Productivity Lagging? Take a Siesta

I've discovered that one of the biggest benefits to being a full-time freelancer can be one of its drawbacks: setting ones own schedule. Don't get me wrong, it's the reason I wanted to get into freelancing in the first place, but I keep wondering if I'm working enough. Am I getting enough done in a day? How often should I take a break, and for how long?

It sounds like a minor consideration, but breaks during the day can have a positive effect on productivity.

Work like Leonardo
In many work environments, there's an expectation that working longer and harder equals greater productivity. Whether explicit or implicit, the employee who works through lunch, evening hours, and weekends is often perceived to be more productive than an employee who takes regular breaks and works more reasonable hours.

But rewarding the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality results in bad judgment calls, mistakes in execution, less creativity, and more aversion to risk. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write about the importance of mental recovery in their New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Full Engagement:

The key to mental recovery is to give the conscious, thinking mind intermittent rest. In his provocative book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, author Michael Gelb poses a wonderfully revealing question, “Where are you when you get your best ideas?” Gelb has asked this question to thousands of people over the years, and the most common answer he gets include ‘in the shower,' ‘resting in bed,' ‘walking in nature,' and ‘listening to music.' We ask our own clients a similar question and their answers have ranged from taking a jog to meditating to dreaming to sitting on the beach. ‘Almost no one,' Gelb writes, ‘claims to get their best ideas at work.'

Gelb also notes that as prolific a scientist, inventor, and artist Leonardo da Vinci was, he took regular breaks and naps, even to the frustration of his employers. Da Vinci wrote, “It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation…When you come back to the work, your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment.”

Power napping around the world
In some countries, the afternoon siesta is part of a normal workday. Greece, Italy, and Spain incorporate the lunchtime nap, and have lower incidents of heart disease. A study by the University of Athens showed that working men who took a nap during the day had a 64% lower risk of dying from heart disease.

Long working hours and high stress levels in Japan have led to the creation of a new official cause of death — karōshi, or “death from overwork.” In response, some Japanese companies have started to limit overtime hours and bring the power nap into corporate culture. In fact, an an employee's dedication to their job is often judged by the frequency in which they engage in inemuri, or “sleeping while present.”

Coming to America?
At the average American company, it's socially unacceptable to take a nap during the day. (Though it is okay to fuel up on coffee and Red Bull, which is nowhere near as effective in revving up after the afternoon dip in energy.) But that's starting to change.

Snoozing in the middle of the workday was once seen as lazy, but more and more companies are realizing that naps increase productivity, thanks to studies like NASA's that showed that a nap of just 26 minutes can boost performance by 34%. Napping rooms have started to pop up in the U.S., from small companies like Yarde Metals in Pelham, New Hampshire to giants like Nike. U.S. trucking and rail industries have napping policies, and many hospitals are starting to look into it. Procter & Gamble, Cisco, Stanford Medical Center, Carnegie Mellon, and the Jetsetter Spa at Miami International Airport have installed EnergyPods, napping chairs with noise-canceling headphones and gentle wake-up calls.

How you can recharge
If your employer has yet to embrace corporate napping, you could still get some shut-eye if you have an office (with a door) or live near work. Sleep scientist Sara Mednick and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, recommends a 20-minute nap sometime between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., right after lunch. Any more than that, and you might have a hard time getting back to work.

If a nap is out of the question given your schedule or work environment, Loehr and Schwartz recommend taking recovery breaks during the day. Walk outside for some fresh air, chat up a coworker about something not related to work, or eat your lunch at a nearby park.

As for this type-A personality, I'm starting to build breaks into my schedule every two hours to recharge and avoid burnout. Leonardo da Vinci would approve.

J.D.'s note: This is a great message, but one I have a tough time adopting in my own life. I know that I get my best ideas — those sudden bursts of creative insight — when I'm exercising or working in the yard. I can point to dozens of examples. Yet when I feel like I absolutely must get work done, I cloister myself in my office, where I often can't get anything done at all. That's one reason I try to make myself walk to lunch a couple of times per week.

More about...Psychology

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Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
9 years ago

Naps help a bunch of my coworkers. They nap in their cars during their lunch hour since we don’t have a nap room. They swear it helps.

I’m one of those people that can’t shut their mind up during the day, so I either wander around outside for a few minutes or chat with one of my non-napping coworkers for 10 minutes about tv or something before getting back to work. It really does help keep me refreshed. 🙂

Jack
Jack
9 years ago

Greece and Spain have terrible economies and are nearly bankrupt as countries. Not the best argument for “siestas” increasing productivity

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

Another reason those in Greece, Italy and Spain have lower incidents of heart disease is that they consume a lot of olive oil. Wonder if that was considered in the studies you cite.

The Skeptical Housewife
The Skeptical Housewife
9 years ago

I think most of us are hardwired to need a nap between 1-4 p.m., so I think it’s a great thing that some companies have nap rooms! I’ve never seen it in real life, though.

