Achieving the optimal nap (based on sleep science)

I tell you, my naps are epic. They win awards.
Tituss Burgess

Naps are one of my favorite activities in the world.

They come with a buffet of benefits like improving cognitive function, memory and mood. What’s not to love?

But I overindulged when I began to have unstructured workdays. My naps turned out to be hours-long affairs that made me feel shitty about oversleeping and, counterproductively, less energetic.

Frustrated, I started researching how to improve my nap game.

Sleep science provided major clues to achieving the optimal nap.

The Science Behind Effective Naps

A nap, by definition, is a light sleep during the day:

But what constitutes “light sleep?” If you’re a busy professional and don’t live in a siesta culture, what are the napping guidelines? More than an hour is impractical most people (short lunch breaks), so can it be true that even short naps can be beneficial?

Turns out, you can have our cake and eat it too. Here’s the guidelines I’ve found, based on sleep research studies:

Nap Length: Most studies recommend between 20 – 30 minutes of nap time.

Naps as little as 10-20 minutes are enough to give a boost, whereas napping more than 40 minutes a day was correlated with diabetes in a 2016 study with 288,883 participants. Also, due to the phenomenon of sleep inertia, the longer the nap, the more groggy you’ll be immediately upon waking up.

Fun fact: a NASA study showed that air traffic controllers, when instructed to nap for 26 minutes, showed sizable gains in alertness and performance.

Nap Timing: suggests 2-3pm is the best nap time because most people’s blood sugar (and thus energy levels) to drop after lunch.

Assuming your wake time is 7-9am, the optimal nap time is 2-3pm

Taking naps too late in the day can disrupt the quality of your actual sleep. I personally take naps anywhere between 1 – 4 pm, and doing so has saved many afternoons of productivity.

Nap Frequency: In this fascinating sleep study, “nap frequency was positively correlated with subjective sleepiness…participants who took more naps during one week reported higher levels of trait and state sleepiness. “

There’s not yet conclusive research on nap frequency. My opinion is that 1 nap a day is enough for most people, and that taking more than one can can disrupt normal sleep patterns.

Nap Environment: Find a cool, dark & quiet place (e.g. Batcave) to rest. If you work at a fancy startup, you might be able to access a sleep pod. If you don’t mind being ridiculed, check out the Ostrich Pillow:

The napping pillow that might also make you os…tracized ?

Or be normal like me and just use a good eye mask + ear plugs combo. Then set an alarm to avoid oversleeping.

Nap onset: Sleeping in the locked position has been a game changer for me. It prevents me from moving around too much and helps me fall asleep much faster – for both naps and normal bedtime:

The “Sims” position: lie between supine and prone with legs flexed in front. Arms should be comfortably placed beside the patient, not underneath.

The locked position may not be the most comfortable for longer term sleep, but I find it wonderful for these 20 minute naps.

Studies show listening to music can help with sleep onset and sleep quality. Specifically, music with a slow rhythm (60 – 80bpm) or familiar “easy listening” songs like jazz, instrumentals or even nature music.

Still have trouble falling sleep? Don’t worry about actually sleeping – more on this at the end of the article.

Caffeine Naps: Researchers from the US, UK and Japan have found positive effects of consuming caffeine before naps. So called “caffeine naps” work particularly well with short 20 minute napping windows, increasing energy and alertness much more than simply drinking coffee or taking naps. Anecdotally, “coffee naps” have been very useful as a safeguard against oversleeping because caffeine makes me pee.

Studies suggest that stopping caffeine intake a minimum of 6 prior to bedtime due to its disruptive effects on sleep and experts say that 2pm is great cut off point for your last coffee.

Taking all this knowledge together, I’ve constructed my “perfect” nap as follows…

Achieving my optimal nap

21 minutes of nap time works best for me. That’s 1 minute to get settled in bed + 20 minutes for actual sleep.

Here’s my nap sequence:

  • Take a caffeine nap between 2-4pm, which is usually when I hit that afternoon slump.
  • While waiting for coffee to brew, I change into more comfortable clothes.
  • I drink my coffee and set my alarm for 21 minutes
  • Cover my eyes with a sleeping mask, then get on my bed and into the locked position.

I used to have this association that in order to feel “rested” from a nap, I need to experience something close to “real sleep,” e.g. dreams, a certain mental state, etc.

Yet one mental shift has been the biggest differentiator for me:

I don’t need to “sleep” to nap. I just need to rest.

Instead of stressing about achieving real sleep during my naps, I learned to just treat naps as rest. And rest is productive.

If you’re Type A and lean on the neurotic side, adopt the idea that rest is productive, and just throw naps in as a part of that productivity framework.

If I can’t fall asleep as quickly as desired, I just focus on resting + deep breathing. Even without falling asleep, I consider this to be a restorative time in which I’ve taken a break from the computer screen and give my brain much needed space.

An unexpected result of building up a napping habit is that now I’m able to sleep like a rock for 20 minutes, sometimes even achieving lucid dreams during that power nap. I wake up to the alarm 20 minutes later, feeling MUCH more and alert than before my nap.

Happy napping!

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