I have an idea for a new product — it would probably make a nice little app for the iPhone, or it could be produced as a free-standing device. You know those machines that produce certain sounds to help people fall asleep — ocean waves crashing against the shore, or crickets chirping by a burbling mountain stream, or simple white noise like subdued radio static? That works for some people, apparently because the gentle rhythmic cadences help to clear their minds. But those sounds don’t help me at all — if anything, they keep me awake. In fact, when I use the alarm on my iPhone to wake up, I always set it to the sound of crickets, because it wakes me up without disturbing my wife.
What really puts me to sleep is the gentle burbling of an afternoon departmental meeting. Imagine if you had a device that made those sounds! The low susurrus of monthly figures being reported. The soothing drone of projections and anticipated next steps. Three minutes of that is like aural Seconal. The department leader might as well be waving a wand and saying, “Poppies . . . Poppies . . .”
Wouldn’t that be so much more useful at home in bed at night, rather than in the afternoon in a room full of your colleagues? (And, in case you were deluding yourself otherwise, everyone knows when you are drifting off. Sometimes the snoring gives it away, but usually it’s the funky head bounce you make when you wake up just in time to keep yourself from falling forward on the conference table. Plus it’s hard to drool discreetly.) If anyone wants to create that app, please just credit me somewhere. (Well, and send me a reasonable cut of the profits once they reach six figures.)
Drowsiness during the day is something everyone experiences at some point (heck, I bet some of you are nodding off as you read this, ha ha) — it’s biological. We get steadily more physically and mentally tired during the day, basically from the moment we wake up, but the internal circadian rhythms that work to keep us alert don’t actually kick in until mid-to-late afternoon. So there’s a period of two or three hours after lunch during which we are defenseless against weapons of mass exhaustion like the afternoon meeting or the 100-page report to be read. Brilliant cultures all over the world used to acknowledge this lull period by encouraging siestas or naps after lunch — in Spain, famously, but also in Eastern Europe, South Asia, and China. Alas, this practice is now on the decline, as the modern industrial state has introduced all of humanity to the thrill of the afternoon departmental meeting, which is like cocaine or Cape Cod Potato Chips — once you’ve had them, you can never go back. (PSA: Don’t do drugs. Or potato chips. And I’d think twice about those departmental meetings, too.)
Like so much of office life — paperwork and other people, for example — drowsiness is something you can’t avoid and thus is best met with forethought and planning. For me, the primary tactic is obvious: try to avoid having meetings in the early afternoon. Instead I aim to carry out activities that require some mental activity — writing or editing, say — or, ideally, physical activity. Still, I don’t always get to choose when meetings are planned, so when I can’t avoid a 2 p.m. conference, I try to do something just beforehand to get my sluggish mind back in gear. A walk around the block is nice, but I admit that sometimes I will rely on a huge cup of coffee instead. (PSA: No, seriously, don’t do drugs.) Of course, actually participating in the discussion during a meeting is a great way to keep yourself alert (while, ideally, maybe even doing useful work), but that’s a radical concept that may not be available in every situation.
I haven’t yet had to do this, but I do have a back-up plan as a last resort: if despite all my preparations I just can’t keep my eyelids open, I’m going to slip on my iPhone headphones and play the sound of crickets chirping.