In defence of the afternoon nap

As I write this, I feel it coming.

For context, I woke up around 630am, not terribly early by any means. A workout, some actual work, a couple of meetings, and many coffees later, it’s around 230pm. 

I’m crashing hard. I open my emails and re-read them a few times. I lose concentration and become strangely fascinated with the IKEA cactus on my desk that I have a love-hate relationship with.

While the cactus is pretty and makes me feel like an adult (plants = well put together person, right?), I often miss the keyboard and slap my hand off the spine and have to pick them out mid-meeting. 

(this is the kind of irrelevant rambling that occurs around this time).  

It’s not just mentally, but physically too, I start to deform. My mouth becomes permanently half-open, and my IQ drops at least 50 points. And if you know me, you’ll know that I don’t have a single point to spare.

I figure I have two options. 

Option 1: 

Tab-surf. Jump from work project to work project, email to email, getting nothing done but feeling ‘productive’. Finish work, give myself a big pat on the back and melt into the couch for the rest of the night. Ass-in-seat time achieved, productivity halted since 230pm. 

Option 2: 

Set a timer for 1 hour and divebomb into my bed, bringing a cat or two (if they permit it). Curtains drawn, door closed, notifications off. Leave - me - alone-time. 60 minutes of darkness, then I’m up. I smash a glass of water, scratch my cats behind the ear, and jump back on my computer. Fast forward a few hours later, and I’ve magically completed the work I wanted to achieve. I feel energised, and have time to be creative in my own time, before winding down.  

So why is our culture built around option 1? 

For a start, it’s vital that I acknowledge that we all don’t have the luxury of heading away for a nap. My 6 years in a well-known coffee joint starting at 5am has taught me that well.

If someone told me to ‘just take a nap’ at this time, I’d have launched a large skinny cappuccino straight at their patrionising dome.

But for many of us, option 2 is becoming an option. With a surprise pandemic this year, many of us have been trapped working at home. Freedom, and the temptation of that oh-so-cozy duvet. If you can’t nap, I feel you, and I hope you get something out of this too. 

Recently, I spoke to a friend who said they had taken a nap on their lunch, and slept 30 minutes over. She was distraught, and felt guilty. ‘I’m supposed to be working!’

I laughed and started to question whether my 1-hour nap was something I should feel bad about, too.

It turns out this is a widespread idea. 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

In Japan, there's a phenomenon called 'inemuri', roughly translating to 'sleeping while awake.' 

For example, take Miyu, a (completely fictional) woman working in corporate Japan. 

To make a good impression, she arrives early and stays on late. Each morning, she is up at the crack of the dawn and fights to be the first one in the office. She cuts back on sleep and has never taken a long-lie in her professional life. 

However, Miyu is human, and her work-ethic is no match for the human body and its needs. She falls asleep regularly in public - 15 minutes here and there on the subway. A quick 5 minute doze mid-meeting. 

This - inemuri - is seen as a point of pride. Being a diligent and overworked professional is admirable. ‘Wow, she must work so hard that if she is so tired!’

While this may be an extreme example, that feeling of ‘pride’ for overworking is prevalent across the world. I’ve lost count how many times friends have bragged to me about getting ‘just a couple of hours’ of sleep. 

It seems to me that we have a broken equation.

Being overworked = a point of pride.

Resting appropriately = lazy.


The science: 

Thankfully, this ideology is changing. As mentioned in a recent New York Times article, companies are starting to wake up to this. 

One study tested participants in perception tests four times throughout the working day. With each test, the performance rapidly deteriorated for those that stayed awake. For those that took a 30 minute nap, the deterioration stopped - and for those that took the 60 minute nap (aka nap kings and queens), they even reversed the deterioration.

In fact, some sleep experts argue that a good-quality nap can have as many benefits as a full night's sleep - especially if you’re not getting your 7-9 hours a night. 

Even in well-rested people though, naps can improve performance in areas such as reaction time, logical reasoning and symbol recognition.

It's also great for your mood. An experiment by Jennifer Goldschmied found that after a 60-minute mid-day nap, participants were less impulsive and had greater tolerance for frustration. Received an irritating Slack? Sleep it off before you chew them out.

If you wake up and are still annoyed… what do they say again - take a deep breath or something? And all else fails, then swiftly chew them out...just kidding of course. Have a herbal tea and chill out. You're only human and it's okay to get annoyed.

Most importantly...

Listen to your body: 

Naps are divisive. While some people swear by them, others feel terrible and wake up feeling groggy, and even more tired. 

To reduce the chances of that, follow good nap etiquette and: 

  • Don't nap too close to your normal bed time. Go for around 6-8 hours after waking up.
  • If you're waking up groggy, reduce your nap time. 
  • If you are an advanced napper, try the ‘caffeine nap’. Drink some coffee, nap for 30 minutes, and wake up brand new (side note - this has never worked for me but let me know if you pull it off). 

If you feel great after a nap, research suggests that you might be naturally inclined to move through lighter stages of the sleep cycle during your naps. If you are regularly sinking into deep sleep super fast, you’ll probably wake up drowsy and experience sleep inertia. 

I want to be clear that I’m not saying everyone should take a nap. If you feel like you need it though, go for it, and feel no shame. I don’t take one every day, but when I feel it hitting me, I know it’s the best decision - for my health and for the sake of my work. 

If you have insomnia or trouble sleeping at night, it’s best to avoid napping altogether and focus on consistent wake-up and sleep times. Everyone is different. There’s no shame in listening to your body and doing what’s right for you. 

Gift yourself 60 minutes:

If you’re not a napper, or you’ve got a comfortable sleep pattern that you don’t want to mess with, that’s fine. 

What I would suggest is to take one hour out of your day to just relax.  

Lie in bed, put on Netflix. Make tea. Get away from the emails. 

Do whatever makes you feel like you’re resting. That might be yoga or meditation, but it shouldn’t feel like ‘work’. That might be vegetating on the couch - that’s absolutely fine too.

Give yourself this hour. Block it out on your calendar, take no meetings. Treat it with as much urgency as an appointment with a client. 

Most of all, remember that taking care of yourself is priority number one. There is no pride in overworking, and being stressed out is not a badge of honour. 

Take care of yourself, rest well, and watch your productivity sky-rocket. 

And on that note, I’m off for a nap! 

Sweet dreams, 

Elliot 

 

 


References: 

1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/smarter-living/take-naps-at-work-apologize-to-no-one.html

2. https://www.nature.com/articles/nn864

3. http://janelangille.com/the-health-benefits-of-napping/

4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19645971/

5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886915003943

6. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/07-08/naps

 



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