On Naps

Quoting Nicholas Bakalar from an article in the New York Times, in which Balakar cites research from a 2007 journal article by Androniki Naska et al., Dan Pink writes the following in his book When: “Naps also improve our overall health. A large study in Greece, which followed more than 23,000 people over six years, found that, controlling for other risk factors, people who napped were as much as 37 percent less likely as others to die from heart disease.” Quoting Bakalar directly, “an effect of the same order of magnitude as taking an aspirin or exercising every day.”


In the United States, we are really missing out by not having a siesta culture. Pink was skeptical of naps going into his book, but I’ve listened to him in a couple of podcasts describe how the surprising benefits he uncovered have changed his views toward napping. Relatively short naps, say 20 minutes or so, can provide us with a lot of benefits: reduced blood pressure, better cognitive functioning, and increased vigor to name a few. Naps can have a big impact on overall health and well being, but in the United States they are not appreciated and are in many ways looked down upon.


Pink writes, “In general, concludes one analysis of about twenty years of napping research, health adults should ideally nap for approximately 10 to 20 minutes.”


For some reason, we believe that all one needs to do to be an effective and efficient employee is get a full night of sleep and then have the willpower to work hard and churn out good work throughout the day. Our ability to not be distracted, to think clearly, and to produce innovative insights are all seen as within our control if we simply work hard enough and apply ourselves with dedication.


The research into naps, however, suggests that we are thinking of our personal strength in focusing and producing meaningful work incorrectly. Rather than just focusing on our effort and intention with our work, we should consider our environment and small tools and techniques that can help us perform better. Yes, we should make sure we sleep well at night and find ways to motivate ourselves to do our best deep focus work, but we should recognize that it can’t all be 100% on our conscious brain. Yesterday’s post talked about the restorative power of walks, and today’s post is about the restorative power of naps. Both of these activities can seem like foo-foo time wasters, but they can actually be quite powerful in giving our brain a chance to reset and perform better in the time after we step away from our work. Rather than valuing people as automatons who should be chained to a desk of productivity, we should remember that we are creative, thinking, problem solvers, and need a little TLC to help our brains perform the best on work that matters.

Night Owls By Birth

A chronotype is the scientific term used to describe people who are night owls and early morning people (or larks as they are sometimes called). Most people fall into these two categories, with a small segment of the population who are somewhere outside of either lark or night owl. Between morning people and night owls, the majority of people are generally in the morning person category (even if most people are not waking up at 4 a.m. to write blog posts every day).


In the book When, Dan Pink discusses research which suggest that our chronotypes are often determined before we are even born. He suggests that being a night owl or a lark is beyond our individual control, and not something we can flip like a light switch. He writes, “Genetics explains at least half the variability in chronotype, suggesting that larks and owls are born, not made. In fact, the when of one’s birth plays a surprisingly powerful role. People born in the fall and winter are more likely to be larks; people born in the spring and summer are more likely to be owls.”


To me it seems really strange that we would find a genetic component to whether we like to wake up early or go to bed late. What is even more strange is that there would be an epigenetic factor that shapes whether we are a morning person or night owl based on the time of year of our birth. I can understand why early human civilizations would benefit by having some people who were morning people and some people who were night owls, but it is still surprising to me that it is baked in at a genetic level.


We often look at behaviors like waking up early or staying up late and apply some type of moral lens which does not make sense given this research. Our society generally praises the early risers and is critical of night owls, but for many people, according to the research Pink presents in his book, being an owl or lark is not a choice. We don’t need to be so critical of people with a different chronotype than ourselves, and we don’t have to praise people who have the same chronotype as ourselves either. We can simply accept that some people are going to be up early and others will stay up late, and we can adjust our own schedules according to our chonotype so that we are engaging in appropriate activities at the appropriate time for ourselves based on our chronotypes.


Ultimately, for me, this brings me back to my personal belief that we need to shorten the work day and find more flexibility in how we work. Forcing everyone into the same work schedule doesn’t make much sense if many of us are not built on a genetic level for that work schedule. Also, if our work is knowledge work, where the important thing is what our brains produce and not how many times we swing a hammer, then there is no reason to force that work to be done at a particular time of day, at least not if it can be done at a different time of day with better output that doesn’t slow down and impact other people’s productivity. Respecting chronotypes in this way will likely make us  more productive, if we can find a reasonable way to blend chronotypes and work schedules. This is something I think we should work toward, especially since our chronotypes are more or less set before we are born, and not something we explicitly chose for ourselves.

Economics Suggests We Should Change Our Routines

Dan Pink looks at earnings calls for major companies in his book When. It turns out, for major companies reporting earnings on conference calls, scheduling for the early morning is best. Pink writes, “afternoon calls were more negative, irritable, and combative than morning calls.”


In the book, Pink explores how we react to the day and behave at different times. There are points where we are more and less likely to be energetic, alert, and focused, and times when we are more likely to be lethargic, irritable, and distracted. The takeaway from his research is that we should organize and schedule our days so that we are engaged when we need to be, handling the right tasks at the right time for our brain, and adjusting our schedules to fit our current states of being. Doing so would be a radical shift in how we think about the way we work.


We are still stuck in an economic model of jobs that better fits industrial assembly lines than knowledge work. When you needed someone on an assembly line pushing a button to make widgets, then it made sense to have 8 hour (or longer) shifts throughout the entire day to ensure that the factory could produce widgets. However, in a world where our output is dependent on our brain power, this model doesn’t work so well. Having someone work more hours doesn’t equate to more output. Additionally, if performance substantially declines during the day or if performance and behavior experiences wild shifts as we become hungry and tired, then we could have negative productivity. This is part of what is being explained by Pink with the earnings calls above.


Right before lunch and in the afternoon, the quality of calls was worse. People were less optimistic, less happy about the business, and company share prices were likely to take a hit. Our  bodies were overwhelming our rational brain power and hurting the companies. “Economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution.” What we need to do is recognize how our brains work and how they respond to the world so that we can organize our shifts and schedules in ways that actually help economic performance and productivity. As it is now, we have people work through long stretches where their brains are simply not primed for good economic productivity, and then we suffer with poor output. Rather than taking advantage of the natural cycles of the human brain and productivity to do good work, we push people to slug through the day and feel miserable about their low performance. Everyone is worse off in this system, but we could change it by better aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythms and body-clocks.