Monthly Archives: September 2012

Napping my way to a better dissertation

I read David Randall’s piece on alternative sleep schedules after waking up from my recently-adopted mid-day nap. Randall, who has written a book about sleep science, explains that the notion that people need to sleep in single, eight-hour blocks of time each day is a relatively new one, and not even all that common around the world. Evidently, folks from Chaucer’s time through the sixteenth century often had both a “first sleep” and a “second sleep” with a natural break around midnight. I gather from Randall’s article that many people find themselves waking up around what we would think of as the mid-point of an eight-hour rest–Randall argues that we should embrace that rhythm, rather than fighting to sleep through the entire night.

Personally, I find that interesting but not all that applicable to my own sleep patterns, as waking up in the night is not a problem I experience often. My sleep issues tend to lie on the other end of the spectrum: I can sleep soundly for eight or nine hours a night, every night, and still need more. In the rare stretches of time when I’m able to go to bed when I want and sleep as long as I like, I’ll drift off around 10:30 and sleep until 8 or 8:30 easily.

Saying that makes it sound like I might be habitually over-worked and under-rested, with an enormous sleep debt to make up. But though I don’t sleep from 10:30 until 8:30 every day, I do get about eight hours a night. I’m not racking up a huge sleep debt and then trying to sleep it off (which doesn’t actually work, by the way), I just need more sleep than most people.

Since I have too much going on to spend almost half my day asleep, I’m always trying to figure out ways to feel well-rested on seven and a half or eight hours instead of ten. I used to shy away from naps because I’d lay down in bed and be out cold for an hour and a half. But I’ve recently moved to a bigger, better study cube on campus that boasts not only a window (natural light does wonders for my productivity), but also a napping bench. Now, when I get the inevitable after-lunch coma feeling coming on, I set my alarm for 25 minutes and take a quick nap. I wake up feeling clear-headed and ready to do something useful with my afternoon, which is exactly what science says a good nap should do.

If I don’t sleep enough, if I don’t stop and rest when I’m drowsy and muzzy-headed, if I try to burn the midnight oil and finish writing or grading, I find that what I’ve produced is generally crap. And not only is it crap, but it’s crap that I’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears to produce. I’ve fought through my natural need for sleep, fought off all of my body’s signals that it needs rest, and made my self generally miserable, and whatever I have to show for it is generally several times worse that what I could have produced in half the time if I’d been rested.

That’s why I’ve stopped giving myself a hard time for sleeping what often strikes the people around me as an inordinate amount (“I can’t remember the last time I slept more than six hours,” says what seems like everyone). Nor do I feel guilty about my post-lunch nap. The quality of the work I produce in the afternoon has improved significantly since I stopped telling myself to just suck it up and write through the drowsiness.

Graduate school encourages a lot of unhealthy physical and emotional behaviors, but the valorization of going without sleep has to be one of the worst. And not only is it unhealthy, it’s inefficient. There’s no pride in staying up all night to take twice as long to do a crappy job on something. If you’re working on an tight deadline, set an alarm*, sleep a few hours, and then give it another go. According to David Randall, that’s what people have been doing for centuries anyway.

* Because my body wants to sleep for what seems like forever, I often have trouble waking up, even if I’ve been sleeping for seven and a half or eight hours. That only gets worse as the days get shorter. It’s been pitch dark at 6:30 for the past couple of weeks. I just ordered a fancy new alarm clock that’s supposed to simulate the sunrise by way of a gradually brightening full-spectrum light. If it makes it easier to get out of bed when it still feels like the middle of the night, it will be well worth it.