with the stress that comes with being an active student.

“It’s a vicious circle where the more stressed you get, the less you sleep, and the less you sleep, the more stressed you get. And in the long term, that can lead to serious psychiatric problems,” says Pace-Schott.

In the worst case scenario, the combination of lack of sleep and stress can lead to mental health disorders such as depression, general anxiety disorder, and potentially even post-traumatic stress disorder.

But prioritizing sleep can create a positive feedback loop as well.

Establishing a sleep schedule and adequate sleep duration can improve your ability to cope with stress. Being active and productive will help you get more done throughout the day, which also reduces feelings of stress.

And the less stressed you feel during the day, the better you will sleep at night.

Tips for getting more sleep as a student

The key to getting a good night’s sleep is establishing healthy sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene.

The first step is deciding to make sleep a priority.

Staying ahead of coursework and avoiding distractions and procrastination while you study is key to avoiding the need for late night study sessions. And prioritizing sleep may mean leaving a party early or choosing your social engagements carefully.

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Yet the reward—feeling awake and alert the next morning—will reinforce that positive choice.

The next step is establishing healthy bedtime and daytime patterns to promote good quality sleep.

Pace-Schott offers the following tips on steps you can take to create healthy sleep hygiene:

  1. Limit caffeine in close proximity to bed time. College students should also avoid alcohol intake, which disrupts quality sleep.
  2. Avoid electronic screens (phone, laptop, tablet, desktop) within an hour of bedtime.
  3. Engage in daily physical exercise, but avoid intense exercise within two hours of bedtime.
  4. Establish a sleep schedule. Be as consistent as possible in your bedtime and rise time, and get exposure to morning sunlight.
  5. Establish a “wind-down” routine prior to bedtime.
  6. Limit use of bed for daily activities other than sleep (e.g., TV, work, eating)

Of course, college students living in dorms or other communal settings may find their sleep disturbed by circumstances beyond their control: a poor-quality mattress, inability to control the temperature of your bedroom, or noisy roommates, for example.

But taking these active steps to promote healthy sleep will, barring these other uncontrollable circumstances, help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and get a more restorative sleep.

And for students who are still not convinced of the importance of sleep, Pace-Schott says that personal observation is the best way to see the impact of healthy sleep habits.

“Keep a sleep diary for a week. Pay attention to your sleep in a structured way. And be sure to record how you felt during the day. This can really help you make the link between how you slept the night before and how you feel during the day. It’s amazing how much you will learn about your sleep and its impact on your life.”

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Why You Should Make a good night's sleep a priority Harvard? ›

If you are well rested, you will experience less daytime sleepiness and fatigue. You may need less caffeine to stay awake during those long lectures. And you will also find you are more productive, more attentive to detail, and able to concentrate better while studying.

Why getting a good night sleep is important for students? ›

Students should get the proper amount of sleep at night to help stay focused, improve concentration, and improve academic performance. Children and adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk for many health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries.

Why is sleep so important Harvard? ›

When you sleep, your brain catalogues the previous day's experiences, primes your memory, and triggers the release of hormones regulating energy, mood, and mental acuity. To complete its work, the brain needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

Why sleep should be a priority? ›

Sleep is important for a number of things, including balancing bodily processes, memory and regulating symptoms similar to anxiety and depression. Without sleep, individuals have poorer response times, shorter attention spans, and lower ability for complex thinking such as logical reasoning.

What does Bill Gates say about sleep? ›

Gates wrote that people “almost certainly” need seven to eight hours a night, “even if you've convinced yourself otherwise.” (That's backed by science: The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night.) And sleep is far from lazy; your body needs it to function.

How many hours Harvard students sleep? ›

On average, college students receive between 6-6.9 hours of sleep per night, with many reporting they fall asleep in class at least once every three months.

