Siesta, for Americans, has always been the emblematic vice of lazy Latins. It evokes the image of a Mexican peasant dozing beside his mule, a sombrero shielding his face from the sun, as he puts off all his tasks till an ever-receding mañana. No one but small children and the elderly can respectably sleep during the day in the work-addicted United States.
Now a study by a Harvard neuroscientist, reported in last week's Economist, suggests that shut-eye in the afternoon might actually boost productivity. Experiments demonstrate that visual perceptiveness (as measured by a subject's ability to pick out a bar from a striped background) drops over the course of a day without sleep. A half-hour nap noticeably stems this decline, and a solid hour keeps you as visually sharp at 7 p.m. as you were at 9 in the morning.
"The upshot," concludes the Economist, "is another piece of evidence that humans, like many mammals which have evolved in tropical climes, are adapted not to go out in the mid-day sun. They are, rather, crepuscular -- that is, they are most active in the morning and the evening. The Protestant work-ethic that drives those now living in colder climates to work throughout the day may actually be counter-productive."
This will hardly be news in the Spanish-speaking world, or in other countries (such as Italy) where everyone free to do so goes home for a mid-day snooze, and where those whom globalization has forced to give up the practice are only more appreciative of it. Yet sleep is only part of the custom, whose value cannot be measured merely in terms of efficiency on the job.
When I lived in Spain a few years back, I knew a prominent Madrid lawyer, the farthest thing from a lazy Latin, whose almost-unvarying workday routine included lunch at home with his family. After the meal, he would change into pajamas and sleep for an hour; then get up, shower, change back into his suit, and return to the office for another four or five hours of work. No Spaniard I knew found anything unusual about this.
To me this practice epitomizes the life of a free man. It means spending almost as much time with your children and spouse as with your professional colleagues. It means eating healthier food than you are likely to get in any restaurant. It means being constantly reminded that work is just one element in the formula for a virtuous and happy existence.
The benefits of a true siesta cannot be obtained by having a couch installed in your office (as the Economist humorously suggests). Doing it right requires, among other things, stopping work for three hours in the middle of the day and not dining till ten. Which is feasible only if everybody follows the same schedule -- as fewer do every day, even in Spain. The world economy is a non-stop operation, and those who would compete in it must accommodate themselves to its rhythms.
When I decided to become a freelancer, almost three years ago, a major attraction was the freedom to set my own schedule, which in my plan would include a siesta. I've managed to carry out this plan maybe half a dozen times. Though phone calls almost never disturb me (my clients on the east coast of the U.S. aren't even at work till 3 p.m. my time), there's always e-mail to check if not to answer, news websites to visit for updates, and so forth. The Internet, which made possible my escape from the office, has brought the office's hectic pace into my home.
At least I can, with great effort of will, turn off my computer. A more recent acquisition has turned out to be an even greater distraction. Quality time with family may be the point of a siesta lifestyle, but what do you do with a baby (nine months old at this writing) who finds early afternoon the perfect time of day not to take a nap?
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