TosaJen
TosaJen
9 years ago

The best thing about working at home was being able to take a 20-minute siesta as needed. I often started work quite early or worked late, and could manage that only because I could “reboot” my brain mid-afternoon.

I have had co-workers who simply put their heads on their desks and napped. I haven’t done that at the office yet, at least, not with other people around.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

I don’t often find myself tired and in need of a nap in the early afternoon. This wasn’t always the case — I used to often find myself ready to doze off after lunch. Since then, though, I’ve made a change in my life that I think has been a *huge* quality-of-life improvement: I no longer use an alarm clock. Letting myself wake naturally gives me plenty of energy to last through the day, and my mornings are much more relaxed because of it. If I was considering changing jobs, I wouldn’t take one that required rigid early morning hours,… Read more »

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

While I like this idea, I wonder about the 20-minute nap. It would take me more than 20 minutes just to fall asleep!

I do like that my current job is flexible enough that I can often take breaks – go for a walk to get a snack or go to the bank, anything to break up the work day.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Robert Boice has two great books for how to be steadily productive. One is specifically aimed at writers. He’s a psychologist and has done real research on his methods. The suggestions he has and studies he’s done are fascinating.

Many folks are doing it wrong… they think they’re most productive when they work frantically and then recover, but that actually results in lower productivity over all. You really do get the best outcomes when you work steadily in small portions and let your subconscious work on tricky problems during breaks.

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

I love the Pomodoro Technique, because it builds in these kinds of breaks. (5-min. break every half hour, and 15-30 min. break every two hours.) I am trying to implement Pomodoro as my daily work technique–and on the days I use it, I feel healthier and am more productive. The longer breaks are great for going outside to take a walk or a quick swim. Maybe I should take a nap during my mid-day break!

momcents
momcents
9 years ago

This sounds great but first I’d need to learn how to take a nap. It sounds funny, but I have the hardest time falling asleep for a nap.

As a stay-at-home mom, I’m constantly receiving the advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” I find it easier said than done!

uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
9 years ago

I couldn’t help but read this and think of Sir Isaac Newton.

Derek
Derek
9 years ago

I work for a university and have access to the campus recreation facilities, so I usually workout/run during lunch which (1) breaks up the day (2) allows for stress relief (3) is good for you (4) allows you to think about problems/things you’re working on at work.

The only problem is that I don’t want to leave this type of environment because it’s so flexible!

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
9 years ago

My employer has a couple “wellness rooms” that can be used as needed. I’ve used them here and there for naps when I’m really exhausted and know I’ll have a long day. It’s one of the perks I love. A better perk is that I can telecommute frequently. When I’m working out of my home, it’s even easier to schedule a little break time where I can lay down if needed, head outside to pull some weeds, or take a few minutes to prep a meal or throw something in the slow cooker. I agree that my creativity gets a… Read more »

Jessica Bosari
Jessica Bosari
9 years ago

I am an early morning powerhouse. Wake up too late and I get nothing done. I hate that it’s all or none, but that’s just the way it is for me. I rise at 4am, get a ton done and burn out at 10am. What’s a girl to do then? Nap! I have a quick snack, lay down for an hour or two and wake up refreshed for lunch. I have what I like to call my “second breakfast” and I’m supercharged all over again. It gives me two super-powered “zone” times every day. I have 10 productive hours of… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
9 years ago

Years ago my Father decided to take a nap at work. He turned down the lights and laid on the floor next to his desk. A co-worker walked by and thought he was dead or unconscious. She screamed REALLY loud and woke my Father up. He doesn’t nap at work anymore.

Steve
Steve
9 years ago

Linking to worthless studies seems to hurt an argument more than help it. It takes it out of the realm of thought experiment and into the realm of science experiment – in which this article is pure speculation,.

Greg McFarlane
Greg McFarlane
9 years ago

Bringing up the siestas in Greece, Spain and Italy is irrelevant. Are you encouraging people to inspire their creativity, or to lower their risk of heart disease? If it’s the latter, then yes, siestas might be a great idea. Not sure what that has to do with finding ideas, though.

And there’s all the difference in the world between a truck driver napping during the workday and an office drone doing so. If the difference isn’t obvious, it’s because a fatigued truck driver is a danger to himself and others.

NZ Chick
NZ Chick
9 years ago

I think the break idea is definately good! I am naturally most productive in the morning so start at 6am, by the time lunch comes I’m ready for recharging so go for a walk/gym etc for the hour. I finish at 3 but the last two hours are usually pretty productive if I’ve had a good lunch break. My work certainly suffers when that isn’t the case.

I couldn’t do the nap thing though – I am another person who finds it hard to fall asleep.

mike
mike
9 years ago

I’m all about the downtime at work. Having spent 100% of my work life living and working in the USA and Japan, it is easy to see how our countries are labeled as the leading workaholic countries, where over-stress leads to negative health and productivity impacts.

Countries that implement siestas (and as a side note, also those with longer vacation periods per year than the US and Japan) tend to have healthier and happier citizens.

Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things
Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things
9 years ago

Just had 3 great ideas while swimming some laps. I need to take more time for myself to do things like that.

Rob
Rob
9 years ago

The fact that most great ideas come when we aren’t working is so true and yet so annoying. Just like J.D. if I’m not sitting in my office I feel like I’m getting nothing done. But most of my ideas for blog posts come when I’m not sitting in my office. The mind is a very strange thing.

Sandy L
Sandy L
9 years ago

I often make my best plans in the middle of the night after being awoken by my little one.

I think it’s because my mind is fresh and I don’t have any competing items to distract my thoughts. I think I may implement a no-email until I gather my thoughts for the day rule.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago

As a civil servant, I sometimes feel like I’m “sleeping while present” 37 hours a week! No, this isn’t a troll comment, but I honestly don’t see what actual naps would help me achieve – maybe they’d be some use to folk whose jobs allow for a degree of creativity? When self expression is limited to choosing what colour to fill the cells on a spreadsheet, I don’t have too many Eureka! moments and those that I do have are (usually) had right in the middle of another task. I find that keeping pencils and scrap paper to hand helps…

asu
asu
9 years ago

I’m italian e here, unfortunately, we don’t have lunchtime nap!
We can have 30 minutes of lunchtime break or 1 hour, depending on the company you work for and the contract…but we definitly don’t have nap time 🙂

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
9 years ago

Uhm, people, I’m Italian and I know people in OFFICES (=most part of workers) do not take catnaps during workdays. They would be fired, I’m afraid. Don’t rely on stereotypes if you want to have a serious discussion.

That said, I’m a big lover of catnaps when I’m at home -they improve my mood and productivity. It’s like my mind knows when it needs to be reset, so to speak.

PS – my comments don’t seem to show up, what’s wrong?

Penny Farthing
Penny Farthing
9 years ago

April, I definitely agree with you that timing breaks and so on when working freelance can be a challenge. The freedom to rest in the early afternoon is great; I sometimes do this and even if I don’t sleep, reading something non-work-related can help to refresh me. In an office, I always found the time between 2 and 3 p.m very difficult; the temptation to put my head down on the desk for a little rest could be considerable!

ditchtheboss
ditchtheboss
9 years ago

Good article. You make a good point when you say about being a freelancer.

I am working full time, the aim is to one day become financially independent. I don’t have much time to dedicate to my blog but when I do, it is hard to stop.

Thank you for the good article.
All the best

Jane
Jane
9 years ago

@momcents
I’m convinced the “sleep when the baby sleeps” is overall pretty useless advice. It’s hard to nap on command for most people, which is essentially what that advice is asking a mom to do. Perhaps other people have had better sleepers than my two, but am I supposed to take ten minute cap naps like my infant does all day? I find the “relax when the baby sleeps” to be much more valuable advice. Do whatever makes you most happy. If it’s napping, fine. But if it’s watching television, do that.

Patrick J.
Patrick J.
9 years ago

I would agree that naps are a great booster. My mom swears by the power nap. And it helped me a lot when I had a driving job. Rather than fight drowsiness, a 20 minute relaxer was simple and effective and much safer.
Now that I am stuck in cubicle land – I sometimes wander over to an unused conference room and enjoy some peace and quiet.
It works for me.

Darwin's Money
Darwin's Money
9 years ago

Napping is Soooooo under-rated. I know several people who frown upon it and think it’s for lazy people or that you’re wasting your day, but so many of my afternoons and evenings have been so much more enjoyable because of a nice afternoon powernap. 3 young kids, job, blogger, etc. – it makes you tired!

Steve LHeureux
Steve LHeureux
9 years ago

Between continuing education, work and blog marketing, I can use a nap now and then. I usually have to use my car depending what setting I’m in. Thanks for the advice and letting us know that we are OK. The reference to Da Vinci also helped make it powerful as he was such a thinker/doer! – Steve

Susie
Susie
9 years ago

I often take naps in my car during lunchtime or if it’s too hot (I live in Florida) I’ll go to the park and lay under a tree. I don’t need an alarm I automatically wake after 20-30 minutes.
At weekends I also like an afternoon powernap. I think it is a great refresher and wish we had a nap room in our office.

Luis
Luis
9 years ago

I’m from Spain, 40 years old and I never took siestas at work… this is a mith coming from older traditions. And not all of us like bullfights and have a bull in our backyard…

Nannette
Nannette
8 years ago

I know on my job you’d be fired on the spot if you were caught napping. I teach from 7:30 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. I take a lunch until 1:45 (drive home 3 miles for a sandwich). Return to work and if not interrupted can work until about 3:00 p.m. in the office and I begin to burn down. Closing my eyes just to rest them is taking a major chance someone will see and think I’m lazy. But I stare at computers all morning teaching, and then stare at the office computer all afternoon. My eyes burn. If I… Read more »

Nanc
Nanc
7 years ago

Amazing how our ancestors left the siesta or post-prandial nap in the old country. I’m here to help you get it back. Good Sleep is Good Medicine.

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