How to Nap (and not mess up your sleep).

Naps are good! by Gamma Man, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Gamma Man

Napping can help or hurt your sleep, depending on when and how long you nap. If you don’t nap when you need to, you risk further fatigue, loss of productivity, and possibly a further downward spiral of sleep deprivation. However, if you nap too much, then you may be groggy and grumpy the rest of the afternoon and you might mess up your sleep at night. Below is a simple guide to nap correctly and effectively.

The short version: The 4-part summary on napping.

  1. Nap for 20-30 minutes tops.

  2. Pick a window between 1-3pm, more towards 2pm if possible.

  3. If you “need” coffee? Drink it just before napping for optimal alertness. (Will explain why in detailed version below).

  4. Prepare (and defend) your nap spot ahead of time.  

The detailed version:

Nap for only 20-30 minutes. Napping longer than 30 minutes risks your brain dipping into “Phase 2”i sleep, which is a deeper form of sleep than Phase 1. If you slip into Phase 2, you might wake up with “sleep inertia”ii, that feeling like you’re technically awake but still feel half-asleep and possibly very grumpy. For the visually minded, if you nap too long, you’ll end up feeling like this:

Nap in the early afternoon. Ideally, pick a time between 1 and 3. Some anthropologists suggest the after-lunch “siesta”iii is an ideal time to nap because it was hard to hunt, gather, or do any type of activity during the hottest part of the day.

If you ‘need’ stimulants (e.g. coffee or green tea), drink them immediately before your nap. Counterintuitive? Yup. Effective. Yup. Why? Caffeine takes ~15-30 minutes to ‘kick in’. If you drink your stimulant of choice immediately prior to a nap, you’ll wake up not only refreshed from the nap, but also alert from the caffeine, overriding any sleep inertia. Note: I don’t endorse using stimulants, however, coffee and tea is a cultural reality.

Have your nap spot ready ahead of time: There is nothing more frustrating than wasting precious nap time preparing (or defending) your nap spot. Alert the people around you ahead of time that you are laying down for 20-30 minutes so you can be more alert and serve better. I told my staff this in the clinic and only to wake me if it’s a real emergency. They were very supportive and I was never embarrassed that I needed to nap so I could better serve my patients.

Recommended tools:

  1. A space to lay down or reclineI used my portable adjusting table in my back office because it was small and easy to put away. Other people use a favorite chair or a couch, or even go to their car and put the seat back.

  2. Ear plugsThey help keep out unwanted noise so you don’t get startled awake.

  3. Eye mask: Keeps out light that prevents people from falling asleep (and also gives a visual cue to others that you are “busy”).

  4. Non-shocking alarmMost people’s alarm clocks are loud and shocking. A shocking alarm is the auditory equivalent of being shaken awake, which then sends your adrenal stress response through the roof. You may feel ‘awake’ after a shocking alarm, but you’ll have a hard time focusing because your stress response system is busy looking for danger, not zeroing in on a specific task. Aim for an alarm that uses an ascending musical scale, such as the ‘harp’ sound that comes on many smart phones.

  5. Set alarm for 30 or 35 minutes: This will give you 5 minutes buffer to fall asleep, so you have your 20-30 minutes of rest.

Happy Napping!

i Wikipedia contributors. “Sleep.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Jun. 2014. Web. 10 Jun. 2014.

ii Wikipedia contributors. “Sleep inertia.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 May. 2014. Web. 10 Jun. 2014.

iii Wikipedia contributors. “Siesta.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2014. Web. 10 Jun. 2014.

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