Working All Day Is for Wimps

Skinny guy flexing his muscles and looking in the mirror. Sees a musclebound torso with his head on it.

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Imagine I could show you a simple technique that would take just 20 minutes out of your day and was scientifically proven to boost your productivity by 34%. Would you try it?

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Now supposing I told you you that this technique involved lying down to take a nap every day after lunch. How does that sound?

A nice idea? Too good to be true? Ready to try it today?

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s all very well – but what would the boss say?”

Come to think of it, what would your colleagues and clients have to say if they saw you fast asleep at your desk, or reclining in a hammock strung across the cubicle? What would that do for your reputation at work?

If you work from home, then logically none of these objections should stand. After all, who would notice if you lay down on the sofa for 20 minutes after lunch? Maybe the cat – but I don’t know many cats who disapprove of naps.

Oh yes. I know who. Your Inner Boss. You know, that little part of your mind that tells you Just because you work from home, it’s no excuse for being a slacker. You should be working just as hard as anyone in an office. You want to lie down and rest during working hours? Have you really got enough done to justify that…?

This kind of puritan work ethic seems to be deeply ingrained in our culture – at least in northern Europe, where I live. We associate naps and siestas with hot countries where they take very long lunches and do very little work as a consequence. It feels much more productive to steel ourselves for a long hard day of toil, pushing through the boundaries of sleepiness and laziness.

It may feel that way, but the scientific evidence contradicts it.

The Power of Naps

In his book Brain Rules molecular biologist John Medina takes a good look at our working and learning habits in the light of the latest research, and finds them seriously wanting. Here he is on the subject of naps, from a recent interview with the New York Post.

There’s a time in the afternoon when your brain wants to do a reset. And during that time it wants to take a 15- to 20-minute nap. We call it the nap zone. If you don’t allow yourself to take a nap during that time, you’ll fight being sleepy the rest of the afternoon, and productivity can suffer.

So gritting your teeth and working in spite of drowsiness isn’t even foolish productivity. It’s the illusion of productivity. I know the feeling well – on the days when I’m ‘too busy’ to take a break, I can feel my brain slowing down in the afternoon. The simplest mental operations start to feel like wading through treacle. Complex demanding work, like writing articles, can become almost impossible.

So I felt a twinge of recognition when I read Medina’s explanation that the brain “wants to do a reset”. That’s exactly the feeling I get after a nap – as if my brain were a laptop that becomes slow and glitchy after a few hours, but starts running smoothly again once it’s rebooted. If I make time for a 20 minute nap after lunch, I get a renewed sense of energy and focus in the afternoon. I invariably get a lot more done, to a higher standard.

It turns out this is one of the few things I have in common with NASA fighter pilots:

It was measured by NASA. They were able to show that by giving their fighter pilots a 20-minute nap in the nap zone, you’d find an increase of about 34 percent in their mean reaction time performances.

Mark Rosekind, the guy who did the study, goes, “Look, what other management technique can I do that, in 20 minutes, gives a 34 percent boost in productivity?”

John Medina, New York Post interview

As Brian pointed out a few weeks ago, sleep and daydreaming boost creativity as well as productivity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been wrestling with a difficult problem or stuck on a piece of work – and found the answer easily after a quick nap.

How to Nap for Maximum Power

Notice when you want to nap. For most people this is during the first hour or two after lunch, but you may be different. Start to pay attention to your circadian rhythms – the rising and dipping of your energy levels throughout the day.

Once you’ve identified your ‘nap zone’, start to schedule meetings and intensive bursts of work around it. And when it comes to nap time, here’s the drill:

  1. Switch off all your phones so you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Lie down or recline in a comfortable chair. Take your shoes off and loosen any belts or ties.
  3. Set an alarm to go off in 20 minutes’ time. It’s important not to nap longer than this – Medina tells us that if you sleep for an hour “you’ll actually get drowsier”.
  4. If you find it difficult to doze off, try this simple technique. Focus your attention on your feet. Count to 10 in your mind, imagining your feet becoming more relaxed with each number. Then switch your attention your lower legs and do the same – gradually moving your attention over your whole body and relaxing each part in turn. Chances are you’ll be asleep by the time you’ve covered the whole body – but if not, start again from your feet up. The more you practice this, the easier it will get, to the point where you can power nap just about any time you need to.

