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How to take great naps

Taking a well-timed nap can help you do more and feel better. 

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Hi Quartz members,

Like most people I know, I love sleeping. But unlike most people I know, I do it a lot, too. While it seems everyone around me struggles to get enough shuteye (what with life, phones, and insomnia getting in the way), the opposite is true for me. Instead of depriving me of sleep, the more I do or have to deal with, the more my body can’t help falling asleep.

This has long been a source of capitalism-induced guilt to me, a woman who fancies herself a productive member of society. I have spent much time and energy fighting the urge to, say, nap after lunch (or sometimes before lunch, it’s hard to predict when my body will decide the world is just too much and shut down).

But recently, I came to an einsicht. You know what’s better than spending time and energy trying to drag yourself on the other side of the urge to nap? Taking a nap.

So whether you have some urgent sleep deficit to address, had a heavy lunch, or just feel overwhelmed and need a minute with Morpheus (of the Ovidian, not Matrix, type), here is a guide to restoring, manageable, and guilt-free naps.

What is a regular nap?

Sleep is a highly subjective issue. Although there are statistics and studies that help us understand what sleeping patterns and behaviors are most common, there are too many individual variations and external factors that can condition the way we sleep to have one-size-fits-all approach to sleeping or napping, says Alcibiades Rodriguez, the director of New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center. Most adults, for instance, need between six and nine hours of sleep a day, but some need as many as 10, and others can do well with less than five. Alternative sleep schedules can have a range of effects—while staying awake all night has been associated with obesity and other metabolic disorders, some evangelize polyphasic sleep as a way to feel more alert and creative.

People typically need to sleep the most between 2am and 6am and then again, though in lesser measure, between 2pm and 6pm. This is when the infamous “afternoon slump” sets in, and the urge to nap might hit even a healthy, well-rested person.

There can be many reasons beyond the circadian rhythm behind a nap, from sleep deprivation to the desire to reap the benefits of sleep to the pleasure of napping itself.

But, says Rodriguez, one shouldn’t need to sleep more than 30 to 40 minutes during the day to feel refreshed. Longer than that signals a sleep deficit or another problem (excessive tiredness caused by medications, for instance), or potentially a sleep disorder—something that Rodriguez says is far more common than people might realize.

Similarly, falling asleep too quickly (in less than eight minutes) or feeling significantly restored even after a nap of a few minutes is a sign that you are sleep deprived, or have accumulated a sleep debt, which is when you have had many instances of insufficient sleep in a row. If you don’t think that’s the case, something could be wrong with the quality of your sleep, or you might have a sleeping disorder.

The benefits of napping

When we sleep through the night, we move through different phases of sleep—often more than once. Each has its own advantages, and a short nap won’t provide the same effect as a full cycle of sleep, but naps still provide  unique benefits to the mind.

Boosting memory. Napping, like sleeping, helps people retain information, build new memory processes, and improve cognitive functions, says Alger. In fact, people who napped right after learning new detailed information were found better at retaining it than those who spent that time cramming it in.

Improving mood. As they improve our alertness and mental agility and reduce fatigue, naps are great mood boosters. Our brain is constantly engaged and collects all sorts of toxic stimuli and information, and even a little light sleep can help clean it up.

A mental break. Neurological studies show productivity is maximized by taking as much as 30 minutes off every two hours. If you feel like you can’t squeeze a 20 minute nap in your work day, you’re working too hard.

One big caveat is if you have insomnia. If you struggle to sleep at night, you should resist sleeping during the day, as that might further compromise your sleeping patterns, says Sara Alger, a sleep research scientist working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Too much of a good thing

Unless you are sleep deprived or have a free afternoon, ideal nap length, studies suggest, is a power nap of 15 to 20 minutes. You must know the ancient IT proverb “try turning your computer off, and turn it back on”—a power nap does pretty much that, but for humans.

If you nap too long (more than 30 minutes): 

The nap could mess with your night sleep. You could be left with sleep inertia, or that feeling of grogginess waking up that can take up to an hour to dissipate. A nap shorter than 30 minutes (ideally around 20) prevents the body from transitioning into deeper sleep. Alternatively, you can sleep 90 minutes or longer, which completes a whole sleep cycle and puts you back into light sleep.

If you nap too short (10 minutes or less):

You probably won’t reap much benefit (unless you have a sleeping disorder). That’s because it takes about that much to fall asleep anyway, and the time spent trying to fall asleep doesn’t really count against your napping quota.

Tips for taking great naps

It is the paradox of our search for wellbeing that we seem to need ways to optimize even something as seemingly indulgent as a nap.

And yet there are ways to make sure your snooze is as beautiful and fulfilling as it can be.

  1. Reject the stigma. In most cultures, napping (especially at work) can be associated with laziness or lack of drive, when a deliberate use of napping to improve energy levels and alertness boosts productivity. Companies can help this by encouraging naps, and even setting up nap spots.
  1. Pick a spot. You might be able to fall asleep everywhere: on a chair in a sunny spot of your office, on your bed with closed blinders, on a gently moving train. But you might not: if so, build a habit of taking a nap in the same place whenever possible—ideally dark, warm, quiet.
  1. Set an alarm. If you are afraid you’ll just turn it off and go back to napping (been there, done that), leave the clock in a place that requires you to get up to get it.
  1. Close your eyes. There are many techniques to help you fall asleep. A personal favorite is to force my brain to think through wildly illogical associations of words and objects, to trick itself into believing it’s falling asleep.
  1. Give up. If you’re still awake after 15 minutes of trying to fall asleep, then napping isn’t in the cards. Accept it, and try again tomorrow.
  1. Hands off the snooze button. People have a few moments of amnesia when they wake up, and they can generally be vulnerable to making poor decisions such as prolonging the nap. It’s a bad idea, that’s why ideally your just-awake self should get up to turn off the alarm.

Sleep well this weekend,

—Annalisa Merelli, senior reporter (loves few things in life more than a nap in the sun)

One ☕ thing

Do coffee and napping go together? Contrary to what you might think, the case for caffeinated naps—what Alger calls nappuccinos—is pretty strong. Naps and coffee work better combined than alone, because the caffeine you ingest takes a little while to kick in, so it won’t stop you from falling asleep, but will give you a nice boost of energy as soon as you wake up. Algers says research on this is still too limited to give nappuccinos as blanket recommendations, but the evidence she observed in her research suggest there are benefits to the combo, especially for people who are able to fall asleep quickly after drinking a coffee.

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