"If anyone asks, I'm on assignment doing research," I told the clerk on my way out of the office at 2 in the afternoon. Then I drove home, pulled down the shades, turned off the phone, flopped onto the bed and fell asleep for a couple of hours.

As I said, I was on assignment, doing research.I realize that my bosses may frown at midday naps on company time. But from what I've gleaned - from my research, that is - Americans suffer from a sleep deficit that makes the budget deficit look like nickel change.

We're not talking insomnia, although some studies say as much as a third of the population complains of insomnia at some time.

We're talking about a basic lack of nighttime sleep - a lack that can make us irritable, slow our productivity and clog our reasoning.

The tired reality is that we're fast becoming a society of groggy-eyed grouches. Pretty soon, none of us will care about the price of gas. Caffeine will be the only high-test fuel driving our motors. We'll be living life in the fast lane on snooze control.

"Most adults are chronically sleep-deprived," says James Walsh, director of the sleep disorder center at St. Louis' Deaconess Hospital. "We choose to do other things as opposed to sleep. For example, some of us choose to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The problem is that we have to get up early in the morning and function at work."

Think about it. He finally asks you to meet him for an evening that smacks of the promise of romance. What are you going to tell him? "Sorry bud, but after 10 p.m., the only place I'm meeting you is in my dreams."

"We think of sleep as expendable," Walsh says. "We are constantly cutting into our sleep time."

While the amount of sleep that's needed varies from person to person, most adults generally need six to nine hours a night. Most adults generally get less than they need.

Which makes napping so attractive. It lets us make up for lost sleep.

Of course, like anything else there's an art to napping. A colleague regularly takes what she calls "power naps," which involves curling up for several hours on the weekend with a good bird dog that is also into napping.

Another friend, a partner in a law firm, shuts the door to his office after lunch and takes a 10-minute nap. He's convinced he does better work as a result.

Certainly, some great thinkers also were great nappers. John F. Kennedy napped. Thomas Alva Edison napped, although he invented the light bulb, which allows us to work longer. (Nice going, Tom.)

Ronald Reagan still naps often. Perhaps his most famous episode took place during his presidency, when he nodded off on the pope.

In Japan, nap breaks are part of the daily job routine for night-shift workers. Sleep specialist Walsh encourages night-shift workers to nap before reporting to work as a way of improving their performance on the job. Apparently, it is tougher to sleep during the day, because sunlight has a powerful effect on our body clocks.

Yet as refreshing and restorative as a short nap can be, too long of one can make matters worse.

"If a person is having trouble sleeping at night and naps during the day, that person is filling up his or her sleep quota," explains Kristyna Hartse, who heads the sleep-disorder center at St. Louis University. "While a short nap may be helpful, a two- or three-hour one might ruin a person's sleep that night."

Still, she says the notion that the older we get the less sleep we need "is simply not true. It's much harder for us to sleep as we get older."

No one knows exactly why, but as we age, our sleep gets interrupted more often. "With changes in our muscles, our sleep may get more physical - we may kick our legs, wake up more often," Hartse says.

Something to look forward to, huh?

While the idea of corporate nap breaks probably brings yawns to most executives, Walsh and Hartse say we can do more on our own to ensure a good night's sleep.

They suggest exercising but doing so before 7 p.m. They also say we should go to bed and get up at the same times each day, to keep our body clocks on schedule.

And if something is bothering us, we should write down a plan of attack before we go to bed. That way, we're less likely to lie awake and worry.

Now, that's an idea worth sleeping on.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service