Siestas are short naps taken in the afternoon, usually after eating, that tend to be associated with some Latin (especially Spanish-speaking) cultures. Those unfamiliar with them might associate them with laziness, or a lifestyle totally incompatible with their own. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything, people who take “power naps” are way more efficient, smarter and healthier, and yes you can do it too. Siestas will energise you, and make a significant reduction in the amount of sleep you need at night time, thus giving you way more time every day.
Not just for Spaniards/Mexicans
When I shared a typical day for me here in Colombia, a few people commented on the fact that I had a siesta. Siestas are not actually much of a part of Colombian culture, especially when you compare it to Spain or Mexico.
In fact, ever since I started travelling (my first real immersion abroad in Spain having influenced me), I have had a siesta in every country I've been in. As you can see in the photo, even when I passed through Mexico for just 12 hours, I still made a point to have one!
I've also had siestas in the winter in Poland, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK so it has nothing to do with lazy warm summer afternoons either.
But I've got a job! I don't have time for this!
Of course, it's easier to do this in Spain when the working day actually revolves around it; the work day in Spain ends much later than in other countries because they have a break of a few hours during the day, even in major cities.
And you might even think that then it's only possible for people who work their own hours – the last few years I've worked as a freelance translator and now a pro-language hacker, and working for myself gives me complete freedom to choose my own hours, so of course I can be more flexible to allow myself siesta time. However, most of my travels have involved jobs where I worked for others and only had one hour lunchbreak and I still made it happen.
I took the first half an hour to eat and spend time with co-workers, and the second half an hour to go to a quiet place (or if I was in a city, somewhere safe and just use earplugs & an eye-mask) and nap for 15-20 minutes. When I returned to work I was always completely energised and did my best work in the afternoons, while co-workers would groggily struggle for the first hour or two.
Finding these places to actually rest in wasn't hard at all. In Italy there was a nice park close to where I worked and I would lean against a tree there, and in France I convinced a shop-owner I became friendly with to let me go inside to his office, since I was too far to travel home. I don't care where you work, there is always a place you can hide away for 20 minutes.
Your body's natural rhythm
When people immediately object and say that they could never do it, I like to remind them to take a hard look at their 8-hour-nightly-pattern and ask themselves why that would be “natural” for society in the first place? This 9-5 lifestyle and one-uninterrupted-sleep-session is actually unnatural for your body. It is likely actually a by-product of the industrial revolution and is only really useful from the factory's perspective.
Before this, the vast majority of people would have worked on the land. Without a particular timetable to follow, they could take their breaks when their body told them to, rather than when their boss said so. It doesn't mean they worked “less”, just that they worked when they were at their best. Something we do way less of in the 21st century!
You see, after eating lunch, a lot of blood goes to your stomach to help you digest your food. This means that less blood is going to your brain – and it results in the afternoon lull that pretty much everyone feels around 2-3pm. Some people just put up with it and will be less focused and less efficient in the early afternoon, and others will drug themselves up with caffeine to try to get over it.
Your body is actually screaming for just a little lie-down so you can digest what is (usually) the main meal of the day, just like pretty much all other mammals do! When you answer that call, even for just 20 minutes you will feel completely energised. After my siestas I feel like a new man; I compare the feeling to what an adrenaline injection must feel like. Coffee could never compare, and that's why I very rarely even drink it.
Too many people have an unhealthy reliance on coffee to be alert, and afternoon naps can alleviate that. Ideally you'd cut coffee out of your routine if you want siestas to work.
Huge savings in time
It took me about 2 weeks of an investment to get used to siestas, but that has paid off in so many extra hours and much more enjoyable afternoons over the years and for the rest of my life.
When you have a 20 minute power nap, it does not actually mean that you just save those 20 minutes off the night time – you can actually save several hours each day.
A more extreme version of using napping to save time is known as polyphasic sleep (siestas being “biphasic”). When done efficiently enough, applying Uberman's sleep schedule, you can get by very well on just two hours of sleep a day. I have successfully tried this myself. When people hear this, they immediately claim how impossible it is for them since they need their 8 hours of sleep a day, but when it's spread out through the day it can be done by pretty much anyone and many have proven this.
The major catch to such a system is your reliance on keeping on schedule, and this creates big problems for social interactions, and really would interfere with jobs and normal life. Also, people who apply the system tend to have too much time on their hands. But it has been applied throughout history; Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for having applied a more efficient sleeping pattern so no time was lost on all of the projects he wanted to work on.
But getting back to siestas, by spending just 20 minutes napping in the afternoon, you can save around 2 hours at night time. I personally only need 5-6 hours of sleep a night thanks to my siestas (I used to need 8). These 2-3 hour blocks add up to a lot of extra time to work on projects, like learning languages in my case. It also means I can go to bed relatively late (usually 1am) but still get up early (6-7am). Without a siesta, doing this would tire me out quickly.
And to those who say they “like” sleep, and so wouldn't want to miss out on any, then why do you wait so long for the next sleeping session? I love sleep, and get to do it more often than everyone else! 🙂 One reason I won't feel tired during the day is because my body knows that the next sleeping time is not that far away, no matter what time of day it is.
