The most frequent piece of advice I get when complaining that I don’t sleep well at night is: give up your nap. Kelly has suggested this a number of times, as have people I’ve complained to about my poor night’s sleep. I’m not sure these people appreciate the value of a good afternoon nap.
My sleeping problems are relatively new. They coincide with the pandemic, were much worse during those stressful early months, got a little better, and have settled on a kind of mediocre plane, just mediocre enough to be annoying. Taking a page from business writer Jim Collins1, I rate my sleep on a scale of -2 (the worst) to +2 (the best), with 0 begin a perfectly satisfactory night’s sleep. Prior to the pandemic, my sleep was generally in the range of 0-to-1. During the pandemic it has fluctuated between -2 and 0 with a rare 1 in there out of sheer exhaustion. The thing is, in pre-pandemic days, my average was generally above 0. In other words, better than satisfactory. And I was napping then, too. This makes me suspicious of any advice suggesting that napping is the cause of my sleeping problems.
I’m not certain of when it began, but I have diary entries from the mid-1990s referring to my lunchtime naps in my office at work. I’d close my door during lunch and nap for a little while. Eventually, this evolved in the following daily routine: (1) eat for 10 minutes, (2) read for 20 minutes, (3) nap for 30 minutes. When it came to napping, I had a sweatshirt I kept in a desk drawer that I used as a pillow. I put my head down on my desk, or later, my meeting table, rested it on my makeshift pillow, and usually I was out in seconds, waking feeling refreshed when thirty minutes had expired. I never seemed to oversleep.
When the Littlest Miss was born, this napping evolved. I would nap with her. When she was an infant, I’d cradle her in my arms, sitting in the rail chair in our bedroom, and rock her to sleep, rocking myself to sleep at the same time. As she got older, she and I would take post-lunchtime naps together. This summer, she began growing out of napping, but since I have been napping at lunch since the mid-1990s, I have not. After lunch, I head down to the guest room (Kelly is often working in our bedroom) and nap. Just like those days in my office, I fall asleep in seconds, and wake feeling refreshed.
Indeed, my afternoon naps seem to be the only sleep I get that feels quite, peaceful, and undisturbed, even by dreams. For me, just a little good sleep is better than a lot of bad sleep. Why would I give up such good sleep, knowing it would likely make little difference for the bad sleep? I’ve gave up caffeine in order to improve my sleep at night, and it didn’t seem to do any good. (For the sleep, that is. Since I was a big caffeine addict, it was probably good for me regardless.) Why give up napping?
I was thinking about all of this as I went downstairs for my afternoon nap yesterday. There, on the dresser in the guest room, was a paperback copy of All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. I’d never seen it before, and assumed it was Kelly’s2. Curious, I picked it up as I settled under the covers and read a few pages. Pages 4-5 cover the basics: the things we really need to know, and right there between “Live a balanced life,” and “watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together” was this gem:
Take a nap every afternoon.
That triggered a memory and as I sat down to write this essay, I pulled every Andy Rooney book from my shelves, searching for something I knew he’d written about the joy of naps. I found it in his 1986 essay collection, Word for Word, back when his books still went under the byline Andrew A. Rooney. There, on pages 279-281 was an essay aptly titled, “Napping.” Rooney writes,
Naps are underrated. I don’t know why we dismiss napping as an inconsequential little act. The word itself doesn’t even sound important. I think everyone should get off his or her feet and lie down for a few minutes at some point during a long day.
Napping got a bad reputation somewhere along the line and I resent it. For some reason, people who don’t nap feel superior to those who do. Nappers try to hide it. They don’t let on that they drop off once in a while because they know what other people will say.
Indeed! They will say things like, “Maybe you should give up napping in order to get a better night’s sleep,” when in fact, it was only recently that my nighttime sleeping has been impacted. I slept perfectly well for 23 years before the pandemic and took a daily lunchtime nap during that time, too. It is really the nap that is a problem? Of course, a non-napper would argue that if I hadn’t been napping during those 23 years, I might have slept even better at night.
In another essay, “How To Sleep” in his 2006 book Out of My Mind, Rooney writes,
I usually get six or less [hours of sleep at night], but then I get sleepy after lunch and ruin my night’s sleep with a nap. A five-minute nap seems to mean as much as an hours sleep at night. I realize I’m luckier than most because I’ve been on the job for so long at CBS that I have a couch in my office. I’d rather have the couch than a raise or another week off in the summer. Naps are one of the best things in life. They have all the good feeling of a night’s sleep without taking so much time. [Emphasis mine.]
Well, I like my afternoon naps. They are quiet, peaceful, daytime sleeping. The sun filters into the room making it bright and airy. I listen to a playlist that the Littlest Miss and I fell asleep to together back in her napping days (all of two months ago), and it is the only time I can actually seem to manage to sleep on my back. I fall asleep almost instantly and rest in a kind of dreamless reverie until I awaken naturally a little while later, feeling refreshed.
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- He rates his days on this scale. Checkout his interview with Tim Ferris on Episode #361 of the Tim Ferris Show podcast for more details. ↩
- It was. She dug it out of a box in the attic while looking for something else. ↩