For time untold, cats have had the right idea. Naps are good. It’s not lazy or unproductive; in fact, it could be the most productive thing you do all day! Napping can refresh the mind, boost creativity and intelligence, and improve health. Even big companies like Uber, Google, and Ben & Jerry’s are encouraging their employees to nap! It’s just not true that naps are only for kids and old people.
What is It?
A power nap is a brief sleep of around 20 minutes. It ends before you enter the deep slow-wave stage of sleep. Waking from SWS can result in sleep inertia: that groggy, hungover, disoriented feeling. You’ve had that, right? You wake up and can’t remember what day or year it is and are pretty sure you’ve been hit by a truck. The power nap avoids this nuisance while improving performance, alertness, and cognitive functioning.
More than 85% of mammals sleep occasionally throughout the day; surely, they can’t all be wrong. In some places, including Spain, an afternoon siesta is perfectly normal, and businesses shut down during this time. This is logical, as the body’s internal alerting signal, which keeps you awake during the day, wanes slightly in the middle of the afternoon. This is also about the time when the sun is hottest and you’ve just had your lunch, all contributors to that dozy feeling. Great thinkers like Winston Churchill, Napoleon, and Albert Einstein are reputed to have been nappers.
There are four types of naps:
- Planned or Preemptive naps – taking a nap to avoid feeling tired, especially if you know you’ll be getting a late night.
- Emergency naps – you suddenly feel tired and cannot concentrate or continue with what you were doing. This type of nap should be taken if you begin to feel drowsy while driving or operating dangerous machinery.
- Habitual naps – routine napping every day at the same time.
- Appetitive naps – the act of napping for the sheer pleasure of it.
Why Should I Do It?
There are three main reasons: performance and productivity, memory and learning ability, and health.
1. Boost Your Performance and Productivity
Naps as short as 6 to 10 minutes can restore energy and alertness, enhance performance, improve response times, and reduce mistakes and accidents.
A 1995 NASA study on astronauts and military pilots found that a 26-minute nap heightened performance by 34% and overall alertness by 54%. Another study observed that emergency department physicians and nurses who took 25-minute naps during consecutive night shifts had fewer performance lapses, less fatigue and sleepiness, and could insert IVs more quickly than those who had not napped. Maybe that’s a question to ask your healthcare team before surgery: when was the last time you napped?
Modern companies like Apple, the Huffington Post, and Google are creating sleep spaces and encouraging employees to take 10 to 15-minute naps at work. They realise that this small investment in time is worth the boost to mental efficiency, productivity, and morale.
2. Enhance Your Memory and Learning Ability
Napping improves creative problem-solving ability, verbal memory, logical reasoning, symbol recognition, mathematical skills, and perceptual, object, and statistical learning. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that a midday snooze reverses information overload, clearing out short-term memory and preparing the brain to receive new information.
Apparently, the right hemisphere of the brain, commonly associated with creativity, is quite a busy bee during sleep. Neuroscientists have discovered that a 90-minute nap which includes REM sleep and dreaming boosts the sophisticated memory that helps us see big picture ideas and be more creative. Studies suggest that the brain resets its memory recall powers during the state between the light and REM phases of sleeping, so even short naps of 10 to 20-minutes can improve memory. A 2008 study showed that just falling asleep may trigger active memory processes that continue to be effectual, even if you only sleep for a few minutes.
Naps are even more effective than caffeine, which can decrease memory performance, impair motor sequence learning, and make you more prone to making mistakes. When researchers compared drinking a cup of coffee to taking a 60 to 90-minute nap or getting more sleep at night, the nap had stronger and longer-lasting results. There were improvements in recall, verbal memory, motor skills, and perceptual learning.
3. Improve Your Health
Cardiologist Dr. Manolis Kallistrato found that midday sleepers experienced decreased blood pressure, less resulting damage to their arteries and heart, and accelerated cardiovascular recovery. A British study discovered that just the expectation of a nap lowered blood pressure. Greek adults who napped at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more had a 37% lower risk of death from heart disease.
Napping is good for the immune system. Lack of sleep damages cells, especially those in the liver, lungs, and small intestine. Napping to treat sleep deprivation reverses this damage and restores biomarkers of neuroendocrine and immune health to normal levels in as little as 30 minutes. Norepinephrine – the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone – was found to increase 250% in individuals who were sleep deprived. These levels didn’t change in participants who had napped, even if they only had limited sleep.
Regular napping improves mental and cognitive health, as well as mood. A University of Colorado Boulder study showed that toddlers aged 2 ½ to 3 years who missed just one daily nap displayed more anxiety, less joy and interest, and a poorer understanding of how to solve problems. Even your body weight is affected: according to the British Journal of Nutrition, obesity is counteracted by getting enough sleep.
How to Do It
Choose the Best Time to Nap
Don’t nap too late in the day as this will prevent you from falling asleep at night and mess up your sleep patterns. Too early, and you won’t be ready to sleep.
According to sleep researcher Dr. Sara Mednick, the ideal napping time is the point in the day when REM and slow-wave sleep overlap. This is usually around 1 or 2pm. An hour or two after lunch is a good time because your blood sugar drops, so plan your lunch and naps around this.
Calculate the best time to nap with this interactive nap wheel.
Decide How Long to Nap
A 10- or 20-minute nap is the best for improved alertness and performance without the risk of going into slow-wave sleep, which will leave you feeling groggy and interfere with your night-time sleep. Of course, it all depends on how much time you have. Different lengths of time have different benefits:
- 2-6 minutes. A nano-nap can refresh you without knocking you into slow-wave sleep. 6-minute naps have been shown to improve declarative memory.
