A How-To Guide to the Perfect Nap
Napping gets a bad rap.
A common accusation is that it’s only for a certain type of person, like children, seniors or worst of all, the lazy (think George Costanza, from Seinfeld). Those who are at a productive age, but lack the will to get through a full day without dozing off.
Another misconception is that if we were to just get a good night sleep, we wouldn’t need to nap.
However, since the late 1980s science has honed in on the value of napping, showing time and again that it should be a tool in the arsenal of anyone who values better, more productive days. Among its chief benefits, napping boosts performance, enhances mention function and improves psychological wellbeing.
In other words, the humble nap will help you get more stuff done later that day, and make you feel a whole lot better in the process.
How Long Should I Nap?
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Not all naps are created equal. Like a man applying cologne, napping should be tactical, and you have to know exactly when, where, and how long to nap for. This guide provides all the information you need.
- 1 Why you’re hardwired to nap
- 2 The (very) many benefits of napping
- 3 Napping at work
- 4 Eight tips to nap like a pro
- 5 The perfect nap, outlined
Why you’re hardwired to nap
Humans are hardwired to nap.
We are also one of only a few mammals whose days are divided into two distinct sleep and awake periods – but this almost certainly isn’t the natural sleep pattern for us.
The classic post-lunch lethargy, where getting back to work seems a mountain too high to climb, is an actual biological ‘thing’. Humans have a cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, in which we experience two periods of intense sleepiness every 24 hours: one between 1pm and 3pm; and the other from about 2am to 4am.
During these times, our reaction time, memory, coordination, mood, and alertness are diminished. A short nap is the obvious solution to getting your day back on track.
In any case, we’re probably predisposed to having an afternoon nap because of evolution. Today, we can push through afternoon tiredness without disastrous results, but not so for our ancestors. Short, strategic naps would’ve greatly increased their odds of not being eaten.
Therefore, a nap in the afternoon is as natural a bodily process as passing wind, and as I’ll show below, it can be life-improving.
The (very) many benefits of napping
The length of your nap is critical.
The pros and cons of different nap times will be discussed below, but to give a broad overview of how awesome napping can be, here are just some scientifically-proven upsides:
- Research by NASA (on pilots) showed that a 26-minute nap enhanced performance by 34% and overall alertness by 54%.
- Napping boosts a type of memory process that increases creativity.
- Particularly when accompanied by dreaming, a nap can be an effective tool for improving memory and learning ability.
- Napping at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more has been associated with a 37% lower risk of death from heart disease.
- Just knowing a nap is coming is enough to lower blood pressure.
- There can be psychological benefits, as a nap is an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation, and reduce stress.
What explains all the above-mentioned benefits of some simple daytime shut-eye?
Put simply, science is learning that sleep has a far more active function than previously believed. When you nap, you shut off your mind’s interaction with external cues, the things you see, hear and feel. As a result, your brain is given an opportunity to organize and digest everything it’s learned.
Napping at work
Companies are cottoning on that napping on the job can be a great way to maintain the attention and performance of their workers throughout the day. Napping rooms, some with futuristic napping pods, are becoming ubiquitous in major companies. Facebook, Google, Nike and The Huffington Post, for example, all have dedicated nap rooms for their employees. Move over, coffee machines.
And its not just the cool kidz embracing napping in their organizations. Many airlines allow pilots to sleep during long international flights while colleagues take over the controls. And the National Transportation Safety Board has called for ‘controlled naps‘ to be built into night shifts of air traffic controllers.
If for some reason your boss still won’t let you have an afternoon snooze at work, tell her that Japan’s government has recently recommend that all working-age people sleep on the job for up to 30 minutes. The Japanese are certainly no mugs when it comes to efficiency, as those who have taken a ride on Tokyo’s super-precise subway system will know.
Eight tips to nap like a pro
1. Watch the time
The most important decision you have to make in your day (and maybe even your life) is how long your nap should be. You can’t just fall asleep and hope for the best.
Like war, napping requires an objective (how long to nap for) and an exit strategy (an alarm clock).
You may think that an ultra-short nap, one that’s around 360 seconds or less, wouldn’t have much a positive effect – but research says that it does. In particular, it enhances memory function.
10 to 15 minutes
Researchers tested four nap time spans: 5, 10, 20 and 30 minutes, and found that the 10 minute nap was the sweet spot for improved focus and productivity the most. A recent study suggests that it might be the best nap for being more effective later that day.
20 to 30 minutes
A short nap of 20 to 30 minutes yields that much coveted Stage 2 sleep, enhancing alertness and concentration, and sharpening motor skills (needed for typing and playing the piano).
According to NASA, for peak performance and alertness, the best nap time is actually 26 minutes.
40 to 60 minutes
A nap of between 40 and 60 minutes has been shown to provide a boost to brain power, improving memory (especially facts, places and faces) and learning ability. Because it includes rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, this nap stimulates creativity.
The downside of this type of nap is that because you enter deep sleep, you’re likely to experience that unpleasant groggy feeling when you first wake up. This disorientating feeling is called sleep inertia, and can last for up to 30 minutes. If you’ve got something important to do (like catfish ISIS) immediately after waking, this could pose a real issue.
90 to 120 minutes
A 90-120 minute nap confers a unique set of benefits, including a boost to creativity and better emotional and procedural memory (which is important in learning new skills, like learning to ride a bike). A nap of two hours or more can significantly improve alertness for up to 24 hours.
