This week, I was heartened by the news that says that siestas are good for you. Oh, the joy! Researchers at the University of California have discovered that a bit of shut-eye in the middle of the day improves the brain’s ability to function in the evening, as it clears the brain’s short-term memory, making room for new information. Well, if you’ll permit me to quote that great philosopher of the 20th Century, Monica Geller, “I know!”
Although this idea has been kicking around for a couple of years now–as Sara Mednick, author of Take A Nap! Change Your Life told us back in 2006, the concept seems to be gathering pace again. Last month, Arianna Huffington exhorted women to sleep their way to the top, seeing lack of sleep as the next big feminist issue.
UC Study leader Dr Matthew Walker describes it thus. “Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness, but, at a neurocognitive level it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” he explained, before adding a neat analogy that I liked so much I forwarded to all my friends. “It’s as though the email inbox in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out all those fact emails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into another folder.”
Anyone who doesn’t work from home should look away now, as reading the rest of this post may provoke severe jealousy. I am a great believer in a bit of shut-eye during the working day, although it’s not always possible–this week, for example, I started full-time on FastCompany.com, and, until I really get into the rhythm, 40 winks will be out of the question. Normally, however, my hours are whatever I want them to be and, although my boyfriend frequently tries to make me feel guilty when he sees the bed looking rumpled, it’s got nothing to do with him. Unless, of course, he’s thinking that I’m having a passionate affair with the mailman–but since the guy who sticks the letters through the door boasts a curly perm, is slightly mentally subnormal, and has a pathological fear of my dog, that really is taking it a bit too far.
Siestas are good for many things, one of which is unblocking the mind. The big error is to see a power nap (disco kip, whatever you want to call it) as a form of procrastination. It isn’t. Look at it as meditation for those of you who don’t have failed marriages to Cindy Crawford, or don’t see the word “Om” as a low-scoring, two-letter word for Scrabble. It’s a failsafe way for unblocking the mind, I reckon.
For almost a decade I lived in Madrid, where siestas are a part of life. It stems from the fact that the city is so searingly hot during the summer months that, unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, it’s not just lunacy to go out in the midday sun, but also lunacy to make your brain work too hard. Think of all those outages on hot days, when the air-con in the server room goes off, causing smoke to come out of the vents in the servers’ back. Now translate that to your brain.
I spent four years working for a gossip magazine run by a very traditional family in the Spanish capital. For them, the lunch hour–in truth, closer to two-and-a-half hours–was sacred. At 2 p.m. sharp, everything would stop–you could set your watch by it–and, as the ruling family sat down to a three-course meal, waited on by a butler called Alejandro (who was a weird, mini-me version of his boss) and various other lackeys, the Spanish staff on his three magazines would tootle home where their wives/mothers would have a table leg-busting lunch waiting for them–and a nice comfy sofa for them to stretch out on after they’d finished postre. The ex-pats amongst us had to make do with a sandwich from Marks y Espenssser at our desks. 🙁
Now I’m back in freezing cold London, I guess the same rules don’t really apply, but apply them I do. As I said, it’s not always possible, but I like to feel that I can drop everything and disappear upstairs for a sneaky sleep. I do that and you can guarantee that I’ll work late. Denied one for too long, then come 6 p.m., I start clock-watching. Sometimes it works in reverse–I have been known to get out of bed in the middle of the night and start work on something, whizz through it in record time and then shuffle back under the duvet. But that’s creatives for you. We wake up in the middle of the night and hope we’re going to find Don Draper at our desks.
A siesta is antithesis of modern working life. Work smarter, the ads tell you. Be connected. Catch that plane. Seal the deal. Well, no. Given those scary statistics that you’re obsolete in the workplace by the time you’re 43, is it a wonder that people run harder and harder just to stand still? You’re not seen to be a player if you’re not filling each working day with a plethora of tasks, but I just don’t think that argument stands up. One of the classic Spanish writers (I’m too addled, I’m afraid, to recall just who it was) was said to settle himself down in a chair, a large bunch of keys in his hand, for a post-prandial nap. When the keys fell from his hand onto the floor, he would wake up and put quill to parchment again.
And why am I addled? Let me glance at the clock a moment. It’s because it’s 8.47 p.m., I’m still at my computer, and I didn’t have my siesta today.