Saturday, 9 August 2014

Power Naps for Creative Writing

by Caroline Lawrence

Recent studies have shown that taking a short nap is a great way of improving productivity in a day.

You admired Google's sleep pods in the 2013 movie, The Internship

Ben and Jerry's employees can go to a designated power nap room.

detail of a 1964 patent to transform an ironing board to a slant board

My dad – a middle school teacher – used to have a contraption called a 'slant board', which was first patented in the swinging sixties. He would lie with his feet higher than his head, the theory being that the blood flooded back to the brain in the course of a short kip. After school let out at 3.30pm, my dad would lock the door of his office, then recharge his batteries with a fifteen minute nap before doing his marking and lesson plans.

Pliny the Elder from the TV series
But the power nap is not a new invention. Way back in Roman times, Pliny the Elder practiced this technique. As any Classicist knows, this first century scholar and polymath was incredibly prolific, producing over a hundred volumes in his lifetime, including the thirty seven volumes of his Natural History, which is still in print today.  (left: Simon Callow as Pliny the Elder in the Roman Mysteries TV series.)

'You will wonder how a man as busy as he was could find time to compose so many books', writes Pliny the Younger to his friend Baebius Macer. The younger Pliny then goes on to give a detailed account of a Day in the Life of his famous uncle at the time he was in his late forties and early fifties. (Pliny the Elder had a weak chest and died aged 55 during the eruption of Vesuvius when overcome by the fumes.) 

Pliny the Elder would rise in the early hours of the morning sometimes as early as midnight, and worked by lamplight. Pliny the Younger admits that his uncle fell asleep easily and that he would often doze off, then wake to resume his work. Shortly before dawn, he would visit his friend the Emperor Vespasian who was also up at that time. Upon returning home, Pliny the Elder would have a light breakfast, then doze in the sun while listening to ancient Roman version of an audiobook (i.e. a slave reading aloud to him). After his sunbathing session he would bath in cold water, eat a light lunch and have a short nap (dormiebat minimum). We know it was a power nap because afterwards he would work until dinner time 'as if he had started a new day'! (Book III letter V in the Loeb edition of Pliny's Letters)
Pliny the Younger (left) from The Roman Mysteries 
Like Pliny the Elder and my dad, I have been taking power naps for years. Through trial and error, I have discovered the best time for me is around 4pm and for about 20 minutes. I find a short nap at this time gives me energy to get through another eight hours, with lights out at midnight or 1am before a natural rising between 5am and 7am. 

If you are a freelance writer, you are probably in the enviable position of being able to do this. But what if you're afraid of falling asleep, missing dinner and waking up in the middle of the night? Or simply of sleeping too long and too deep and waking up groggy? 
Adopt an alternate position on the bed!
You need to find the method that works best for you. Experimentation is the key. However, here are five techniques I have found very useful. 

1. I lie upside down at an angle on my bed, fully clothed but without shoes: barefoot in summer, socks in winter. This posture tells my body that Yes, I am going to sleep, but It's not sleep as we know it, Jim. In other words, it's different. It's a nap. It's a power nap.

2. I draw the curtains a little so that my sleeping space is dim but not too dark. Again, this tells my body that this is not the night-time sleeps. (There are two sleeps by the way, but that's another story!)

3. I put on a fan. The white noise tamps down background distractions and the soft breeze caressing your skin is very soothing, especially during long hot summers.  
a customised power nap playlist
4. In addition to the fan, I plug my earbuds in and listen to music on a very low volume. I choose three or four songs with a beat slower than my own heartbeat. Then I finish with a gently upbeat song that will bring me out of my sleep. 

5. I make customised power nap playlists to tie in with my creative work in progress. To give you an idea, here is one of my power nap playlists, from when I was working on my latest P.K. Pinkerton mystery, The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows. If I choose songs that tie in with what I'm writing, then I get some subliminal input while I'm recharging. (And yes, putting together a power nap playlist is a great way of procrastinating.)

A deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic make many people uneasy about sleeping in the afternoon, even writers who have no disapproving boss and who have the luxury of setting their own hours. If tackled with the right attitude, a power nap can be a powerful tool for reviving energy and stimulating creativity. After all, you're a writer. You are your own boss. 

Don't take it from me. Take it from Pliny the Elder! 

P.S. Images of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger are from the Roman Mysteries TV series. (copyright © 2008 The Little Entertainment Group) 
P.P.S. If you have any tips, advice or comments, please do share!


DLM said...

Many cultures worldwide have institutionalized afternoon napping, and I've always been sad we have attached something almost like shame to the practice. It *is* so useful, and the way you have trained yourself/found your best methods is intriguing! Thank you for sharing. Now, what to do about that pesky 8:00-5:00 job ... :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Pliny the Elder didn't have to travel to work! It must be nice to be able to work from home. However, I do have a workmate who is talking about taking brief naps in the staff room when not teaching. Talking about it, not doing it! Too many responsibilities, too much time needing to be spent preparing for class if not in it, and if she DID manage to lie down for a few minutes she'd be interrupted by an anxious student wanting another teacher! Ah, well...

carol drinkwater said...

I have been practising meditation since I was twenty-six (many years now!) and I find it is an excellent way to relax, empty the mind and recharge the batteries. As an actress, I always meditated before going on stage. It concentrated my mind. When I am doing talks, lectures etc as a writer, I request a cupboard, a stockroom, anywhere for me to have that twenty minutes before I go in front of readers/audience. I consider it a zen power nap. My husband calls his a siesta!

carol drinkwater said...

PS: I was at drama school with Pliny the Elder!

Sue Purkiss said...

Hm - haven't quite got the hang of power-napping yet. It controls me, rather than the other way round. Will have to practise - a lot!

Lisbeth Ekelof said...

Power naps is a wonderful idea. I did them during my last years or working. After lunch, I closed my office door, put on some calming music, put a blanket on the floor and laid down for a nap. With the slowing down, napping and waking up it was always around 20 min. I had much more energy for the afternoon.

I agree with "A deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic make many people uneasy about sleeping in the afternoon...". Being from Sweden we are not used to taking siestas like people from the south of Europe. Although I think siestas are much longer, I am all for the power naps. Now being at home, blogging, writing, creating, I usually take a power nap in the afternoon. Refreshing.
Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

Mary Hoffman said...

You are looking very well on it, Carol - who would have guessed you were a contemporary of Pliny the Elder!

I am a great believer in power naps, Caroline, but now I don't schedule them; I just let them happen when they have to.

Ruan Peat said...

I used to have a sleeping bag hidden at work for when i needed a nap, but work got busier and peace less often, now I map at on my keyboard while tea cooks! :-) 20 min's gets me to bed time and work done at night.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for comments, everyone. I love them all. :-)

adele said...

I'm an Olympic standard napper but like Mary, I don't plan them but let them come over me. Maybe it's just old age....sure I bumped into Pliny the elder somewhere along the way!

Ellen Williams said...

Don't have a slant board? Try the classic "Legs Up the Wall" yoga pose for about 20 min.

I have MS and was told 20 min is the ideal time (on average) for a mental and physical recharge period. It takes about that long for all the blood in your body to be cleansed and reoxygenated through the circulatory system. Legs higher than your head help to speed the process.

carol drinkwater said...

I may have made a mistake but I thought it was Simon Callow in the photograph portraying Pliny The Elder. We were both at Drama Centre. I was not suggesting that meditation has kept me from looking 2000 years old! I am going to put my legs up the wall!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, Carol! It's Simon Callow as Pliny the Elder. Another charming polymath, thankfully still with us!

Penny Dolan said...

I have come across this while catching up on HG posts after a busy few days - and as it's just after three in the afternoon, I feel your post is giving me a big hint! Thanks, Caroline. Just off to lie down.