Differential Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Hard and Soft Skills Training

Key takeaway: Todd Maddox, Ph.D. uses his background in the psychological and brain science of learning to show how sleep deprivation affects employees’ working memory and executive attention. Both work and training environments should take sleep into consideration in developing high-performance and high-retention environments. Otherwise, sleep deprivation can ruin even the best-designed training environments.

In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion. She broke her cheekbone and had several stitches on her head. That experience changed her forever. She knew that she was working too hard, all in the interest of increased productivity. She spoke with scientists and researchers, she read extensively and ultimately realized that she needed to make a significant change in her life. That change was more consistent and restful sleep.

In her book, The Sleep Revolution, Huffington makes a number of important points regarding sleep. Most importantly, she references the strong scientific literature showing that a consistent sleep duration and consistent sleep and wake time is critical for restful sleep. In addition, she argues for a sleep routine that involves a “winding down” period to cleanse the mind of one’s worries. Finally, she points out that too many of us sleep with our buzzing, vibrating and flashing smartphones within arm’s reach, which is highly disruptive.

In a brief, but wonderful TEDWomen talk from 2010, Ms. Huffington tells a story about a dinner meeting that she had with a gentleman. He boasted that he got only 4 hours of sleep the night before. She wondered to the audience, but not to her dinner guest, whether an additional 1 or 2 hours of sleep might have led to a more interesting dinner meeting.

This was a “tongue in cheek” comment, but it says it all. The power of a good night’s sleep should not be underestimated. Instead of bragging about being able to function on little sleep as if it is a badge of honor, we should close our eyes and sleep our way to increased productivity, and decision-making. Who knows we might even be happier in the end.

The Brain Science of Sleep and Learning

My expertise is in the psychological and brain science of learning. In the corporate world, this translates to training hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills include learning new software, learning a company’s rules and regulations, or memorizing the set of steps to take to complete a task. Soft skills are people skills and include behaving in ways that show empathy, embrace diversity, and minimize unconscious biases. Soft skills are critical for effective management, collaborative communication, customer service, and avoiding behavior that can be interpreted as harassment.

As outlined in a recent article, hard skills are best learned by engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, whereas soft skills are best learned by engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Hard skill learning relies heavily on working memory and executive attentional processes, whereas soft skills learning relies on gradual, incremental behavior change and not on working memory and executive attention.

One obvious question to ask is whether sleep deprivation has differential effects on hard vs. soft skills training. In two research studies conducted in my Human Learning and Performance Laboratory1,2, and published in the leading peer-reviewed journal in sleep and circadian science, SLEEP, I address this question empirically. Given the heavy reliance of hard skill learning on working memory and executive attention, I predicted that hard skills learning would be more affected by sleep deprivation than soft skills learning and that the effect would be mediated by attentional and working memory processes. Individuals learned a hard or a soft skill twice, separated by a 24-hour period, with or without sleep. We found strong effects of sleep deprivation on hard skill learning, and smaller effects of sleep deprivation on soft skill learning. Although the details are beyond the scope of this article, we used computational modeling techniques to localize the cognitive process that led to the hard skills deficit. We found that working memory and attentional processes were operating sub-optimally, leading to poor hard skills learning.

These are only two studies and both used a 24-hour sleep deprivation technique. More common in everyday life is chronic sleep deprivation. Our participants were West Point cadets who are clearly a special population. Despite these disclaimers, these studies are highly suggestive that hard skill learning is more strongly affected by sleep deprivation than soft skill learning.

Corporate Training Implications

There are a number of implications of this work that could be immediately incorporated into corporate training settings to enhance learning. I can think of a half dozen off the top of my head. One obvious way forward would be to obtain some estimate of the quality of an employee’s previous night’s sleep. If their sleep was especially good, I would prioritize hard skills training for that day, as the cognitive skills learning system in their brain should be especially ready to learn. On the other hand, if their sleep was average or poor, I would prioritize soft skills training for that day, so as not to rely heavily on working memory and attentional processes.

How might one assess sleep? Nearly every smartphone includes an app that measures sleep quality. There are also some very short duration tasks that one can have the employee complete that are highly correlated with sleep quality. This is not an insurmountable problem, and even if a modest increase in performance was achieved, that would be significant across a large workforce.

A good night’s sleep is critical to productivity and many aspects of our work life. However, when a good night’s sleep cannot be obtained, change the priorities for that day to minimized reliance on working memory and executive attention.


1Maddox, W.T., Glass, B.D., Wolosin, S.M., Savarie, Z.R., Bowen, C., Matthews, M.D., & Schnyer, D.M. (2009). The effects of sleep deprivation on information-integration categorization performance. SLEEP, 32, 1439-1448.

2Maddox, W.T., Glass, B.D., Zeithamova, D., Savarie, Z.R., Bowen, C., Matthews, M.D., & Schnyer, D.M. (2011). The effects of sleep deprivation on dissociable prototype learning systems. SLEEP, 34, 253-260.

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