Take a Better Nap

catnapTaking a nap is one of the most efficient ways to rest and refresh your body and mind at once. Yet most of us have had the experience of getting up from an impromptu nap and feeling worse, rather than better, than before. That groggy, mud-for-brains confusion is enough to make anyone scared of naps as potential productivity quagmires rather than the boost that they can be. So here are my favorite  strategies for getting the most out of your nap time.

Rule #1: Set an alarm.
Setting an alarm does three important things. First, it prevents you from sleeping too long into the next stage of your sleep cycle, which is what causes grogginess (see Rule #2 for more details). Second, setting an alarm reinforces the choice you’re making, and quiets the little voice in your head that might be saying “you really should be working right now.” If you’ve set an alarm, then you can just say “it’s ok, I’ll get up in X minutes.” Third, setting an alarm sends a cue to your internal time sense to help you wake up easily at the end of the nap.

Rule #2: Choose the right length for your nap.
Most adults sleep in full cycles of approximately 90 minutes. During that time, your brain produces different ratios of energizing and quieting brain waves. Because of this, the ideal nap lengths for most people are 20 minutes or 40 minutes. After 45 minutes, you will head into deeper stages of sleep which are difficult to awaken from. If you’re really tired, set your alarm for 90 minutes, giving yourself a full sleep cycle. Of course, there’s some individual variation in sleep patterns, and with experimentation you can find your personal napping sweet spot.

Rule #3: Don’t worry about when or if you fall asleep.
Simply closing your eyes and breathing deeply signals your brain to begin producing more alpha waves, which are calming for the nervous system. In sleep labs, many people who have experienced the lighter stages of sleep claim to have been awake the entire time. Our conscious mind’s perceptions of whether or not we slept, or how deeply we slept, are less important than giving your body and brain the chance to regroup.

Rule #4: If you feel restless, try the half military crawl position.
I learned this helpful tip from Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body, which includes several chapters on sleep. Here’s his illustration and description of the posture, in which you lie on your stomach and “crawl” the arm and leg on one side of your body into bent positions. This sleeping position intentionally makes it difficult to move your arms and legs without moving your whole body. This encourages the nervous system to quiet down, just as wrapping an infant in a blanket can help them to relax.

Rule #5: Hydrate and/or caffeinate.
Drinking a large glass of water before you lie down for a nap will help produce more restful sleep and an easier, more alert awakening. Caffeine takes 20 minutes to have an actual physical effect in the body, so drinking a small amount of coffee or tea right before you lie down for a 20 minute nap provides the perfect wakeup nudge for your brain.

Still not convinced about the power of naps? Check out Dustin Curtis’s explanation of polyphasic sleep, which suggests that adding just one nap to your day can reduce your total sleep need by an hour and 40 minutes.  Historian Roger Ekirch has suggested that  before the introduction of artificial lighting and mechanized work routines,  people routinely slept in segments rather than all through the night.  Regularly taking short naps can help you manage your energy, boost your creativity, and improve your productivity.

Are you a nap-taker? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user ElectronicWar]

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