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Sleeping on the Job? Good! Overachievers Do

Don’t expect to find Ronit Rogoszinski in meetings, entertaining clients, or hunched over her desk around lunchtime. The 45-year-old wealth adviser and financial planner in New York describes herself as an expert “practitioner of the power nap.” After waking up at about 5 a.m., sending her kids off to school, and putting in a morning of meeting with clients, Rogoszinski needs to crash. “By noon, my brain starts to fry,” she says. So she heads to one of her hideouts—her car, for example—to recharge. As she puts it, “I’m not quite sure how I’d handle the day without that timeout.”

Rogoszinski is by no means a lone clandestine sleeper. Comments on Wall Street Oasis, a Web forum popular among investment bankers, reveal an obsessive interest in daytime napping, with tips on “sleep hacking” (moving to polyphasic sleep schedules), recommendations on where to doze (bathroom stalls, conference rooms), and directions for how to act when caught (as if nothing unusual had happened). When nodding off on a toilet, “you clearly need the seat down for maximum comfort,” advises one commenter, “which necessitates pants up to prevent your bare ass on the cold porcelain. Longest I ever slept uninterrupted without tipping over was two hours, from 4-6am.”

[Related: 8 Habits of Highly Productive People]

Many Wall Street types use power-napping to make up for lost sleep. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey lists finance as the eighth-most-sleep-deprived occupation. (Home health aides, lawyers, police officers, and paramedics make up the top four.) In another study, published in January in Administrative Science Quarterly, Dr. Alexandra Michel of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business mapped the sleep deprivation of investment bankers over a nine-year period. She discovered that maladies including back pain, depression, and physical tics emerge—and affect performance—as soon as the fourth year on the job.

It’s not uncommon for finance workers to brag about how little sleep they get—or need. “Short sleepers,” outliers who thrive on four or five hours of sleep a day, do exist. (Napoleon is said to have been one.) But they constitute only 1 percent to 3 percent of the population. So some workers on Wall Street are adapting their daily schedules to hit the targeted amount of sleep, which is at least seven hours.

“We can use sleep tactically, to our advantage,” says Dr. David F. Dinges, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied astronauts’ sleep habits for NASA. Dinges encourages workday napping, or “multitask relaxing,” in his words. His research suggests that cognitive ability depends on how much sleep one accumulates over a 24-hour period, not just overnight. Short periods of work followed by sleep reinforcement allow people to enhance their cognitive efficacy, he argues. Rather than fighting to stay awake at your desk with diminishing cognitive returns, he says, “work on it in your sleep.” Your brain continues to be productive while you’re unconscious.

[Related: Who's the Boss? You are!]

Cubicle grunts aren’t the only creative sleep strategists. Jim Angleton, the chief executive officer of a financial advising firm in Miami, is a self-described “sleep pro.” He starts resetting his internal clock two days before departing for destinations abroad by manipulating his sleep and breakfast patterns. While flying, he’s careful about what he drinks (never alcohol or caffeine) and where he sits (business class). Dinges, for his part, asks for hotel rooms far from noisy gathering areas and rumbling ice machines. “I don’t care about the view,” he says. “I want a nice, quiet room.”

No matter what the science says, sleeping on the job remains a covert op. Rogoszinski once fell asleep on a patterned sweater, which blew her cover and left an imprint on her face. Her colleagues still tease her about it. “Be sure to rest on smooth surfaces,” she cautions.