Last but not least – pay attention to the results. Do you feel more or less alert and productive after a nap? For a few days, alternate ‘nap days’ with ‘no nap days’ and measure how much you actually get done. Once you’ve got some hard data, you can make an informed choice.

Are You Ready to Nap like a Pro?

Have I sold you on the idea of productive napping? Can you convince your (inner) boss that it won’t turn you into a lazy good-for-nothing overnight?

I’m sure you’re not a wimp like Lou, who’s so attached to his self-image as a ‘guy who gets things done’ that he would never be seen asleep at work.

In his mind, he’s a superhero, but if he took a good look at what’s really in the mirror, he’d see how feeble his daily efforts really are.

He’s so scared of looking ‘lazy’ that he’ll never be truly productive.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Great article- I love naps and have sometimes felt guilty about them. When I worked at large corporations I’d often take lunch on my own, in my car, find a shady spot and nap. Always felt better afterward.

    I was always seen as super productive by others…

    I love the validation by the stats provided here, but the best validation is and has been that I always feel better.

    And I know that the key for me to being more creative and productive relates to getting into a feel better, ‘connected’ place.

    Naps rule!

    Thanks always for your thoughtful writing and insights.

  2. Very interesting! A friend (@intuitioneer) Twittered about our blog posts being similar… and they are! I competely agree. I often nap while trying to meditate. This same friend once spoke really wise words that went something like this: Falling asleep while meditating is like taking a nap in the arms of God. Whether or not you believe that to be true… resetting the mind is a powerful, powerful tool.

  3. @Suzie – “I love the validation by the stats provided here, but the best validation is and has been that I always feel better.” Sounds like good feedback to me. The stats are just the icing on the cake. 🙂

    @Jennifer – Interesting post, thanks for sharing. (Here’s the link for others to read it: http://litethoughts.com/2009/06/14/when-your-essential-self-speaks-do-nothing/) I like your take on ‘doing nothing’. You might be interested to look at this piece I wrote a while back, about meditation and getting nothing done: http://lateralaction.com/articles/getting-nothing-done/

  4. Naps are little re-energizing, brain-resetting miracles. I’ve sworn by them for years.

    I wasn’t aware of Medina’s research, but have found that 20 minutes really is the perfect time frame.

    Napping can completely turn around a less-than-stellar day.

    And look what they did for Einstein.

    He used them to work through complex problems, boost creativity and expand his access to the universal “knowledge bank.”

    The benefits of how he used naps speak for themselves in his accomplishments.

    @ Jennifer – I love this…

    “Falling asleep while meditating is like taking a nap in the arms of God.”

    I have to agree with your friend that some of your posts are similar to Mark’s.

    Naps are a grossly underrated, underused creativity (and quality of life) power tools. Good stuff, Mark.

  5. Love this idea. I’ve started meditating for 15 minutes a day, and a 20-minute nap after the meditation might be a great addition. (And I already know my “nap zone”; I’m pretty much useless between 1:30 and 3 p.m.!)

  6. It’s too bad that if you sleep for more than an hour you’ll get drowsier. I’d prefer that more sleep = more productivity! If that were the case, my boyfriend would be the most productive person I know!

