Biz Features

Attack of the Killer Z’s – How Napping Boosts Productivity

by . July 22nd, 2013

Bridgman, Frederick Arthur - The Siesta (Afternoon in Dreams) - Spanierman Gallery, New York, NY
How would you react if an employee came to work drunk? Unless you work in an unusually laissez-faire environment, you probably wouldn’t stand for it. Conventional wisdom implies being drunk means you’ll produce poorer quality work. You probably wouldn’t encourage a work situation where employees are constantly inebriated, much less give them a pat on the back when they come to work plastered.

However, the predominant traditional American work ethic emphasizes working hard, even when it means your personal life suffers. Even sleep suffers. We even sometimes make it a game to show how little sleep we get – even when our work is worse off for it.

Why We Need Sleep

Carsten Ullrich - A picture from China every day via Wikimedia Commons CC

Missing a night’s sleep will mess with your ability to focus on any one thing for an extended period of time.  While you might be able to do tasks about as well as someone who has had enough rest, the crucial difference will be with your ability to stay on that task.

Sleep debt accumulates and must always be repaid. Going several nights in a row without getting the right amount of sleep will lead to a cascading array of serious issues, not limited to muscle spasms, obesity from your hormones getting all out of whack, irritability (I’m sure we’re all familiar with this) and even death (which I’m sure none of you are familiar with, yet).

Here are just some of the things that happen when you don’t get enough sleep.

  • fatigue
  • reduced attention span
  • short-term memory
  • poor coordination
  • hormonal imbalance
  • muscle spasms
  • marked loss of concentration
  • impaired judgment
  • blurred vision
  • nausea
  • slurring of speech
  • microsleep (briefly sleeping for a few seconds at a time, without being aware of it)
  • hallucinations, and delusional episodes
  • slowed speech
  • tremors in limb extremities,
  • identity confusion
  • unusual behavior
  • fragmented thinking
  • paranoia
  • prolonged episodes of”conscious stupor”

You might get a bit more done by staying up, but there is always a negative net effect from doing so in the long run, thanks to the additional time you spend correcting all kinds of errors.

How Many Hours Do You Need?

Arianna Huffington credits her success to naps and getting enough sleep in general.  Other famous nappers include JFK, Ronald Reagan, Napoleon Bonaparte (who often slept during meetings, on horseback, and occasionally in the heat of battle), and Thomas Edison – who liked to brag that only slept 4 hours a night, but in reality, took 2-3 hour naps throughout the day – which Nikolai Tesla wry noted.

Here’s Arianna Huffington’s TED talk on sleep

Now there are people who don’t need that much sleep. Some prominent examples include Indra Nooyi,  PepsiCo CEO and Martha Stewart. Both claim to sleep about four hours a night. I’m sure you’ve met these superhuman Type A personalities who thanks to the the genetic lottery, can genuinely function at full capacity with very little sleep.

But I bet that you’ve met more people who put in hours of pointless overtime, not get much done, then leave you feeling like they were expecting a medal for it. I’ve been that person a few times a few times myself.

But pick any group of adults at random, and they’re going to fall into the crowd that (that most studies say) needs 6.5-9 hours of sleep to function properly. Anyone who needs less is exceptional, and by definition, you will encounter them less often.

Conventional wisdom says that we each know how much sleep we need to be functional. Unfortunately, the introduction of artificial lighting has forever altered what we think and feel about sleep and wakefulness. Most of us aren’t even familiar with what it means to be truly awake anymore. I actually found this TED video enlightening and a bit disturbing.

Working With The Time You’ve Got

Depending on your work conditions, you may want to try these out for size.

3) Siestas 

Siestas are a fixture of life in countries all over the world, especially in tropical and subtropical climates.  In the largely hot, agricultural area I grew up in, there was a very practical reason for this. The sun would be merciless from midday through the afternoon.

It would normally be 98-110 degrees Fahrenheit at 80% humidity around noon, and if you were say, a farmer working their fields around then, dying from heatstroke is a very real possibility. Even in the shade, the heat can really get to you.

Julio Rojas - Day Sleepers via Wikimedia Commons CC

People where air-conditioning isn’t really a common thing tended to wake up fairly early , around 5 am and start business from 6am, with a midday break from 10:30am lasting through 2pm. Around this time, they would go home (normally just a  short walk in smaller communities), have lunch, and sleep. They’d then start working from 2pm up until 6 in the evening. Similar patterns are found in hot countries all over the world.

