Nathaniel Kleitman was the first to observe that sleep deprivation in humans did not eliminate the ability to perform neurobehavioral functions, but it did make it difficult to maintain stable performance for more than a few minutes. To investigate variability in performance as a function of sleep deprivation, n = 13 subjects were tested every 2 hours on a 10-minute, sustained-attention, psychomotor vigilance task (PVT) throughout 88 hours of total sleep deprivation (TSD condition), and compared to a control group of n = 15 subjects who were permitted a 2-hour nap every 12 hours (NAP condition) throughout the 88-hour period. PVT reaction time means and standard deviations increased markedly among subjects and within each individual subject in the TSD condition relative to the NAP condition. TSD subjects also had increasingly greater performance variability as a function of time on task after 18 hours of wakefulness. During sleep deprivation, variability in PVT performance reflected a combination of normal timely responses, errors of omission (i.e., lapses), and errors of commission (i.e., responding when no stimulus was present). Errors of omission and errors of commission were highly intercorrelated across deprivation in the TSD condition (r = 0.85, p = 0.0001), suggesting that performance instability is more likely to include compensatory effort than a lack of motivation. The marked increases in PVT performance variability as sleep loss continued supports the "state instability" hypothesis, which posits that performance during sleep deprivation is increasingly variable due to the influence of sleep initiating mechanisms on the endogenous capacity to maintain attention and alertness, thereby creating an unstable state that fluctuates within seconds and that cannot be characterized as either fully awake or asleep.