Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes, 33s. It’s skimmable, though.
It used to be that if you took a walk through a Spanish village mid-afternoon at say, 2pm, you’d notice something peculiar: most shops, offices, banks, and other businesses that you walked by would be closed.
The reason for this is interesting: every afternoon, from about 1pm to 4-5pm, most Spanish businesses closed their doors so their staff could take a long break and a short nap during the day’s hottest hours. That break is called a siesta. To this day, the tradition lives on in many parts of the country.
I often write about the importance of taking breaks on AYOP, so I wanted to put this tradition to the test. Is it worth taking a few hours off in the afternoon to nap, spend time with loved ones, and recharge before heading back to work in the evening? Will taking an afternoon siesta impact your productivity in any meaningful way?
For the past three weeks I’ve worked on “Spanish time”; working from 8am to 8pm, with a three-hour siesta break from 1pm-4pm. All through the experiment I was mindful of how taking a siesta affected my productivity, watching as my energy levels, focus, and motivation all fluctuated around the ritual over the course of the three weeks.
While integrating a three-hour siesta into your schedule is not practical for most people, I did learn a ton about productivity from this experiment, like the importance of sleep, taking breaks, de-stressing, and more.
Here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned while adopting this ritual for three weeks.
10. Three-hour long siestas are simply incompatible with Western(ized) cultures
You probably saw this one coming. Nearly every business operates on a 9-5 schedule in Canada (where I live), so taking an afternoon siesta is simply not compatible with 9-5 work cultures. I have the very rare luxury of being able to conduct this experiment because of the flexibility I have with AYOP, but pretty much everyone else doesn’t.1
Siestas can be fantastic for your productivity, mostly because the activities that make up a siesta–like napping, spending time with loved ones, eating healthy food, and taking a break from your work–are energizing, and they let you recharge your batteries so you can be more productive for the rest of the day. But even though every single element that comprises a traditional siesta will boost your productivity, the format of a three-hour siesta is simply incompatable with Western(ized) cultures.
The church of Huidobro in Spain. Source.
9. Take a nap for a quick productivity boost when your energy dips
All day long your energy levels fluctuate around what you eat, how hard you push yourself, how many breaks you take, and a lot more. That’s why a siesta traditionally includes a short nap; after many folks in countries like Spain, Italy, and the Philippines eat a large lunch with their family, they take a nap because their energy levels crash after the meal.
Similarly, I integrated an afternoon nap into my routine during my siesta with quite a bit of success.
According to studies, napping improves your memory, makes you more attentive and alert, helps prevent burnout, and boosts your creativity and ultimately your productivity. In fact, a “study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%”!2 I’ve experienced all of these effects first-hand during my siesta breaks.
8. Constantly ask yourself how much energy you have, and act accordingly
When you constantly ask yourself how much energy you have throughout the day, you can begin to make adjustments to either recharge when you’re low on energy, or take on bigger, badder tasks when you have a lot of energy.
You’ll even start to notice trends after a while, like that your energy levels spike at 10am after your morning coffee, or that your energy levels crash at 1:30pm after you eat a big lunch. (You can go so far as to chart your energy levels over a typical day if you want to, but I think being mindful of your energy levels throughout the day works almost as well, provided you ask yourself frequently enough.)
As soon as you notice when you naturally have more or less energy, you can take steps to use that information to become more productive. For example, schedule your highest-leverage activities when you have the most energy, or nap, take a break, drink tea or coffee, or otherwise recharge your batteries when your energy levels dip.
7. Schedule time where you completely disconnect from your work
The element of this experiment I was the most resistant to was completely disconnecting from my work for three hours every day. When I take a break from my work, I usually don’t completely disconnect from my never-ending firehose of tweets, emails, texts, and other updates. After all, I don’t mind being interrupted with interesting messages while I focus on other things.
But when I did disconnect, I felt a mental switch flip in my head, and began to look at my work from a whole new perspective.
When you disconnect from your work and your attention is no longer pulled in a thousand directions, you continue to think about your work, but in a different way–your mind continues to process your work, but in the background while you do other things. There were times in the experiment when I was genuinely surprised at the ideas and solutions my mind came up with after I disconnected. (One example: my productivity experiment ideas to work 90-hour weeks, and drink only water for a month.)
I think you should make time to completely disconnect from your work for at least one hour every day. The never-ending firehose of tweets, emails, and everything else is entertaining, but it’s designed to suck you in, hijack your attention, and waste your time. Disconnecting from your work will make you more productive at the end of the day.
6. Take more breaks
I’ve written about the benefits of taking breaks quite a bit on AYOP, and for good reason: taking more breaks can make you insanely productive. When you take the time to take breaks, even though you’re not actually getting stuff done while you’re on break, you give your brain precious time to recharge, subconsciously reflect on your work, and consciously see your work from an elevated perspective. Breaks also boost your creativity, focus, and motivation.
A three-hour break in the afternoon is definitely overkill (as I’ll talk about in #4) because it is simply too long, and if you’re anything like me you’ll lose most of your motivation to be productive during that time. But if you’re looking to squeeze more productivity out of your day, take more breaks.
It sounds like counterintuitive advice on the surface, but taking more frequent breaks is one of the best ways I’ve found to become more productive.
Interlude: My 10 favorite productivity experiments from my year of productivity
10 of my favorite experiments from my year of productivity, in no particular order. Just click on any picture to visit the experiment’s article.
1. Meditating for 35 hours over 7 days
2. Watching 70 hours of TED talks over 7 days
3. Eating only “soylent” for a week
4. Living in total isolation for 10 days
6. Rotating between dressing forma, business casual, and in pyjamas for 21 days
8. Using my smartphone for an hour a day, for 3 months
9. Drinking only water for a month
5. Schedule time to recharge your batteries
Napping and taking breaks are both great strategies for letting the air out of your tires, but so are the other rituals typically found in a siesta. I’ll keep beating this drum until the cows come home: if you want to become more productive, you have to take it easy on yourself in the process, and frequently recharge your batteries.