I can't stress enough how the savings in time multiply when you take into account how well rested you are in the afternoon and how quickly and more efficiently you'll work because of that! Without an afternoon lull, I'll get everything done much quicker, and that saves time in itself!
Getting into it
It will be very hard for you to adjust to this immediately. If you go lie down right now for 20 minutes, presuming it's the afternoon, it's likely you won't get any kind of sleep. It took me an entire two weeks of lying down every day to get used to letting my body know that I am indeed allowing it to relax. If any thoughts came into my mind, I'd write them down to think about later and just try to clear my mind and relax.
After about a week I was lulling off to sleep, but relied heavily on my alarm clock to wake me up. If you sleep for too long you'll end up feeling even groggier than you would if you hadn't done anything! After two weeks I had adjusted, and now I usually wake up before my alarm clock goes off. I lie down, get to sleep within 2-3 minutes, actually dream (i.e. REM sleep) and then wake up naturally after about 15 or so minutes. I usually let myself “lie in” for that extra couple of minutes; my alarm is for getting me up, rather than actually waking me.
It's important to note that REM sleep is the truly essential sleep you need. Most of the sleep you tend to go through in an 8 hour nightly session are other stages that don't really help you much in terms of restfulness; and you only usually end up with 90 minutes of REM sleep in a typical night. So you can imagine how important one 20 minute session can be!
It was a frustrating two weeks while adjusting because at first I'd get no rest at all, and basically be staring at the ceiling for 20 minutes, and in the second week I wasn't getting proper rest, and was barely lulling into sleep when the alarm already went off, but thanks to that investment I have an advantage for the rest of my life. Others tell me that they adjusted much quicker than that.
If you are on any kind of drugs that you don't need for medical purposes, like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, then they will mess up your ability to control your sleeping pattern, so you should give them up or try to reduce them to an absolute minimum. I get plenty done and am much more social both at weekends and when there's no happy hour, by being a non-drinker.
Another thing that helps a lot is if you have white-noise on in the background (or via earphones from your MP3 player). I have a strong siesta-association with this and it helps me to get into the familiar settings of knowing it's time for a nap.
Finally, it's important to have some consistency. I get up early even on Sunday mornings, and get just as much done those days as I do any other because of that. Luckily, flexibility is fine, so I am indeed free to go out very late and get over the night-out much quicker than others!
Living in festive Latin cultures means that sometimes nights out can typically go on until 7am or so! If you were to stay out that late and then attempt to get your “ideal” 8 hours sleep, then you will either not succeed and be tired all day, or get that amount and have missed most of the next day and likely be out of synch for several days. What a waste!
Luckily siestas solve this issue for me!
After a late night out, I will have just 3 or 4 hours sleep on arrival home, get up (while it's still morning) and do what I need to do for a few hours, and then have a longer siesta of 2 hours after having lunch. This is less then what I usually get in a day, but is enough to energise me for a few hours after each sleep session. My body has been programmed to “know” that it only has to wait a few hours for the next session, so I can push it occasionally like this. When the next night arrives I will indeed be quite tired and be ready to return to a normal sleeping schedule.
Of course, binge drinking and having hangovers would make this too difficult. If you decide to punish your body, then you're going to feel the consequences!
Get over extreme jet-lag in less than a day!
As a traveller, this one is quite important for me! Most people try to force their body to adjust to a new time zone by trying to sleep way too early or stay up way too late, and jetlag can last several days because of this.
When I arrive in a new country on the other side of the planet, then I'm almost always tired due to the flight and general stress of flying. If I arrive during the afternoon, then I get to rest, but will just have a slightly longer-than-normal siesta (even though it may be my normal night-time sleep period in the previous time zone) of about 2 hours. Then I get up and stay up for the rest of the day. Usually I'm not in the best form for that evening, but I'll stay awake until around midnight and then crash for the night.
The first few hours are still pretty frustrating but I get over jetlag immediately because my body has been programmed to sleep as I command. When I know it will be a short sleep-time, then I use my white-noise sound (I actually have an app for my phone that plays the sound of rain up until the alarm countdown time), and that helps me to associate this with the brief-sleeping period.
On the other hand, if I arrive and it's late at night, but my body thinks it's the day time, then no worries! Unlike most people, I will definitely sleep immediately in this situation, since I would anyway! The difference is that I will not use my white-noise sound in the background (which tells my body that this is a “night time” sleep session) and likely get more sleep of about 4 hours. That night, I won't be tired enough to sleep six hours, but will have a longer siesta of 2-3 hours when it's afternoon local time, and then I'll already be in synch and well rested enough to stay awake until the night time for a longer session!
And then in less extreme cases, where a difference of just a few hours are involved, because I have much greater control over telling my body it's time to sleep than most people, I can stay up later or go to bed earlier. If I don't get enough sleep, I will catch up when the afternoon comes and be in synch by then.
Siestas have been a core part of helping me stay focused and have extra time, and of course it's one of the many aspects of my life that I've incorporated from another culture (in this case from Spain). It has had a huge contribution to my quality of life so I really recommend others try it too 🙂