Food for Thought: The Definitive Guide to Napping

The following is an article published on Marks Daily Apple.

In most Western nations, napping is a sign of weakness. Those who do it — or, even worse, need it — are slothful wastes of resources who can’t hack it in the “real world.” They lack grit, determination, and stick-to-itiveness. They’re getting old. Why nap when you can put in more hours, be more productive, make (your employer) more money? Naps are for babies and senior citizens and other non-productive members of society. They simply aren’t tolerated in able-bodied adults.

Yeah: as much as people are willing to pay lip service to the importance of a solid eight hours every night (actually sleeping that many hours is another thing entirely), most do not seriously entertain the value of napping. That’s a real mistake, because not only do humans have a long and storied tradition of snoozing in the middle of the day, there are also huge benefits to naps. Far from being anti-productivity wastes of time, a well-timed nap can boost cognitive function, improve work output, and make you healthier, happier, and a better employee (and person).

We are time-strapped to a historically unprecedented extent. The vast majority of available evidence suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed ample amounts of leisure time. Now, extant hunter-gatherer groups aren’t perfect representations of prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups on every aspect of diet and lifestyle, but I’d argue they offer illustrative examples of ancestral leisure time. The ones who’ve survived till now have been pushed off ancestral lands onto marginalized ones, often with fewer resources and requiring greater time commitments for the same return. Yet even people like the Hadza of Tanzania “work” only about four hours a day. The rest is leisure time. And midday 1-2 hour naps to escape the sun’s peak heat are common.

The midday nap is a constant through many different human cultures. In Spain, Latin America, and the Philippines, you’ve got the siesta. Bangladesh has bhat-ghum, or “rice sleep.” The Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, and even Chinese Ikea-goers enjoy a culture of napping. And though they aren’t ingrained into the culture, both Germans and Brits do a fair amount of napping on the sly. It’s not just culture and warm environments and big lunchtime meals provoking naps, though. Most people experience an energy dip in the afternoon, between 1 and 4 PM. This is totally normal. According to sleep researchers, it’s also the perfect time for a nap.

Benefits of Napping

Evidence shows that indulging this biological imperative when it arises is probably a good idea:

Different Types of Naps

The one-second hypnagogic nap.

You know that half-awake, half-dreaming mindscape you drift through as you begin to doze? That place where strange figures from your past call to you, where you imagine tripping or falling or catching an arrow to the face and jerk awake? That’s hypnagogia. It marks the transition from waking to sleep, and icons as diverse as Einstein and Salvador Dali deliberately spent a considerable amount of time there cultivating their craft, finding inspiration, and working through problems. Dali’s method was to nap sitting up in a chair while holding a coin between two fingers poised above a ceramic dish. When he fell asleep, the coin would drop onto the plate, the clatter waking him after just a second or two. But as anyone who’s dreamed knows, a second in “real time” can last an eternity in sleep time — long enough to come up with a creative solution to a vexing problem.

Good for creatives, artists, problem solvers, and, apparently, theoretical physicists.

The ultra-short 6-minute nap.

If you can manage to fall asleep fast enough and wake up on time, you can reap the memory-boosting benefits of the six-minute nap. Yes, six minutes. Don’t you dare sleep for seven, though.

Good for people with no time at all, like first year medical residents.

The ten-minute nap.

A recent study tested the effects of 5, 10, 20, and 30 minute naps on sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance. The 5-minute nap was pretty useless, the 20-minute nap produced benefits 35 minutes after waking, the 30-minute nap produced immediate post-nap grogginess and benefits that took over an hour to emerge, while the 10-minute nap was the sweet spot. Subjects who napped for ten minutes enjoyed immediate boosts to all markers.

Good for people interested in the minimum effective dose.

The 25.8 minute nap.

It sounds oddly specific, but that’s the average time pilots in a NASA study spent napping in-flight. They fell asleep in, on average, 5.6 minutes, experienced no negative effects on nighttime sleep patterns, had fewer instances of “micro-sleep” (the dangerous and frightening phenomenon of falling asleep while doing something that normally precludes sleep, like driving or flying), improved their reaction time, and were able to maintain their duties and responsibilities. If pilots can nap on the job for almost half an hour without incurring disaster, I think you can get away with it. Of course, 25.8 minutes isn’t optimal for everyone; that was just the average napping duration.

