NASA’s rocket scientists have finally caught on to something that Spanish grandmothers have been saying for centuries: Siestas are good for you. “A recent NASA study showed that when pilots were allowed to take a nap for 26 minutes during their working hours, their efficiency increased by 34 per cent,” the Telegraph reported last week.
This was cause for jubilation in our household, as Rich and I – both serious siesta fans – have spent years defending the habit to American friends who insist on referring to it as our “nap,” as if we were four, or ninety, or just hopeless slackers. Siestas are sensible in hot climates like Seville’s. But more than that, I love the way they shape the rhythm of my day: it’s like having 14 mornings a week. And as if 34% more efficiency and a daily feel-good experience weren’t enough, there’s evidence that suggests siestas reduce the chance of a fatal heart attack by 37%. And a National Institute of Mental Health study showed that siestas can also reverse information overload and prevent burnout.
Is your job is too demanding to allow time for a siesta? Consider some of the overachievers known for fitting in a daytime snooze: Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, to name but a few. “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures,” advised Winston Churchill. “Take off all of your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do.” If he could squeeze a nap into a day when his top agenda item was defeating Adolf Hitler, maybe you can, too.
In reporting on a new study involving eating and sleeping schedules, a recent Huffington Post article commented that “the French excel at the two leisure activities, spending more time at table and in bed than many other nations.” When did eating and sleeping become leisure activities instead of life essentials? Have we learned nothing from NASA, Churchill, and the Spanish grandmothers? Sleep isn’t a form of recreation or weakness, it’s how you keep your mind sharp and your body fit for whatever else you’ve got planned for the day.
So how can you manage a siesta in today’s busy workplace?
For a start, try calling it a power nap, and mention to co-workers that Albert Einstein did a lot of napping while coming up with his theory of relativity. Next, find a quiet spot, preferably one in which you can close the door, switch off lights and phones, and be undisturbed for half an hour. Set an alarm so you don’t worry about oversleeping. Get as comfortable as possible in a couch or padded chair. And with apologies to Mr. Churchill, I don’t recommend taking off all your clothes; save that kind of behavior for when you’re already established as an eccentric and a leader of the free world. Wrap up in a coat or light blanket, as body temperatures drop during sleep. Read something light (nothing for work!) and when your eyelids feel heavy, let yourself drift off...
The Spanish recommend sleeping about twenty minutes; dozing for two or three times that long can leave you groggy. If so, you’ll find the Spanish merienda, an afternoon snack of coffee and cake, will get those eyelids wide open again. Even without the caffeine and sugar rush, I find a siesta leaves me feeling refreshed and alert. And contrary to some popular myths, it actually helps me sleep more deeply at night, too.
My agenda may not require exploring the frontiers of space, defeating the Nazis, or figuring out the space-time continuum, but I count on my siestas to make me more efficient and less likely to suffer burnout, stress, or a fatal heart attack. And they’re fun. To me, that’s worth 20 minutes any day.
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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