How to stay alert all day19th Mar 2021
Slowly, your eyes close, your head droops – and then you jerk awake just before your chin hits your chest – that awful feeling when you just can’t stay awake. We’ve all experienced it – whether it’s trawling through the minutes of the latest board meeting, or trying to look (and be) alert at the entrance gate. How do we deal with those mid-morning slumps? (Or mid-afternoon, or mid-evening, or even midnight.)
Prevention is better than cure
The best way to ensure that you (and your staff) stay alert throughout the day is to have a healthy work environment that is well lit, well ventilated and neither too hot nor too cold. On a personal level, good nutrition and a good night’s sleep are essential. But sometimes life and work get a bit overwhelming, we struggle to keep up, and we find ourselves wilting halfway through the work day. And that’s when we need a quick pick-me-up.
Uppers vs downers
There are two basic schools of thought here. One is to take time out to ‘rest and recuperate’, and the other is to somehow boost your metabolism. Surprisingly, a 2018 study showed that a gentle 15-minute jog resulted in a greater boost of mental acuity and alertness than a 15-minute nap did.
There is more than one way to boost our metabolism, and we seem to be hardwired to reach for something sweet. Or caffeinated. Or both. Despite what they say in the ads with the hunky firefighters, a gooey, caramelly chocolate bar most definitely does not give you a 25-hour day. It’s more like a 25-minute lift of elevated blood sugar followed by a super-slump – although they are yummy. (The chocolate bars!) Coffee also works well – if less directly on blood sugar – and, while it doesn’t last for ever, it at least doesn’t drop you right back in the brain fog the way the choccy bar does.
Napping is not just for babies
Now while the study referred to above showed that a jog was more effective than a nap, that was as a one-off. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of regular afternoon naps. Some of the most productive people in history are renowned for this habit. JF Kennedy took at least an hour a day, Thomas Edison (who only slept three to four hours a night) would regularly clear his desk, and curl up on it for a 15-minute nap, and Churchill famously took regular naps throughout the day.
Probably the most interesting napper is Salvador Dalí. You would think, as he was Spanish, that his taking a siesta in the middle of the day was nothing unusual, but – like almost everything he did – he bucked the trend on this one, and developed his famous micro-nap. Sitting upright in a chair, holding a key over a metal plate, he would slowly close his eyes and relax, allowing his head to droop. Just as he fell asleep, he would drop the key, and wake up refreshed after his micro-sleep. It sounds odd, but we are talking about Dalí here.
Closer to home, UCT law professor Wouter de Vos regularly locked his office at lunch time, lay down on the floor with his head on his briefcase and had a 20-minute nap. His afternoon lectures were all the better for it.
Coffee nap – best of all
While all of these strategies work to a greater or lesser extent (except the choccy, which really is only a very short-term fix), they can be improved on. Numerous studies have shown that coffee helps wake you up, and a nap revives you – but together, they are magic. And thus was born the coffee nap. It’s pretty simple. It takes coffee about 20 to 30 minutes to work its way to your brain and wake you up, so the secret of a coffee nap is to knock back a strong cup of Joe and then immediately nap. Then you wake up just as the caffeine kicks in to reinforce the benefit of the nap. All we need now is for someone to research whether adding a 15-minute jog improves your mental acuity even further.