- 10-20 minutes. This is the typical length of a power nap as it keeps you in the lighter non-rapid eye movement stages of sleep (NREM), making it easier to wake up. It helps the brain get rid of any rubbish stuck in short-term memory, and the connections between neurons involved in muscle memory are strengthened, making your brain work faster and more accurately.
- 60 minutes. While including slow-wave sleep is good for short-term memory and decision-making skills, it can also lead to sleep inertia when waking. It can be helpful when you need to remember a lot of facts, such as before a test or presentation.
- 90 minutes. The ‘lazy man’s nap’ is a full cycle of sleep that allows you to reach slow-wave REM sleep. This is a good idea if you are extremely tired, perhaps after working shifts or overtime. It gives your body enough time to repair itself and make new connections in the brain and improves creativity and emotional and procedural memory. This length of nap is unlikely to leave you with sleep inertia.
Whichever length of nap you choose, remember to give yourself about 10 minutes extra to allow for falling asleep and waking up.
Find a Comfy Spot
A good nap location should be safe, private, and free of disturbances. It also needs to be:
- Quiet. Choose a quiet napping area or use ear plugs. You could also put in earphones and listen to white noise, pink noise, soothing or sleep music, or even guided nap recordings. There are hundreds of these available online. Turn off your cell phone. Not only do you want to avoid being distracted by notifications, the blue light from the screen can make it harder to fall asleep. Put your cell on airplane mode if you are using it to listen to music. If you are in your car, turn your radio to the static between stations for a bit of white noise.
- Dark. Block out light so that you can fall asleep faster. Close the curtains or shades or wear an eye mask. If you don’t have an eye mask, sunglasses can help.
- Not too warm or too cold. The ideal ambient temperature for sleep is around 18° C or 65° F. Choose a comfortably cool place and use a blanket or jacket to stay warm because your body temperature drops when you sleep. If your napping place is too warm, use a fan or air conditioner.
Here are some ideas of places to nap:
- Company napping area. This is the ideal place, and hopefully your company or school has sleeping pods or nap rooms with recliners, specially-designed chairs, or cots. Companies with nap rooms claim that employees are happier and become more productive at work. Use this to convince your company to organize a cozy napping spot.
- Your office. Disconnect your phone, switch off your computer, and shut your door. Hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your doorknob along with a note of when you will be available again.
- Parked car. If it’s safe, you can take a power nap in your company parking lot. Another option is to pull into a safe parking lot or rest area, lock the doors, and switch on relaxing music. If it’s dark, park in a well-lit area with plenty of people around. Remember to turn off the car and pull up the hand brake.
- Passenger seat. If you carpool, see if you can drive the morning trip and nap on the way home. Use headphones or earplugs so the driver is free to listen to the radio or talk to any other passengers that might be with you.
- Other options: Conference rooms, libraries, book stores, department stores, and gyms. Some of these offer quiet seating areas where you could grab some shut-eye.
Set an Alarm
Setting an alarm stops you from oversleeping, and this will help you to relax. Remember to add 5-10 minutes to the length of the nap so that you have time to fall asleep. Put your alarm on the other side of the room so that you won’t accidently press the snooze button.
Assume the Nap Position
Sitting slightly upright can help you avoid going into deep sleep, but it could take up to 50% longer to fall asleep. It might be better to lie down if your nap time is limited.
Get in the Mood
Close your eyes and relax. Use deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualization techniques to help you fall asleep quickly. Try sleep techniques like counting backwards from 100, concentrating on your breathing, or the ‘4-7-8’ exercise: Breathe in slowly while counting to four. Hold your breath for seven counts, then exhale for eight counts. Repeat the cycle 3-4 times, or until you fall asleep.
Keep your eyes closed even if you can’t fall asleep. At the very least you will relax your brain and train your body to rest at a certain time.
Don’t waste your precious nap time worrying about all the things you still need to do or feeling guilty for not working. We’ve seen that Science says napping is awesome, so don’t give it up because of what others might think. They’re just jealous of how amazingly productive and energetic you are afterwards.
Coordinate Your Caffeine
Caffeine takes 20-30 minutes to kick in, so having some right before your nap can make it easier to wake up afterwards. This is called a ‘caffeine nap’, ‘coffee nap’, ‘stimulant nap’, or my personal favourite: a ‘nappucino’. Studies have shown that the combination can actually leave you feeling more refreshed and alert than just napping or drinking coffee alone. It also leads to better post-nap cognitive functioning.
Get Back in Action
As soon as your alarm goes off, get up! Resist the temptation to sleep longer – it will end in tears! Get your heart-rate up with a bit of light activity: a brisk walk, a few jumping jacks, or a couple of seconds of jogging in place. Splash a little water on your face and get some direct sunlight. Then get back to what you were doing before the nap.
Establish a routine and keep a regular nap schedule. Over time, you will train your body to quickly fall asleep and wake up after the allotted time. Try to nap in the same place, at the same time, while listening to the same music or sounds.
Of course, napping isn’t for everyone. If you suffer from insomnia or are sleep-deprived, you may struggle with severe sleep inertia. Daytime sleep may make it harder for you to sleep at night. In that case, just make sure that you get the best quality night-time sleep possible. Even if you can’t nap, taking 15 minutes to close your eyes and relax could be enough to give you that afternoon boost.
If you are able to fit a power nap into your schedule, be prepared to reap the benefits:
- Better memory recall!
- Stress reduction!
- Sharpened motor skills and performance!
Just like a cat after a good nap.