Nap your way to a PhD!

the author at work
The author & his Ostrich pillow

As PhD students, we’re knowledge workers in the business of intellectual production. The self-determined quest for truth or knowledge is a huge privilege. Yet it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand: to successfully manage a several-year project and, crucially, yourself. Given the nature of the research process, fatigue or drowsiness may soon become a troubling issue.

Thinking and writing can be tiresome – literally. We usually expect the magic to happen while gazing at a screen, sitting up and fully conscious. Now of course intellectual production and mental alertness is a very personal thing. You may be an early bird or a late riser, plan things step-by-step or prefer to muddle through, work better from your office space or in a café. But isn’t that typical midday dip from about 1 to 3 p.m. – post-cafeteria fatigue – something that unites us all? Next to PhD candidates’ archenemies of distraction and procrastination, don’t we all share those foggy-brained states of sliding into lazy thinking or fighting to stay awake?

Turns out that forcing your tired memory neurons to unduly fire during the siesta hours is simply not an effective strategy for surviving the cognitive slump: as sleep experts – and common sense – will tell you, simply hanging in there usually results in downslope concentration and recollection or, worse, bad decision-making and outright sloppy work. Finding a balance between immersion and relaxation that works for you is probably the key to successful brooding and typing about your topic of inquiry. And just like regular exercise and eating healthy are often recommended, sufficient sleep matters! So why not try napping your way to the PhD?

I recently got hold of a so-called Ostrich pillow (the photo shows me using it at my desk), an overpriced but comical sleeping gadget marketed by a Madrid-based design studio as a comfy “micro environment” for practicing the art of power napping. Next to aiming for the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep – the real thing – I started experimenting with daily short doses from ten to twenty minutes, at my desk in our shared office. And the verdict is…(drum roll)…that while the pillow is dispensable, catnapping does the trick for me: once the cell phone’s alarm goes off, I rise to the occasion, my body feels fresh, the mind more alert.

That’s not to claim it doesn’t feel weird at first: with other people around, the pillow initially entails more communication than sleep as gets some strange looks from colleagues. Even if alone, you may instantly experience a kind of sleeping taboo at work, and fear “being caught”. Having said that, catnapping as a PhD student can be explained, learned, and has a lot going for it. We are not in constant hierarchical contact with a strict boss – supervisors rarely visit us in the office, where we have a private space, a door to shut, and colleagues tolerant of “sleep hacking” attempts.

Contrary to intuition and the Spanish tradition of a lengthy indoor refuge from hot afternoons, longer is not necessarily better in the domain of sleep. Of course a power nap doesn’t go sufficiently deep to lead you through all sleep stages. But that is precisely the point of condensed anti-sluggishness naps. Waking up well beyond the twenty minute barrier leaves you with that sweet, boozed want for more. Research coming out of the neurosciences and other disciplines suggests that briefly falling asleep – totally decoupling the senses from our surroundings – is not at all like shutting down a computer. Neuronal activity is not turned off but vitally modified. Like New York City, the brain never sleeps!

This is why after that short episode of “sticking your head in the sand” (a practice Ostriches do not actually engage in), you will be ahead of where you started at the neurocognitive level. This nicely fits the cyclical back-and-forth nature of PhD work. Open-minded discovery or accurate explication is no linear process but relies upon these cognitive “jumps”.

Similar to short episodes of walk or talk in fresh air, power napping can leave you wide awake and boosts productivity in the short term. Over the long run, it apparently helps lessen your risk of chronic disease, cardiovascular problems, diabetes and depression too. Sleep = health and happiness. So rather than e-mail-checking your next afternoon away, try getting some quality downtime! Zzz…

7 thoughts on “Nap your way to a PhD!

  1. If only a few ones of the readers here try this, I’d dare to predict that within 10 years’ we’ll start a revolution. napping!

    One thing though – any experience as to how long a power nap should take? I’ve been experimenting with it – while 20 mins seems to short to actually fall asleep, 30 mins will have you wake up in a state of drowsiness.

  2. @Paul: My favourite time is ten minutes + five minutes of “recovery with open eyes” (just think around and ignore the surrounding). Yet for ten minutes to be sufficient you have to be someone who falls asleep easily and quickly. But from the moment of falling asleep to waking up there should be not much more than ten minutes, from my experience.

  3. @Paul and Björn: Thanks for your comments. I’d still consider myself a novice and would intuitively go with Björn’s recommendation of about 10 minutes of attempting to go into “deep” mode – i.e. catnapping with closed eyes (actually falling asleep may well require more practice at first, and I don’t know if that even needs to be the goal). Aiming for an average of 15 minutes usually gives that refreshing effect already for me, irrespective of the fact that I definitely am not really deeply sleeping…Oh, and by the way, my mother interestingly reports that her most effective power-napping happens lying straight on the hard-surfaced floor :-)

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