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Sleeping on the Job

Why a nap at work can actually make you more efficient

Published: Jul 11, 2009 09:00:10 AM IST
Updated: Jul 22, 2009 06:27:16 PM IST

This piece is dedicated to all the bold and bored people out there who nod off, snore and wake up with a start in our offices, classrooms and auditoriums. You’re way ahead of the curve.

The world is quickly waking up to the power of the nap. In New York, wellness centre Yelo rents private sleeping cabins out at $22 per 30-minute nap. At Munich Airport, a solution called Napcabs offers glowing sleeping stations for about 15 euro an hour. And in Japan where not working is not cool, executives slip away to napping salons or tight 2m x 1m x 1.25m spaces in capsule hotels to snore.

Welcome to the world of power napping. You probably already power nap: in the plane, at those post-lunchtime presentations, in your dentist’s chair. If so, you have felt the paradoxical alertness that a quick bit of slumber gives you. A power nap should be under 30 minutes; if you go much beyond, you hit slow wave sleep and are knocked out for a while.

Studies have shown that a 30-minute power nap can significantly improve memory. Surprisingly, so can just a six-minute one. Researchers from the University of Dusseldorf had students read a list of words to recall in one hour. The students were either kept awake for that hour or allowed to nap for six minutes. Those who napped remembered significantly more words than those who stayed awake.

So you have a fancy phone and people to remind you to do things? Naps have powers greater than just their recall factor. NASA researchers found that a 26-minute nap can improve objective measures of performance by 34 percent. A large Harvard study in Greece reported a link between midday napping and lower incidence of death due to heart disease. However, others have seen results where naps show no effect on the heart.

Dr. Raj Kapoor, a best-selling author and sleep medicine expert in the US, feels that compared to the data out on the heart, the evidence that naps have an impact on sex is stronger. “Sleep fragmentation can lead to erectile dysfunction in men and loss of libido in women. A power nap may compensate for sleep deprivation to some extent and improve sexual performance.” I have a hunch that was not one of the measures of performance that NASA tested.

Edison, Dali, Churchill and Einstein were all prolific power nappers and creative geniuses. Apparently, Dali and Edison would hold hard objects like balls or spoons in their hands while they napped. When they hit deep enough sleep, the objects would fall from their hands to wake them. aXbo makes a power napping alarm (they call it the world’s first sleep phase alarm clock), that takes it a little further: it measures body movement through motion sensing wrist bands that assess the stage of sleep. Before you fall into slow wave sleep, it wakes you up.

Dr. Edwin Robertson, Harvard Medical School, recently published a new framework to help us understand how power naps help our creative geniuses. He writes: “It is during sleep that the brain’s capacity to reorganise information and reveal ‘hidden patterns’ becomes particularly marked”. He suggests that while napping we may uncover hidden patterns that support our sense that by ‘sleeping on a problem’ we can work out a solution.

You want to be alert, creative, highly performing and remember it all? “Ideally you should eat lunch between noon and 1 p.m. and power nap between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.,” says Dr. Kapoor. Then again, if all of a sudden you now remember better what was on the page before this, my column may be just as good as a nap!

(Dr. Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at health.forbesindia@network18online.com)

(This story appears in the 17 July, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Abhishek Khare

    I would want my managers to read this.

    on Jul 12, 2012
  • dr.anildas

    hi vickram, half an hour nap in the car really rejuvenates me and it works amazingly. thanks, anil

    on Jul 25, 2009
  • Melody Hou

    Your words are music to my ears. i have taken napping to a whole new level. dr. kapoor recommends a nap between 2-4pm. i say why wait? napping at 10am got me through medical school!<br /> <br /> Thanks for your insightful articles. here's to beds everywhere!

    on Jul 17, 2009
  • rajat

    we should have more stuff on public health

    on Jul 13, 2009