Importantly, unlike a 40 to 60 minute nap, you’re likely to complete a full sleep cycle in this time, which means that you are unlikely to get sleep inertia.
2. Know the best time to nap
According to science, the best time to nap is between 1pm and 3pm, which is one of the two sleepy periods mentioned above that are programmed into our bodies.
Your ideal nap time in this window varies from person to person, particularly whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. If your preference is to wake up early, say 6am, and go to sleep before 10pm, then you’ll want to nap around 1pm. However, if you go to bed at midnight or beyond and wake up at 8am or later, then your nap time should be around 3pm.
Many shift workers are unable to nap between 1pm and 3pm. If you do shift work, then a good rule of thumb is to take your nap at around 6 to 8 hours after waking.
3. Sometimes, just go back to sleep
One of the chief irritations with napping is waking up feeling groggy and unproductive. As discussed above, this is likely when naps are between 40 and 90 minutes.
If you do feel groggy after a nap, then trying combining caffeine intake, exposure to bright light, and face washing, and you should perk up (yes, a study was conducted to find the best way to overcome the post-nap blues. Go science!).
Or consider just going back to sleep. If you nap for an hour and experience 30 minutes of grogginess upon wakening, going the extra mile and sleeping to the 90 minute mark should mean you hit the ground running.
4. Create the right conditions
To create an environment conducive to sleep, ensure minimal light and noise, and a comfortable temperature.
Lighting is particularly important because light inhibits melatonin, an important hormone in regulating sleep (and therefore falling asleep). Make the room darker by using window shades, or use an eye mask. If you’re game, consider the Swiss army knife of masks.
As the ideal nap length is 30 minutes or less, you don’t want to lark about trying to fall asleep. Sounds obvious, but lie down straight away. Research suggests that it takes people 50% longer to fall asleep when they’re seated.
The best place to nap? A hammock. The delightful swaying motion helps us to fall asleep faster.
Setting an alarm for your nap is also helpful – worrying about if you will wake up at the right time might prevent sleep in the first place.
5. Caffeinate your nap
Although naps are proven to be more effective than having a cup of coffee in boosting short-term performance, why not benefit from both? Coffee and napping may seem unlikely bedfellows (if you’ll excuse the pun), but science says they can combine extremely well.
The trick is to drink a cup of coffee just before you nap. Caffeine requires 20 or 30 minutes to take effect, and therefore if you limit your nap to this time period, it will kick in just as you’re waking. Not only will you feel better for having the nap, you get the bonus of a caffeine shot when you wake.
A ‘caffeine nap’, as it’s commonly dubbed (I personally prefer ‘napspresso’), has been shown to leave individuals feeling more refreshed than having either a coffee or nap alone, and much more effective than cold air or a break with no nap.
6. How to ensure a good night sleep
Unless you know what you’re doing, a nap can have a negative effect on the quality of your sleep later that night.
Research shows that when you reach deep sleep (the stage of sleep where dreaming occurs), which is usually after about 40 minutes, it can effect nighttime sleep. Also, when we snooze later in the day, it becomes harder to wake up from a nap, probably because the body thinks you’re calling it an early night.
Therefore, don’t sleep for more than 30 minutes (to avoid crossing over into deep sleep), and try to only nap between your inbuilt sleepy window of 1pm to 3pm, or even earlier. Experts also suggest that to err on the safe side, poor sleepers, especially insomniacs, should avoid napping altogether.
7. Nap because you want to, not because you have to
A nap isn’t a great substitute for a good night’s sleep (nothing is).
To put that into perspective: the National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but studies have found that more than 40 million workers in America get less than six hours a night.
Although a 90 minute nap can serve to help people top up on the sleep they lost the night before, emergency napping is not a clever life-enhancing strategy. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can result in high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, depression, and of course that general feeling of yuck.
Prioritizing good sleep hygiene is vital to consistently sleep well at night. There are lots of science backed suggestions for good sleep, but the most important involve having regular bedtimes and wake times, and only use your bed for sleep and sex.
8. Good nutrition complements napping
Imagine using a nap for an extra burst of power, on top of an already productive day? It’s clear that napping can be a great way to boost productivity, mental function and overall wellness, but also essential is proper nutrition.
Inadequate dehydration is usually the chief culprit for those who feel tired and sluggish throughout the day. Water is effectively the cash flow of the body, and food itself has no value to the body until is hydrolyzed by water and energized in the process.
Sugar and processed foods will all rob you of vigor if you consume them regularly, and also watch how you combine your foods.
Food combining is actually one of the least understood secrets to optimal wellness and energy levels. Pair food wisely, for example, eat fruit and drink smoothies/juice alone (i.e. not at mealtime), combine your meat with vegetables, and combine your good grains (i.e. quinoa and rice) with vegetables too. Your digestive system will thank you.
The perfect nap, outlined
Based on the tips above, this is what the perfect nap should look like:
- Keep it short. Aim to nap for only 10 to 30 minutes, otherwise you might wake up groggy.
- In the afternoon. Between 1pm and 3pm, to be precise.
- Have a ‘napspresso’. Drink a coffee just before you nap, and when you wake up you’ll be glad you did.
- Create a restful environment. Nap in a dark room, with limited noise and – if you can – in a hammock.
- Set an alarm. Waking up on demand is hard work!
What are your strategies for getting the most from a cheeky nap? Tell us in the comments below!
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