Photo by jcoterhals
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:
- Switch off all your phones so you won’t be interrupted.
- Lie down or recline in a comfortable chair. Take your shoes off and loosen any belts or ties.
- 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”.
- 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.
This is an extract from Mark McGuinness’ book Productivity for Creative People – a practical guide to getting your real work done amid the demands and distractions of modern life.