Good for doctors and nurses working long shifts in the ER and people with 40 minutes to spare (the block of time allotted to napping pilots in the study).

The power nap.

It’s a shame that we feel the need to hack and optimize something so pleasant and luxurious as a midday nap, but that’s the world in which we live. If people simply can’t spare the time but still need the extra boost to cognition, memory, and wakefulness, the power nap — which can range from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on who you ask — is the ticket.

Good for people working demanding, high-stress jobs or studying for finals.

The 60-minute power nap.

Sleeping for 60 minutes means reaching slow wave sleep and risking a bit of sleep inertia upon waking, but it can also boost alertness and performance for up to ten hours.

Good for people who know how to overcome sleep inertia (see below).

The sleep cycle nap.

Going the full 90-120 minutes allows you to wake up after leaving slow wave sleep, either during or right after REM sleep. This means you’ve essentially finished a sleep cycle and minimized the risk of sleep inertia. Furthermore, full sleep cycle naps that include REM sleep boost creativity and outperform caffeine on some measures.

Good for people with the time to spare and a need/desire to think different.

When to Take a Nap

Research suggests anywhere between 1 and 4 PM is best, but only because that’s when most afternoon slumps occur. Just take a nap when you get a little sleepy. In my experience, however, it’s ideal to take a nap when you want one and feel like you could use it, not when you absolutely need one. The distinction is subtle but important. Avoid the emergency nap, the nap that cannot be reasoned with, the nap that inserts itself in inopportune situations (the drive home, a meeting). Don’t get to that point if it can be avoided.

Knowing your chronotype helps determine the optimal nap time, too. Morning people will do better in the earlier afternoon (1-ish) and night owls are better served with later naps (3-4-ish).

To be safe, avoid naps after 4 in the afternoon. That’s not a nap, it’s an early bedtime.

How to Do It

If you need to convince your employer that naps are a good investment, read this older post. Together with today’s Definitive Guide to Napping, you should be able to sway them.

Lie down. You’ll fall asleep faster than if you were sitting up, and the sleep you’ll get lying down is superior.

Darken the room. Draw the blinds, close the door, wear an eye shield if it helps.

Nap outside. My favorite place to nap is outside. If you can swing it, grab a shady spot under a tree, in some soft grass, or maybe swaying in a hammock. The light doesn’t seem to bother me, for whatever reason (though I’m certainly not napping in full sun).

Go someplace quiet. Loud noises are a sleep deterrence.

Quiet the mind. Count your breath, sheep jumping over the fence, recite a mantra. Guided meditations can also help.

How to Avoid Post-Nap Sleep Inertia

Sleep inertia: it’s a terrible feeling, waking up in a mild panic as it dawns on you that there’s still work to be done and responsibilities to fulfill. You’re groggy, you’re confused, you can’t think straight, you just want to go back to sleep, but it’s 2 PM and you have a few hours left in the workday. You’d probably be better off not napping at all if you’re just going to end up sleepier with worse performance, right? Here are some ways to avoid it.

Get some bright light immediately after waking and splash some water on your faceThis combo alleviates post-nap inertia. Either alone should work, too.

Make it a caffeine nap. Drink a small cup of coffee right before you hunker down for the nap. As long as you stick to a 20-30 minute schedule, you’ll be waking up right as the caffeine takes effect.

Just have some caffeine. If you miss the boat for the caffeine nap, having a little caffeine (100 mg in one study, about a cup of coffee) minimizes sleep inertia.

Avoid 40-60 minute long naps. This is where you start hitting slow wave sleep, which makes for a rough wakeup and extended sleep inertia. Either go short (30 minutes or less) or long (75-90 minutes). Avoid the middle ground.

Who Should Take Naps

Everyone. I’m serious, folks. Very few of us get the amount of high quality sleep we need to function optimally. But here, in case you don’t believe me, run a little nap test:

Lie down somewhere quiet and dark and calm in the afternoon.

Close your eyes.

Count your breaths (or sheep, or whatever you prefer).

If you find yourself drifting off, or you actually end up falling asleep, congratulations: you should nap.

Napping is one of those things we tell ourselves we need to incorporate into our lives, yet it so easily falls by the wayside. I hope today’s post has convinced you naps deserve a place in your Primal life — because they definitely do.

Do you nap on a regular basis? What’s your favorite type of nap? Duration?