Psssht, remember when you were young and you used to hate those enforced afternoon nap times? Well, no-one will judge you if you now admit that a daily nap in the afternoon would be a blessing to your adult, full-time employed self.
Unfortunately, for many of us the reality is such that we cannot afford to nap in the afternoon. Trust me, coming from a siesta-loving country, I should know how difficult a nap-unfriendly schedule can be to bear. Like clockwork, your mind will wander around 3pm each day. You might stare off into distance then shake your head to get back into the game, but it’s difficult. Focusing your attention on the screen in front of you requires more effort than you feel you can give. Your mind has just about shut down as you’re overwhelmed with desire to just snooze away.
An online search for afternoon sleepiness cures would have us think that the slump is an occurrence which we can control or eliminate by manipulating external factors such as diet, however, much of this advice is superficial and doesn’t consider the causes of the dreadful slump. There is a good reason why it occurs “like clockwork”.
Why do we “slump”?
Not to worry, the slump isn’t due to the filling lunch you’ve had earlier. In fact, studies have shown that sleepiness will still occur whether a person has skipped the midday meal or not(1).
Rather, the root cause of our afternoon woes seems to be intrinsic; whether we feel sleepy or alert is dependent on our body clocks. Interestingly, in a 24-hour period we can expect our alertness will drop twice: once during the night (between 2am and 4am) and then again 12 hours later, which for most of us falls in the middle of the work day.
An exception to these hours between 2 and 4 are people who are categorised as “morning-active” and “evening-active” individuals. The timing of when their sleepiness peaks might happen earlier, i.e. later in the day, because their body’s temperature cycle also peaks earlier or later in the day.
It is worth noting that any link between changes in body temperature and changes in sleepiness needs further investigation. In any case, few people will fall either side of the spectrum; most of us sit comfortably in the middle as 3pm finds us droopy-eyed—head resting on the palm, elbow on the desk.
The one thing to avoid
There is one factor which has been shown to enhance how sleepy we feel in the afternoon, and that is boredom.
In one study, participants who were acutely bored in the afternoon took much longer to react to stimuli than both those participants who were in an interesting environment, and those participants who were bored at a different time of day(2) (in the evening, when we start feeling the pressure to sleep).
One surefire way to induce boredom is by doing monotonous tasks, like driving. The occurrence of accidents in traffic peaks at the time that coincides with the average afternoon slump. Interestingly, there is another peak that coincides with the nightly dip that occurs between 2am and 4am.(3)
Thus, the first rule I follow is to stay away from uninteresting to-dos after lunch. If necessary, I will switch up my workload to keep things interesting. Working in a dynamic environment will undoubtedly help as well. This rule usually helps me feel less or not at all sleepy in the afternoon. On the occasions it doesn’t work, there are a few other techniques, which have so far worked for me, in my battle plan. Best of all, combining more than one has led to bigger benefits in feeling alert and being productive.
Grabbing a coworker for a chat
Having a chat with a coworker or another person in the vicinity (best to avoid someone who tends to monopolise conversation) can both prevent boredom and distract me from fantasising about taking a nap. Research agrees—conversing keeps us engaged and is a technique for countering sleepiness that is preferred by 35% of drivers interviewed in a 2008 study(4).
Sometimes even small talk can be stimulating enough for me, but what really makes a difference is laughter: it is after I’ve had a few belly laughs that I feel truly refreshed and excited to get back to work.
Taking a brisk walk
Similarly to laughter, a brisk walk in the afternoon immediately makes me more alert. Furthermore, some research has shown that brisk walking (or another vigorous activity performed regularly) can help reduce sleepiness during the day and improve the overall quality of the sleep we get during the night(5).
Standing in natural bright light
Just standing in the window can expose you to enough natural bright light necessary for rejuvenation(6).
A 2006 research study recommends exposure to natural bright light indoors and for a short time period as a countermeasure to afternoon sleepiness, especially in workplaces that aren’t nap-friendly. Participants in the study were more alert after exposure, although it didn’t seem to also have a significant impact on their performance.(6)
Other alternatives to naps
To be clear, I am not against taking naps—in university I used to take power naps religiously. Sadly, regardless of any personal benefits I’ve seen from them or scientific findings in favour of afternoon naps, they just don’t fit my schedule or my way of work at the moment.
If you can relate to this problem, then I hope the ideas above prove helpful or at least encourage you that naps are not a “must” and they are certainly not the only (maybe not even the best) way to overcome the sudden onset of sleepiness in the afternoon. In fact, for some, sneaking in a nap in the afternoon can later mean the difference between getting a good night’s sleep or lying awake in bed for hours.
Luckily for us non-nappers, the field of sleep research is still relatively new and exciting and so there are studies being carried out testing how even quirkier solutions, like chewing gum, can contribute to helping us feel more alert. What I want to know is, have you yourself any alternatives to suggest? Because where I am, 3pm is approaching fast…
(1) Akerstedt, T., Polkard, S. (2004). Predictions from the three-process model of alertness. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 75(3), A75-83.
(2) Mavjee, V., Home, J.A. (1994). Boredom effects on sleepiness/alertness in the early afternoon vs. early evening and interactions with warm ambient temperature. British Journal of Psychology, 85(3), 317-333.
(3) Langlois, P.H., Smolensky, M.H., Hsi, B.P., Weir, F.W. (1985). Temporal patterns of reported single vehicle car and truck accidents in Texas, USA. Chronobiology International, 2, 131-146.
(4) Anund, A., Kecklund, G., Peters, B., Akerstedt,T. (2008). Driver sleepiness and individual differences in preferences for countermeasures. Journal of Sleep Research, 17(1), 16-22.
(5) Vuori, I., Urponen, H., Hasan, J., Partinen, M. (1988). Epidemiology of exercise effects on sleep. Acta physiologica Scandinavica. Supplementum., 574, 3-7.
(6) Kaida, K., Takahashi, M., Haratani, T., Otsuka, Y., Fukasawa, K., Nakata, A. (2006). Indoor exposure to natural bright light prevents afternoon sleepiness. Sleep, 29(4), 462-469.