  7. @Mary Anne – I like ‘power tools’. Makes naps sound much more businesslike. I’ll see if I can seel Lou on the idea. 😉

    @Catherine – Meditation / napping seems to be a theme today…

    @Stacy Lukas – Reminds me of a quote I saw over the weekend – “All things in moderation – especially moderation!” 🙂

  8. great article . I saw something like this in a documentary a while back and yes , it does work wonders . especially for those that do a lot of ‘mind-labour’ .

    physical work tends to be a little easier on the body . this sounds strange , yes . but it’s easier to start a physical task than to start a mental one .

    anyway … I’m sure you guys know about this already … so I’ll just end with this : great article . keep it up .

    p.s. wish I could do this … unfortunately I have a terrible sleep and if I happen to fall asleep in the afternoon I can’t wake up for at least 2 hours . and no , no alarm works for me . I have superdeep sleep , if that’s possible ( I once asked my girlfriend to give me a wake up call on my cell . one hour past the wake up time , my phone’s battery was dead , i had about 60 missed calls from her , and I was still sleeping :)) ) .

  9. Love the naps! Afternoon naps are like a gratitude ritual in my working day – a reminder to appreciate how fortunate I am to work from home and to have reclaimed ownership of my time.

  10. I agree with this completely. I don’t nap, but I started practising the Alexander Technique at the beginning of the year and that suggests a 20 minute lie down at some point in the day to realign your body, which is akin to meditation. I did it reluctantly at first because my Inner Boss demanded I be busy, busy, busy, but after the first couple of times, I noticed a complete change in my afternoon alertness. Now I get antsy if I miss it.

  11. @Nelson @Deborah – Interesting point about manual labour and Alexander technique, there’s got to be something invigorating about physical labour and exercise. Unlike, say, sitting at a desk. My friend John would probably say they are both examples of connecting with Bodymind: http://reversethinking.typepad.com/weblog/bodymind/

    @Kim – Yep, lucky us home workers! 🙂

  12. yeah . after reading the article he makes sense and yeah , I think there is a connection .

    we all know that feeling tired , drowsy after a couple of hours in front of your desktop/laptop is different from feeling your arms soar and feeling pain every time you move them .

    there is physical and mental stress . right ?

    most physical tasks usually involve something repetitive and your brain doesn’t need to focus all that much . it just stores in the task at hand and puts the body on autopilot . and even if it’s not repetitive I’m pretty sure it’s not as stressful to the brain as working on your computer .

    whereas in working on your computer usually involves a higher degree of attention . your brain is flaring and flashing and connecting and lighting up nerve endings and what not . that can’t be easy , can it ?

    and think about it … when you’re working at a desk … do you really feel like sleeping ? I mean , is your body really tired ? or just your mind ?

    or do you just feel drowsy , incapable of focusing ?

  13. Some people refer this as, “Work as you dream”

    I did this. I took a nap during the afternoon, at about 5 pm. When I wake up, my concept for the project I was working on became crystal clear. More and more ideas were flowing.

    ps. I’m a media student, have no boss around. But I guess when I enter workplace, I still have to find a way to sleep without being caught by the boss… or the other best way is to show your post to my boss (and persuade him/her to take a nap as well!)

    Great reminder, Mark!

  14. This is simply brilliant Mark.

    I do this a number of times a week but didn’t know the background or the “real” benefits of this.

    Thanks again.

    Best,
    Raj

  15. I am a big proponent of power naps. So far I’ve been lucky to be in environments where I could take a quick nap in the office after lunch, but that might end soon when I change jobs.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the nap goes against Western society’s work ethics, but I defend it with the same argument you do: I can “lose” 20 minutes of work time by napping, but then work at 100% for the next 3 hours, or I can not take a nap and work at 50% for the next 3 hours 20 minutes. You don’t need a PhD in mathematics to figure out which is the most productive scenario 🙂

  16. Great stuff! I have always loved to nap and now that I am working from home I can, but admit to often feeling guilty when I do. Now that you have given me the scientific proof that it is good for me….well, I think I’ll go take a nap!

  17. Nelson — Not sure we can divide up physical and mental effort up quite so neatly… I think a bit of balance and variety between the two is good.

