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I’m Exhausted All the Time. Could Afternoon Naps Change My Life?

A working mom's experiment with forced midday snoozes

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As a working mother of an eight-month-old, I’m in a near constant state of sleep deprivation. I stumble through workdays in a haze. More than once, I’ve arrived at the office and realized that I’d left my laptop at home, 20 miles away. I yawn in meetings and only keep up with my to-do list by the grace of a $10-a-day coffee habit.

So when my editor assigned me a story that required sleeping every day at work, I felt a surge of gratitude. For a period of three weeks, I’d lie down for 30 minutes each afternoon. I’d track my productivity, mood, and energy level to gauge whether a daily siesta made me better at my job—and happier overall.

Research shows that napping can boost memory and improve mood. But I soon discovered that dozing off at the office is considerably harder than it sounds. On the first day, I got so wrapped up in meetings that I forgot about it entirely. The next day didn’t go much better: I unrolled my yoga mat on my office floor and shut the door. But instead of drifting off, I lay there obsessing about what I had to accomplish before the end of the day. “I have been up with the baby since 4 A.M.,” read the post-nap recap, “but I kept listing all the things I still had to do. Did not sleep for one minute.”

It went like that for two weeks, until finally I enlisted the help of Kelly Murray, a sleep consultant who works with both adults and babies. We quickly determined my problem: I was trying too hard! The more I forced it, she said, the less success I’d have. She urged me to dial back the pressure. If a nap felt unattainable, I’d practice breathing exercises, which can bring about a meditative state of deep rest. According to Murray, deep rest quiets the mind and offers benefits similar to sleep, like reducing stress and promoting learning.

We quickly determined my problem: I was trying too hard! The more I forced it, the sleep consultant said, the less success I’d have. She urged me to dial back the pressure.

Murray also suggested some changes to my napping environment. Ideally, I would hole up somewhere other than my workstation. The lights should be low, and maybe some calming lavender oil would help. I also needed to cut back on caffeine.

Next I called Valerie Cacho, a behavioral sleep physician, who explained that winding down is a process. “At the gym, you don’t go straight to the heaviest weights. You jog or warm up,” she said. She suggested a little pre-nap journaling to free myself of my busy thoughts.

Armed with these strategies, I dived back into the experiment. I worked from home, which allowed me to take naps in bed. It was easier to drink less coffee when I was the one who had to make it, rather than a barista at the café near the office, and that helped me scale back on caffeine. Every day around noon, I dimmed the lights, jotted down the afternoon’s tasks to clear my head, and once or twice even applied some lavender lotion. Then I focused on my breath, counting my inhales and exhales. And something truly magical happened: I drifted off into a light sleep.

Did I step back to my desk happier and refreshed? I did. Was I more productive? That, too. But the truth is, I missed my coffee habit more than I reveled in these gains. The morning after the experiment ended, I headed straight to the café.