Here are a few of my favorite stress-relief strategies that let you recharge by actually reducing the levels of stress hormones in your body:
- Exercising, or playing sports
- Listening to music
- Going for a nature walk
- Spending time with loved ones, friends, and family
- Investing time in a creative hobby
During my three-hour siestas, I invested time in a number of these strategies (particularly meditation, reading, and listening to music), and they worked wonders in helping me recharge my batteries to take on the rest of the day.
4. Taking too many breaks, or taking breaks that are too long, will make you less productive
The siesta is a giant, three-hour break, which I think is simply too long of a break to boost your productivity. Even when I was ultra-motivated and productive before my siesta, a three-hour break was almost always enough time for me to lose my motivation and drive by the time my siesta was over.
When you integrate a few breaks into your daily routine, you give yourself a few opportunities to recharge throughout the day. But when you take too many breaks, or the breaks you take are too long (more than an hour in my experience, though your mileage may vary), they will almost always pop you out of work-mode and into relaxation-mode.
If you have the luxury of taking a three-hour siesta in the middle of the day, chances are you also have the luxury of taking that same three hours and chopping it up into smaller breaks that you can intersperse throughout your day.
3. For every hour of sleep you miss out on, you lose at least one hour of productivity the next day
Everyone needs a different amount of sleep every night; most people need 7-8 hours, but the exact amount your body requires may differ. Over the course of this experiment I got varying amounts of sleep every night, mostly because I maintained my habit of waking up at 5:30 every morning.
While observing my energy levels fluctuate around taking naps and getting a different amount of sleep every night, I came up with an interesting hypothesis: for every hour of sleep you miss out on, you lose at least one hour of productivity the next day.
When you get less sleep than your body needs, your lack of sleep severely impacts your productivity. It:3
- Decreases your motivation
- Makes you more fatigued, irritable, and and sluggish
- Reduces your creativity and problem-solving abilities
- Decreases your ability to cope with stress
- Impairs your ability to focus, and makes it easier for you to be distracted
Losing just one hour of sleep can lead to these effects. The worst part? Sleep deprived people can’t tell they’re being less productive, even though “losing even one hour of sleep can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly”.4
Unlike pretty much everything else on AYOP, there is no scientific backing behind this rule, but I think it’s a rule you should live by. Running a sleep deficit can severely impact your focus and productivity, so much so that I think you’re better off getting an extra hour of shut-eye instead of working an extra hour the next day.
2. Schedule less time for important tasks
When I chopped my day into two parts, I frequently had to pressure myself to finish a task on time before my siesta break. That pushed me to do some experimenting with scheduling varying amounts of time to get important tasks done throughout the day. In that experimenting, I realized something huge:
When you limit how much time you give yourself to work on an important task, you force yourself to expend more energy over less time so you can get the task done.
A lot of people take the alternative approach, and throw more time at a problem. That approach works, but you only have so much time every day to give to your work (and you have way more energy than you do time). As soon as I had less time to do work in every day, I became more diligent with how I spent it. Scheduling and compressing your important tasks down into a block of time is a great way to hunker down and get more done.
1. Watch out for when you’re needlessly hard on yourself
As A Year of Productivity has grown in size and become more successful, I’ve noticed something interesting: I’ve started to put more and more pressure on myself to be productive. The more attention the project gets, the more I feel obligated to write non-stop, and push myself harder to do more and more.
Even throughout the course of this experiment, when I took a step back from my work for each three-hour siesta, I noticed that I was being needlessly hard on myself for taking a break instead of working, even though taking a break was part of the experiment.
Putting too much pressure on yourself defeats the purpose of becoming productive in first place, because when you put too much pressure on yourself, not only do you demotivate yourself, but you also don’t have as much fun in the process. Plus, what you end up accomplishing will mean a lot less.
When I interviewed David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, he mentioned a stat that I still remember: that 80% of what you say to yourself in your head is negative. It’s a tough challenge to rewire your brain to be more positive, but when you’re mindful of what you say to yourself, and watch out for when you’re needlessly hard on yourself, you can have a lot more fun on your journey to become more productive. It’s an idea I’m experimenting with more as the project progresses, and believe me, it’s way easier said than done. But when happy people are 31% more productive than everyone else, I think it’s worth the effort in the end.
The streets of a city in Spain during siesta.
The siesta is a weird ritual.
The way the traditional siesta is designed, every single element of the ritual is designed to energize you. Taking a break will help you recharge and step back from your work. Sleeping more will give you more focus and attention for the rest of the day. Spending time with friends or loved ones will relieve your stress, and motivate you.
But on the other hand, a traditional Spanish siesta runs for 3-4 hours, right in the middle of your workday, so it’s simply unrealistic to suggest that you should integrate the ritual into your life. Even if you operate on a schedule as flexible as mine, if you work with any people in your job at all, they’re going to want to meet during the day when you’re taking a nap and cooking yourself a nice meal.
Since every single component of a siesta will make you more productive, I think you should integrate all of the ritual’s parts into your life, including eating healthy, spending time with loved ones, taking more breaks, and even napping.
It would be totally crazy for me to recommend that you integrate a three-hour daily siesta into your life. But I’ve found the individual components of the ritual to be so beneficial for your productivity that I’d be a complete fool to not recommend them.
Even in Spain, where the ritual is so ingrained in the country’s culture, there is pushback, usually in the name of “productivity”. For example, “a parliamentary commission [has] called for the government to turn back the country’s clocks by an hour and introduce regular working hours from 9am to 5pm”. Source. ↩