    Patsy — Yes, please show your future boss this article! And encourage him/her to leave a comment …

    Raj — I think we’ll have to put that one down to instinctive genius. 😉

    Miserere — You’re absolutely right. I have a friend with a PhD in mathematics but I’m pleased to say I managed to write this post without calling on his assistance. 🙂

    Joanne — happy to help. If you need scientific proof to backup any other working habits, I’m sure we can find some somewhere …

  18. I’ve often read about Presidents, like Kennedy and Johnson taking cat naps and awakened refreshed. So whenever I can, usually afer lunch, if no one’s around, the phone isn’t ringing, I take a 15 minute nap. I awake refreshed, with a fresh perspective on the challewnges of the day. Thanks for putting a medical perspective to what was a rather sneaky practice. As is usually accepted ‘real men’ don’t take naps in the day. Well, now we know… they may be 34% less productive. Thanks, I’m off to my 15 minute nap. Errol.

  19. Well if it’s good enough for the President… 😉

  20. Great article indeed. Though, I am not trying to be political nor propogating any religious thought, it is a fact that my religion, Islam had taught the concept of nap about 14 centuries ago when there was no scientific research.

  21. Great article!

    Although reading the title I first skipped this article. You should choose some more informative titles for your articles. In this case something like “How to boost your productivity by 34% in just 20 minutes”…

    Thanks!

  22. Maqsood – Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

    Peter – I considered that kind of title but thought this one would be more effective. The feedback I’ve received is that it grabbed a lot of people’s attention. I guess nothing works for everyone. 🙂

  23. Being an impatient sort, I gave up on this concept a few years ago despite the many nappers of my acquaintanceship oohing and aahing about the wondrous effects constantly – I’m on a perpetual hunt for anything that ups my ante. I think my problem is that it takes me 20 minutes at least to even shut my brain down – I think there’s a skill to doing it, one which I haven’t acquired yet much to my chagrin. I also found that a whole lot of colleagues (including bosses) were fairly derisive about “power nappers” – it seemed to have some sort of effect on how they were perceived at work – the difference between a can-doer and a napper sort of thing. I wish I could do it properly, I wish I had the patience to try harder – I wish I was more productive ……

  24. So true! Thanks for doing the research that proves this. I’ve been napping for years, around 3:00 every day. Well, to be honest, it’s either a nap or a stroll to the library or a yoga class. Each of these mid-day breaks invariably lead to giant insights, clues to next actions, and a sense of well-being that I wouldn’t get from caffeine or working harder.
    People often ask me how I get so much done and how I am able to create so much. Two things: no TV and the nap.
    Thanks again for posting this, and I hope it transforms millions into ‘power’ nappers!

  25. That’s one very interesting and informative article you’ve got there. I do agree that naps are essential to keep our brains working at their peak especially during the latter part of the day/shift. Way back in the previous company I worked for, lasting through the other half of the day was unimaginable if we didn’t nap during our lunch break. What we did was eat lunch hastily during the mid-morning coffee break(15 mins.), then spend the entire lunch hour dozing off in our stations. But these days, I can’t seem to fall asleep even if I keep my eyes shut for the entire hour! Anyway, thank you for this article. Realizing the importance of naps is enough to motivate me to work hard on this napping problem I have been having these days.

  26. Miechelle – You identified two problems with napping (a) being able to do it well, and (b) what will people think? The first one can be overcome by practice. The second one may take a little persuasion. Either way, the results should speak for themselves!

    Cynthia – Sounds like the results are definitely speaking for themselves in your case! And I’ll be tackling TV on Monday here on Lateral Action …

    Maris – Knowledge is power. 😉

  27. Hi! Just found this site and really like it
    Thanks for this article, I just discovered napping and though being a single Mom, my twins are now 10 and can definitely “give ” me 20 minutes after lunch.
    Also my Dad RIP, used to do these power naps when he got home from work…and that’s over 30 years ago!
    Thanks alot