Should you prioritize sleep or studies?

Even though we all heard that sleep is important most of the students (including me) do not get enough sleep. In fact, there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to sleep deprivation at higher education institutions. But is it really worth sacrificing sleep for studies?

You should prioritize sleep over studies in the same way as you prioritize drinking water over studying. Studies show that (like proper nutrition and exercise) sleep is vital to the wellbeing and performance of students. Getting enough sleep can allow you to get better grades, be more focused, have better relationships, remember more of the study material. While sleep deprivation can lead to depression, lack of mental clarity, lower GPA, and damaged health.

Of course, it might sound rather counter-intuitive that you can get better grades if you study less in order to get enough sleep. However, the science is quite clear that sleep is vital to your wellbeing. Let’s see why.

What happens if you do not get enough sleep?

According to Dr. William C. Dement, who is regarded as a father of sleep medicine, sleep is as important as exercise and nutrition. And not getting enough sleep like not eating properly can have some dire consequences:

The bottom line is clear if you want to thrive at university – you need quality sleep. Or as the title of a video by RSA says: either you sleep or you die.

What are the benefits of sleeping enough?

Like proper nutrition and exercise, proper sleep can lead to numerous benefits, many of which could really boost your performance at the university:

white cat sleeps under white comforter
  • Better grades (University of Georgia)
  • Improved productivity, memory and concentration (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
  • Good sleepers tend to eat fewer calories (8, 11, 12)
  • Better immune function (13, 14)
  • Great mood (15)
  • Improved athletic performance (16, 17)

If you are still not convinced that your sleep is essential for academic success, then I highly recommend watching a talk by Matthew Walker, the director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab. In this speech, Matthew explains why sleep is so critical especially if we want to learn efficiently.

How to know that you are not sleeping enough?

If you are getting less than 7 hours of sleep most likely you are not getting enough sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults (18 – 25) should be getting from 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. And if you want to know a more exact number that applies to you I recommend reading this post (How many hours of sleep do university students need?).

Another way of figuring out if you are sleep deprived is by taking a test called the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Just fill in the the following form and calculate the total sum of points.

You should fill in the column titled “Chance of Dozing” and you should fill in:

  • 0 – if no chance of dozing
  • 1 – slight chance of dozing
  • 2 – moderate chance of dozing
  • 3 – high chance of dozing
SituationChance of Dozing
Sitting and reading
Watching TV
Sitting inactive in a public place (e.g. a theater or a meeting)
As a passenger in a car for an hour without a break
Lying down to rest in the afternoon when the circumstances permit
Sitting and talking to someone
Sitting quietly after lunch without alcohol
In a car, while stopped for a few minutes in traffic

So once you sum up your total score, here is what the result means:

  • 1 – 6: Congrats you are getting enough sleep
  • 7 – 8: Your score is average
  • 9 and up: Your are not getting enough sleep

What if you have a test tomorrow and you really need those extra hours for studying?

As students we have all been there – the exam is tomorrow and you still feel not prepared. So what do you? Should you pull an all-nighter? Essentially it all boils down to this simple equation:

Points that you will gain if sleep less – points that you will lose if you sleep less

And these are the factors that impact the result of this equation the most (in my opinion):

  • The score you want to receive.
    • perfect score – 3 points
    • good score -1 point
    • below average + 1 point
    • just a pass + 3 points
  • Your level of preparedness.
    • you know almost everything + 3 points
    • quite prepared – 1 point
    • not prepared + 1 point
    • you know nothing + 3 points
  • Whether had good sleep the night before.
    • you had excellent rest last night + 3 points
    • if you had good sleep before + 1 point
    • if you did not have good sleep – 1 point
    • you had almost no sleep last night – 3 points
  • How useful what you learn by sacrificing sleep will be on the exam.
    • not useful at all (could change your score by 1%) – 3 points
    • slightly useful (could change your score by 5%) – 1 point
    • useful (could change your score by 20%) + 1 point
    • extremely useful (could boost your score by 50 %) + 3 points
  • How much much sleep do you plan to sacrifice?
    • You want to do an all-nighter – 3 points
    • You will sleep at least 4 hours – 1 point
    • You will sleep at least 6 hours + 1 point

For example, if I want to get a good score (-1), are not prepared (+1), did not have good sleep before (-1), the material that I could learn is useful (+1) and I will sleep at least 6 hours (+1 point) then the result is positive (1 point).

In such a situation it might make sense to study a couple of hours extra at the expense of sleep and if it is negative then most likely you should get some sleep instead of studying.

Of course, this equation is oversimplified and you should use common sense when making a decision whether to sacrifice sleep before the exam. But still, it can serve as a rough guideline.

Other important factors to keep in mind when considering whether to sacradice sleep:

  • when you are sleep deprived you are learning less efficiently
  • if you drink coffee to keep yourself awake you might find it difficult to fall asleep and once the coffee wears off you will. So before the exam, it might make sense to drink some coffee to keep yourself awake.
  • Lack of sleep can damage your health as discussed previously.

Why do students still sacrifice sleep?

You now have heard that sleep is super important, but most likely you will still not get enough sleep (at least I still fail at that). The issue here I believe is just bad habits – primarily procrastination and prioritizing the wrong things.

As long as you will constantly go to parties that make you stay up till 5 am or as long as you will leave all your studying for the last night – you will not get enough sleep and you will end up in situations where you have to pull off all-nighters just to pass the exam.

I am not saying that you should only study or that you should not go to parties. You should try to find some sort of balance, where you can still have fun and not sacrifice sleep.

But in the end, it is your choice. After all, maybe you do not care about your studies or maybe you are OK with sacrificing your health.


Sleep is essential to your success as a student. You should sacrifice it only when it feels like you have no other choice. Ultimately you should view sleep, not as wasted time, but an investment into your well being and productivity.

Danielius Korsakas

Has a BSc in Economics and currently is pursuing a double master's degree in very fluffy but interesting subjects. Loves learning and building stuff.

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