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September 26, 2023

You Should Take a Nap This Afternoon Because Science

Is it just me or are we most productive after a few beers at 3am?

Just me, then, fine. 

For most of you, rising at dawn to produce a work product from 9am by way of copious amounts of caffeine is the routine. You then sustain this energy throughout the day (and for some of you, into the evening) without collapsing.

"Normal" people manage to do this every single weekday so whatever.

Harvard Business Review has an interesting piece that challenges this thinking, though, and all it comes down to circadian rhythms:

Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire. On average, after the workday begins, employees take a few hours to reach their peak levels of alertness and energy — and that peak does not last long. Not long after lunch, those levels begin to decline, hitting a low at around 3pm. We often blame this on lunch, but in reality this is just a natural part of the circadian process. After the 3pm dip, alertness tends to increase again until hitting a second peak at approximately 6pm. Following this, alertness tends to then decline for the rest of the evening and throughout the early morning hours until hitting the very lowest point at approximately 3:30am. After hitting that all-time low, alertness tends to increase for the rest of the morning until hitting the first peak shortly after noon the next day. A very large body of research highlights this pattern, although of course there is individual variability around that pattern, which I’ll discuss shortly.

If you don't understand circadian rhythms, it's basically your deeply-ingrained internal clock. Mine prefers to hit snooze until about 3 in the afternoon and then stay up until 4am playing Fallout 3.

Managers who want to maximize their employees’ performance should consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations. This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others. Similarly, employees should take their own circadian rhythms into account when planning their own day. The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness (within an hour or so of noon and 6pm). The least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower (very early in the morning, around 3pm, and late at night).

Again, this isn't always possible. And you definitely don't want to tell your senior you are more productive around 9pm because that just means you'll be expected to start at the same time as everyone else in the morning and then stay that much later. Forget that nonsense.

Barring the flexibility to work at 4am (that is, "regular" work, not "on top of the work you already spent your entire day doing" work), how can employees and employers best maximize productivity?

The answer is deliciously simple: naps.

Naps can be a good way to regulate energy as well, providing some short-term recovery that can increase alertness. A large body of evidence links naps to increases in task performance.

There is a catch here, of course. You can't just grab your blankie and knock out for a few whenever you want. You'll want to nap when your circadian rhythm is at a low point. For "normal" people who don't stay up all night playing Fallout 3, this is generally around 3pm: hence "that 2:30 feeling."

Unfortunately, we often get this wrong. Many employees are flooded with writing and responding to emails throughout their entire morning, which takes them up through lunch. They return from lunch having already used up most of their first peak in alertness, and then begin important tasks requiring deep cognitive processing just as they start to move toward the 3pm dip in alertness and energy. We often put employees in a position where they must meet an end-of-workday deadline, so they persist in this important task throughout the 3pm dip. Then, as they are starting to approach the second peak of alertness, the typical workday ends.

Mind you, this article is written for workers in general, not you guys. Sometimes you have to push through that "second peak of alertness" and there's nothing you can do about it. All the more reason you need a nap!

As firms are pushing toward new, open workspaces, why aren't they making giant bean bags and hammocks a part of the design? Serious question. Granted, I have the luxury of napping on the giant Lovesac sactional in my workspace. Also granted, there's no way in hell you guys would ever get hammocks in your offices.

If your firm still won't let you nap, remind them that the less productive you feel, the less ethical you are. That oughta convince 'em.

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