I’ve detailed elsewhere how hard I worked in law school. But there was another secret to my success that I haven’t mentioned yet: the nap.
In law school, I rented a carrel where I kept my books and studied in-between classes. I started learning about the benefits of napping and wanted to incorporate the nap into my routine. But alas, the law school didn’t really have any good couches to sprawl out on. So I improvised. I brought a pillow and blanket from home and put them under my carrel desk. When I was ready for a nap, I simply put my iPod headphones on, put on some nice relaxing music, and slipped under my carrel for a quick nap.
It was awesome. It was nice and dark underneath my desk and because it was in the library, it was quiet. I’m sure some people thought I was a crazy bum or something, but I didn’t care. Those short little naps allowed me to power through hours of classes, reading, and outlining.
Sadly, napping is often frowned upon in our workaholic American culture. When we think of napping men we think of Dagwood passed out on the couch after consuming a giant, delicious sandwich. Naps are for the lazy and unambitious. Or for retirees with plenty of time on their hands. The man who falls asleep at his desk at work is laughed at. And when we doze off, we feel guilty.
But in reality, the nap stigma is incredibly misplaced. Naps can be one of the most powerful tools for self-improvement; they can increase not only our health and well-being but our intelligence and productivity as well. This is something great men have known all along. Famous thinkers and leaders like Edison, JFK, Churchill, and Napoleon were all ardent nappers. We’ll cover the specific napping habits of famous men in a future post.
Your Cat Knows Something You Don’t
Humans are among the few animals that take their sleep in one shot. The rest of the animal kingdom consists of polyphasic sleepers; they alternate sleep and wake cycles throughout a 24 hour period. Cavemen likely slept in multiple phases too, so someone was always up to keep an eye out for saber tooth tigers. While experimenting with a return to polyphasic sleep has become trendy in recent times, the ideal pattern for human sleep is biphasic – a long stretch at night along with a shorter respite during the day.
The ancient Romans were biphasic sleepers; at sexta (the sixth hour or their noon) everyone would turn in for some midday shut eye. This is where we get the term siesta, a tradition once popular in countries like Spain but which has largely succumbed to the encroaching go-go-go Western business style.
While the pace of modern life may keep us from being the biphasic sleepers we were meant to be, the urge for a daytime snooze is still hardwired into our biology. Studies have shown that when people are put into an environment that lacks any indication of time, they will fall into the long sleep at night/shorter nap during the day pattern. Thus most of us are daily fighting tooth and nail against our body’s natural circadian rhythm, and this is wreaking havoc on our well-being, turning us into a horde of zombies that crave espresso instead of brains.
Many of us find it nearly impossible to get enough z’s at night, and sleep deprivation causes a host of bodily and mental ills, keeping us from performing at our best and enjoying life to the fullest.
While a good night’s sleep is essential, a daily nap can buoy us up when we’re not getting quite enough winks. And for those who already sleep well at night, a nap can take take the performance of your body and mind to the next level.
The Benefits of Napping
Increases alertness. When your eyelids are almost too heavy to keep open, you’re not doing your best work. Make time for a nap and then go back at it. A NASA study found that a 40-minute nap increases alertness by 100%. Other studies have found that a 20-minute nap is more effective than either 200 mg of caffeine or a bout of exercise. Yet another study showed that pilots who were allowed to take a 25-minute nap (while the co-pilot manned the controls!) nodded off fives times less than their nap-deprived peers. They also made less errors during take-offs and landings.
Studies have shown that if you break up your day with a nap, you will be as alert and energetic for the second part of your day as you were for the first. So if you’ve got an event planned for after work, take a nap before going out on the town.
Improves learning and working memory. Naps improve your working memory. This type of memory is involved in working on complex tasks where you have to pay attention to one thing while holding a bunch of other things in your memory. Napping also improves your memory retention; during sleep, recent memories are transferred to the neocortex, where long-term memories are solidified and stored.
Prevents burnout and reverses information overload. While we often refuse to take a nap because we feel like we have too much to do, studies have shown that putting in extra hours without rest dramatically reduces your productivity. It would be better to take a 30 minute nap and return to your work refreshed. This was demonstrated in a study in which subjects performed a visual task over the course of four days. With each successive session, the subjects’ performance on the task deteriorated. But when the subjects were allowed to take a 30 minute nap after the second session, the decline in performance was halted. And after a one hour nap, their performance actually improved in the third and fourth sessions.
Heightens your senses and creativity. According to foremost nap scientist (napologist?) Sara C. Mednick, napping can improve your sensory perception as effectively as a night of sleep. This means that steak tastes better, the sunset looks purtier, and Annie’s Song sounds even better after a good nap. Napping also improves your creativity by both loosening up the web of ideas in your head and fusing disparate insights together.
Improves health. Sleep deprivation leads to an excess of the hormone cortisol in the body. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, helps us deal with fight or flight responses. But excess cortisol increases glucose intolerance and abdominal fat, weakens the muscular and immune systems, stymies memory and learning, and decreases levels of growth hormone and testosterone in our bodies. These deleterious effects can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
When you sleep, you release growth hormone, the antidote to cortisol which which boosts your immune system, primes your sexual function, reduces stress and anxiety, and aids in muscle repair and weight loss. Napping gives your brain a chance to rest and your body a chance to heal.
The proof’s in the pudding. A study done with Greeks found that those that took a 30 minute nap at least three times a week had 37% less risk of dying from a heart-related condition. Among working men their risk of death was reduced 64%! So not only should you dance like Zorba the Greek, you should nap like him, too.
Improves mood. The neurotransmitter serotonin regulates our mood, sleep, and appetites. It produces feeling of contentment and well-being. But when our bodies are stressed, higher levels of serotonin are used and the production of more is blocked. As a result, we can become anxious, irritable, depressed, overwhelmed, and easily distracted. According to Mednick, “napping bathes your brain in serotonin, reversing those effects and creating a more positive outlook.”
Saves money. Instead spending $30 a week on Five Hour Energy or Starbucks, take a nap and boost your energy the natural and more effective way.
It’s awesome. Seriously, napping. It’s awesome.