However, long siestas are not as common in more modernized areas in hot countries these days thanks to air-conditioning and the fact that people now tend to work fairly far from where they actually live.

Siestas are not only good for helping keep your brains from getting baked in the midday sun. They can improve concentration and working memory as well. Multiple studies also strongly suggest a link to a more natural circadian rhythms. They have been shown to lead to a 30% reduction in deaths related to cardiovascular disorders.

The early afternoon crash is almost universal, so an afternoon nap seems to be a need for most people. However, siestas are at least partly cultural and how they’re done depends on context. In Spain, the land of THE Siesta, the increasingly hectic pace of life has led to its declining appeal.

People whose businesses are in hot climates, telecommuters, and people who work near their homes should definitely try siestas on for size. Obviously, these won’t work if you have long commutes or are expected to be awake midday. In these cases you could consider a more reasonable version of  a siesta:

2) Power Napping

These are arguably different from full-on siestas by being much shorter. Wouldn’t be much of a “power nap” if you spent that much time sleeping, would it?  Power naps of less than an hour have been shown to give most of the benefits of a full blown snoozefest, at least when it comes to helping your working memory.

Napoleon Sleeping - Public Domain

One possible drawback over traditional long siestas is that that these short naps only address the alertness issue. Initial research suggests longer, deeper sleep is needed to better maximize the other benefits. Another problem is that if you don’t sleep long or short enough, you risk getting up groggier than you were before. There’s a delicate timing issue at work here.

So how little time do you need for a good enough power nap? Thankfully, your tax dollars have provided an answer. NASA pegs the ideal for most people at 26 minutes. If you have a nap room or sleeping quarters at your office, it’s just about enough time to get some sleep in after lunch.

For an even more refreshing rest, you can can try…

1) Caffeine Naps

One problem with coffee is that most people use it the wrong way. It will do you no good at all if you’re already tired by the time you drink it. Take a look at this video to see how caffeine works:

When you’re sleepy, it means your adenosine receptors are full of… well… adenosine. No amount of caffeine will help wake you up if the caffeine can’t get into the receptors. When you sleep, your adenosine receptors get flushed out, and are ready to be occupied by caffeine.

When you drink a cup of coffee, or soda, or anything else caffeinated, you’re essentially plugging your adenosine receptors with caffeine, preventing adenosine from occupying space in the receptors, so you feel more awake. This whole process takes about 30 minutes in an average person.

Julius Schorzman - A Small Cup of Coffee via Wikimedia Commons CC

A caffeine nap takes advantage of this delay. What you do is, drink a cup of coffee then take a nap as soon as you can. Sleeping flushes out the adenosine receptors of adenosine – just in time for caffeine to take over. The result is you wake up far more alert and energized than you otherwise would from a short nap.


Regardless of how many hours of sleep you get or think you need, make sure you get enough. The quality of life and business doesn’t improve just because you spent more hours awake than the rest of us.

Additional Reading and Sources:

Sleep Deprivation in the Workplace – WebMd

Margaret Heffernan – The Truth About Sleep And Productivity –

Sleep Disorders Spell Safety, Productivity Concerns Work –EHS Today

Sleep deprivation as bad as alcohol impairment, study suggests

Hack MA, Choi SJ, Vijayapalan P, Davies RJ, Stradling JR. Oxford Centre for Respiratory Medicine, Comparison of the effects of sleep deprivation, alcohol and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) on simulated steering performance –  Oxford Radcliffe Trust, UK.

Naska, A., Oikonomou, E., Trichopoulou, A., Psaltopoulou, T. and Trichopoulos, D. (2007). Siesta in healthy adults and coronary mortality in the general population. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167, 296-301.

“Effects of sleep deprivation”, British Medical Association, July 30, 2004.
NASD. “Sleep Deprivation: Causes and Consequences”, Nebraska Rural Health and Safety Coalition.
Appel, Jacob. Must Physicians Report Impaired Driving? Rethinking a Duty on a Collision Course with Itself 20 (2). Journal of Clinical Ethics.

Image Credits

All Images licensed through Creative Commons via

Bridgman, Frederick Arthur – The Siesta (Afternoon in Dreams) – Spanierman Gallery, New York, NY

Carsten Ullrich – A picture From China every Day

Julio Rojas – Day Sleepers

Julius Schorzman – A Small Cup of Coffee


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.