Eyes Wide Shut

Can a siesta improve performance?

Sheep

Something to count     Photo: Inga Hendrickson

Try It Yourself

Just in case you want to take a nap yourself, here's how to do it.

Hypothesis: Napping improves mood, memory, and fitness
Time Commitment: 30 days
Researcher: Joe Spring

First I got defensive. Strung out? I’m sketched all the time because of stuff I need to do.1 I’m Outside’s online editor, which means I update our home page, edit blogs, post tweets, and update Facebook, every second of the day.

Then I did the research. Multitasking works like a drug. Scientists say the constant updating and checking2 triggers squirts of dopa - mine into the brain, causing addiction. It’s the same mechanism that rewarded our ancestors when they constantly looked for lions while running the savannah. Addiction impairs deep thinking,3 increases stress, limits focus, and impairs short-term memory.

I could quote scientific studies on the benefits of napping until you fall asleep. Naps can improve memory and work performance and, over time, reduce the chance of heart disease by 40 percent. The most convincing study pitted midday nappers against afternoon coffee drinkers. The nappers scored better on memory, motor skills, and learning tests. Also, my co-workers were being asked to quit alcohol and caffeine.4 I was asked to sleep, and get paid for it.

I grabbed a mat, a sleeping bag, and a down pillow and threw them in the darkest part of the Outside basement. I cut daily coffee consumption from three cups to one. I picked 3 P.M., my normal coffee break, to nap. I chose 20 minutes as the duration. Sleep researchers say to rest for 20 to 90 minutes; you want to fall asleep, but not for too long or you’ll end up groggy.

“A 20-minute nap will optimize the time spent in Stage 1 and Stage 2 sleep, which will maximize alpha-wave brain activity,” says Nick Winkelman, the director of performance education at Phoenix-based Athletes’ Performance. “The benefits of alpha waves include relaxation, super-learning, and increased serotonin levels, all of which can recharge the second half of your day, and that includes workouts.”

The first week I didn’t attempt to nap until closer to 4 P.M., and I didn’t fall asleep. Facebook, e-mail, and Twitter did the running man5 all over my hippocampus—the part of the brain that stores fact-based memories. One study found that sleep clears out the hippocampus, like moving files from your desktop to a hard drive, making room for more fact-based memories to be held, saved, and filed away for later. Desperate, I called the father of modern sleep research, 82-year-old William Dement, former chief of the Division of Sleep at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “If you haven’t been falling asleep, that’s either because you’ve been getting enough sleep or that’s the wrong time,” Dement said. “There’s nothing more wasteful than lying in bed trying to fall asleep.”6

Agreed. I resolved to hit 3 P.M. instead. Saturday and Sunday I had no problem napping, but still no dice on weekdays. I even tried listening to Sam Cooke and Etta James. It didn’t work, but I did relax.7

Then I left on a two-week trip to Scotland. I napped on the plane, in cars, and in hotel rooms every day but two. Surrounded by rainy days and whisky, I did fine. I returned home and napped easily over the weekend. At work, I never did sleep for an entire 20 minutes,8 but I grew to like the time-out. Now I’ve cut out the afternoon coffee, take a 20-minute break every day, and have left that setup in the basement, just in case.

NOTES
1. Sample tweet: We vote for Bacon camp. RT @Esquiremag Manliest. Summer camps. Alive. http://ow.ly/2iqXL
2. I should see if the readers liked my post on The 25 Things Every Guy Should Own.
3. I should respond politely to the reader calling another reader a Nazi on Facebook.
4. Suckers!
5. On Ecstasy—holding neon glow sticks. Facebook wore a red-velour Adidas tracksuit. Twitter wore puffy white feather pants and no shirt. It was really hard to stop concentrating on her.
6. I wonder if Dement uses Facebook and Twitter?
7. I passed full-time Twitter duties to the online intern.
8. I, @joespring have a problem. I #love the flood of tasks that make up my job @outsidemagazine. #hamsterbrain. Click. Ahhhh.

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