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Take more naps, because science

Sleeping on the job doesn’t make you lazy, just smart.

Photo by Boba Jovanovic on Unsplash

Remember nap time, back in grade school? Your teachers used to make you sleep for half an hour, after lunch. Maybe you hated it as much as I did, and got in trouble for talking. Now, you’re all grown up. You have a job, which often feels too much like school. There’s just one big difference. If you take a nap now, you might get fired.

We’ve all seen it happen. A couple of my friends lost their jobs in college because they closed their eyes for a few minutes.

Their boss caught them.

It almost happened to me. My manager showed mercy, though. Sent me home without pay. What a nice guy.

For a long time, work culture convinced us that sleeping on the job was lazy. In fact, it was the hallmark of lackluster motivation.

Plenty of supervisors blow past the obvious — that their employees aren’t getting enough sleep. Instead, they assume drowsiness means someone stayed out partying all last night, or watching Netflix.

The truth is more complicated. When you have two jobs and three kids, you’re going to feel tired at work. More employers should let us take a nap. Why? Because science. And we should always listen to science.

It’s healthy to be skeptical of “science backed” blogs on the Internet. But in this case, it’s true. Science is telling us to take naps — with a couple of qualifiers. Studies on sleep are showing us, more and more, that naps even beat coffee. Not that I’m suggesting we give up coffee.

Naps and sleep culture

Attitudes toward sleep have finally started to change. Researchers are going public with their findings about what’s wrong with our habits and mindsets about shut eye. And some people are listening. Even some airports are offering sleep pods for fatigued travelers now.

I’ve been waiting for this my entire adult life, btw. One company calls theirs Napcabs, and they’re gorgeous.

Studies are showing us just how much sleep matters. Sure, it’s something we should already know. But we’ve forgotten. Like Ariana Huffington has pointed out, we’ve fallen into the terrible habit of sacrificing sleep. We even brag about how little of it we can “get by on.” But that’s the whole problem. We could do a lot more than just “get by.”

Foregoing sleep impairs your memory, cognition, and motor skills. It also slows your reaction time. You think you’re accomplishing more, but you’re not. Work you do when tired has a lower quality, and you might even have to redo it later. Sleep-deprived people are basically drunk, without the buzz. Not something to feel proud about.

Research on sleep has also explained why some people are “night owls.” When you have a delayed sleep cycle, then maybe your boss shouldn’t expect you to be “up and at ‘em” at the crack of every dawn.

We’re slowly starting to accept this reality: If we let teens and adults figure out their own sleep patterns, they’ll maximize their productivity. Sure, some will always abuse that freedom. But waking up at 7 am every day doesn’t guarantee more productivity.

A healthy workplace doesn’t jam everyone into the nine to five slate. Still, sometimes you might have to buck up and attend a meeting at 9 am. You may not have a choice about how much sleep you get every night. That’s where the nap comes in.

The anatomy of a nap

A nap in the middle of the day helps everyone. Even if you get a full eight hours, they’re not always high quality. You can still feel tired mid-day. You start to get spacey. A little fog settles around your head. It’s hard to concentrate on something simple, like responding to Karen’s email about office supplies, or copier abuse.

A 2015 study in Personality and Individual Differences showed that an hour-long nap made people less frustrated and impulsive at work. A nap might even do as well or better than guided meditation. And it can help your memory and cognition as much as a full night’s sleep. (The APA has compiled a load of studies on naps, if you want the full treatment.)

The length of your nap matters. Some studies praise the hour-long nap. But more recent research points to 10 or 15 minutes as the ideal length. Anything longer can leave you feeling groggy for the rest of the day. Longer naps can also disrupt your nighttime sleep.

Finally, the research tends to favor regular napping over sporadic. A nap here and there might help you a little. But a consistent nap schedule is the way to go. Schedule one for the same time and length every day.

There’s lots of reasons to take a nap. Maybe you work multiple jobs. You have kids. Or you do your best work at night, and yet you still have to be somewhere at 9 am the next morning. Giving yourself a short nap can at least mitigate some of the pain, keep you from causing an accident, or reduce the risk of snapping at Karen for hitting “reply all” again. Hey, Karen. Not everyone cares what you did last weekend.

My life in naps

Sleep deprivation was a major theme of my 20s. Grad school. Extra jobs. Long distance relationships. Constant travel. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have put myself through all that. But I did, and naps helped.

One of my department chairs loved scheduling TAs to teach at 8 am. He knew most of us had to take night classes. He also knew we usually worked a part-time job on top of teaching.

But our boss was all about character building. The kind that borders on torture. My workload meant I usually didn’t sleep until two or three in the morning. That meant four hours of sleep.

Some nights, I wouldn’t even bother. Just worked though and taught my morning class. Around 5 am, I’d take a fifteen minute nap. I’d take another one after lunch. And another before my night class.

Lucky for me, I only taught at 8 am twice a week. The naps helped me stay on a somewhat regular sleep schedule. If I didn’t teach the next morning, I could crash for about nine hours.

People think professors get summers off. They don’t. And grad students especially don’t. We scramble to stitch together two or three jobs to survive three months without steady pay. For me, that meant teaching and doing administrative work for academic summer programs.

My work day began at 8 am with parent phone calls, and ended at 10 pm with forms and reports.

Somewhere in there, I got a two-hour break. Guess what I used it for? A nap? Correct-amundo. Every afternoon, I took a 15-minute snooze, followed immediately by an afternoon run.

That’s how I stayed sane. On the weekends, I spent the entire day in my pajamas, staring at the ceiling, working up the energy to grab takeout from Chipotle. But my weekdays were productive as hell — all thanks to my consistent nap schedule.

Let’s bring back nap time

These days, I have less need for naps. But they got me through some of the toughest crucibles. In some ways, I was lucky. Even the worst schedules still accommodated naps. Other people don’t have that option.

Imagine a world that actually valued sleep. Even beyond the workplace, there’s so many situations where a good nap makes all the difference. So let’s stop punishing people for wanting to sleep a little in the middle of the day. It’s not about luxury or laziness.

Naps could even bring about world peace. Well, if we combined them with more sex and drugs. When I run for president, that’s going to be my campaign slogan — sex, drugs, and naps. Because science. My name is Jessica Wildfire, and I approve this message.