Why is night sleep so important? ›

Sleep is essential to every process in the body, affecting our physical and mental functioning the next day, our ability to fight disease and develop immunity, and our metabolism and chronic disease risk. Sleep is truly interdisciplinary because it touches every aspect of health.

Is sleep important for academic performance? ›

Without enough sleep, children and teens can have problems with attention, memory, and problem-solving. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to emotional issues and behavior problems that may affect academic achievement. Making sleep a priority is important for parents who want their children to succeed in school.

What is Elon Musk sleep schedule? ›

Elon Musk says he is "fairly nocturnal" and only sleeps about six hours a day. The world's richest man made the comments during an August 5 episode of The Full Send podcast. He said he usually goes to sleep at about 3 a.m. and wakes up after about six hours at 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.

What time Elon Musk goes to bed? ›

What is this? Elon Musk's daily routine can be summed up as work, eat, sleep, with work taking up a bulk of that time. With a bedtime of around 1am, Musk typically wakes up at 7am, getting 6 to 6.5 hours of sleep, which, he discovered over the years is his sweet spot. “Sleep is really great.

Is Elon Musk sleep deprived? ›

He keeps his time sleeping to a minimum. Musk gets “about six hours” of sleep, he told Rogan. “I tried sleeping less, but then total productivity decreases,” he said. “I don't find myself wanting more sleep than six [hours].”

How many hours sleep does Bill Gates have? ›

Sleep routine: 7 hours

I knew I wasn't as sharp when I was operating mostly on caffeine and adrenaline, but I was obsessed with my work, and I felt that sleeping a lot was lazy,” he wrote on his blog. Today, Gates regularly gets at least seven hours of sleep per night.

How many hours does Mark Zuckerberg sleep? ›

Mark Zuckerberg's sleep schedule

The CEO believes in having a healthy sleep schedule. He wakes up at 8 am and goes to bed at around 11-12 pm at the night. He tries to take quality sleep of at least 7-8 hours every day. But depending on his frequent travel trips and work hours may vary.

How long is a nap at Harvard? ›

Keep it short. Abbreviated sleeps, around 20 minutes, may be best to avoid grogginess when you wake up. Shorter naps can also help to prevent you from having trouble falling asleep that evening.

What is the key to a good night's sleep? ›

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends. Being consistent reinforces your body's sleep-wake cycle. If you don't fall asleep within about 20 minutes of going to bed, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing. Read or listen to soothing music.

How does sleep improve mental health? ›

Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain's processing of emotional information. During sleep, the brain works to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories, and it appears that a lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content.

Why do we sleep and why is it important? ›

Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. In fact, your brain and body stay remarkably active while you sleep. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.

Why is healthy sleep so crucial for academic success? ›

Sleep promotes cognition and memory, facilitates learning, recharges our mental and physical batteries, and generally helps us make the most out of our days. With plentiful sleep, we improve our mental and physical health, reduce stress, and maintain the routine that is critical to healthy daily functioning.

Does sleep affect GPA? ›

Hours of sleep per school night were significantly positively associated with GPA and level of motivation, and significantly negatively associated with clinically significant levels of emotional disturbance and ADHD.

How does lack of sleep affect students grades? ›

The consequences of sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness are especially problematic to college students and can result in lower grade point averages, increased risk of academic failure, compromised learning, impaired mood, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

What does research state about a good night sleep? ›

According to A National Institutes of Health study released in 2013, a good night's rest allows the brain to flush out toxins during sleep. Other studies have linked such toxins to neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Why getting enough sleep is important article? ›

Many studies have shown that getting enough sleep is important to our health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people with sleep deficiency have a greater risk of many health complications, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.

Is a good night's sleep important? ›

Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease and infections. Throughout the night, your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure rise and fall, a process that may be important for cardiovascular health.

What are 4 benefits of getting enough sleep? ›

Health Benefits

Stay at a healthy weight. Lower your risk for serious health problems, like diabetes and heart disease. Reduce stress and improve your mood. Think more clearly and do better in school and at work.


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