If you find yourself experiencing drowsiness during the day, resisting the urge to take a daytime nap could be doing you more harm than good. Afternoon naps carry a myriad of science-backed health benefits — things like improved cognitive performance, help with emotional regulation, and increased energy, among others. To reap these rewards without running the risk of disruptive post-nap grogginess, you’ll want to keep your naps short and sweet. But to get the most out of your nap, length isn’t the only factor you should consider — timing your nap carefully is also important. Here we’ll walk you through just what a “power nap” entails, other “types” of naps that may work better for you on certain days, when to forgo a nap altogether, and how you can best leverage your nap–both in terms of length and timing — in service of more energetic and productive days.
Sleep experts seem to be in consensus that the ideal length for a power nap hovers between 10-20 minutes. For those of us short on time during the day, this is great news: just 10-20 minutes of shut-eye is all you need to boost your overall work performance, increase cognitive capacity, improve mood, and simply “feel” better. And what’s more, research shows these siesta-induced benefits have legitimate staying power, lasting up to 155 minutes after waking!
Power naps are, by nature, short. While longer naps also have their place (more on this later), when we find ourselves sleeping more than 20-25 minutes, we’re more likely to get hit with a spell of grogginess, disorientation, and impaired cognitive performance upon waking — what scientists call sleep inertia.
We all experience sleep inertia when we first wake up in the morning — it’s what drives us to keep hitting the snooze button on our alarm clock, and the reason we may feel like we’re moving in slow-motion during our morning routine. But while sleep inertia is completely normal, natural, and experienced universally, it can take up to 90 minutes (or more!) before we’re feeling completely ourselves, ready to take on whatever comes our way, so can be unwelcome in the middle of a busy day!
While everyone’s different, a good rule of thumb for healthy adults is that for a nap spanning 30 minutes or more, you should anticipate some post-nap grogginess. And keep in mind that the likelihood, duration, and severity of sleep inertia all increase when we’re carrying a lot of sleep debt (the number of hours of sleep we owe our body, relative to our individual sleep need, over the last two weeks), so make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night to minimize the odds and severity of a post-nap slump.
If you’re not used to taking short naps, it might be a challenge at first to fall asleep within the 10-20 minute timeframe. Don’t fret if this is the case — like most things, napping gets easier with practice, so the more you try it, the more quickly you’ll be able to fall asleep (what scientists call our “sleepability skills”) over time. Plus, there’s another reason to keep at it: research suggests that consistent napping confers even more benefits than sporadic napping.
In addition to sticking with it, here are some actions we can take to give our daytime sleepability skills a boost:
It’s worth mentioning that no two nappers are alike, and each person’s “perfect” power nap is going to look slightly different. As you’re settling into your new napping groove, don’t be afraid to experiment with nap length, environmental factors, etc., until you find what works best for you. Your ideal nap will be one where you wake up feeling better than you did before you fell asleep — i.e. restored, invigorated, and ready to tackle the remaining tasks of the day.
To take full advantage of the brief nap’s powerful potential, nap length isn’t the only thing to consider. Another key factor is timing — when we nap can be just as important as nap duration.
The reason for timing our naps properly is twofold — not only is it easier to drift off at certain times of day compared to others, but it’s also critical to our sleep health to plan our naps early enough in the day that they won’t interfere with our nightly sleep.
So, with this in mind, when is the ideal time to squeeze in a quick nap? The exact time of day is different for everyone, and depends on our individual circadian rhythm.
All of us have natural peaks and dips in our energy levels throughout the day as part of our circadian rhythm. The timing of these fluctuations is different for each person from day to day, and depends on things like our chronotype (whether we’re genetically predisposed to be an early bird or a night owl, or somewhere in between), and our recent sleep-wake habits, among other factors.
But while timing is variable from person to person from day to day, the pattern remains consistent. Here is our daily energy schedule in a nutshell:
For most of us most of the time, our midday dip will be our ideal power-napping window. Not only is it easier to drift off, as we’re likely already feeling a bit sleepy, but it’s also far enough away from our wind-down period that we’re not putting our nighttime sleep quality at risk. But why does napping too late potentially set us up for a restless night?
Enter adenosine. As soon as we wake up each day, this chemical compound begins building up in our brain. This build-up of adenosine — what scientists call “sleep-pressure” — is what makes us feel sleepier as the day progresses, and the reason why we’re inclined to eventually fall asleep at night. Our brain then purges this adenosine as we sleep, resulting in decreased sleep pressure, or less sleepiness, upon waking.
Taking a midday nap alleviates some of the sleep pressure that’s accumulated over the first half of our day, which is, of course, part of why we do it — we nap because we want to go the second half of our day feeling less weighted down by drowsiness. But when we nap too late in the day, we run the risk of alleviating too much sleep pressure without ample time between our nap and our desired bedtime for our adenosine levels to build up again.
While a short afternoon nap has a number of advantages with little downside, it might not always be the nap option best suited to our needs. For instance, if we’re making up serious sleep debt (anything over 5 hours is going to start to interfere with how we feel and function), sometimes a longer nap is in order. Or, if we’re anticipating an unusually late night, a nap later in the evening might be the better move. Here we’ll go over the different “types” of naps, and the factors to consider when deciding which one will fit the bill.
As you determine what the best nap for you will look like, consider your nap goals. Are you making up for lost sleep? Trying to shift your sleep schedule later in anticipation of an especially late night? Or simply seeking a midday boost? There’s a good chance your nap goals will correspond with one of the following three nap types:
Suffering the effects of sleep deprivation after a late night or two? The restorative benefits of a longer nap that allows you to enter deep sleep and/or move through a full sleep cycle may outweigh the cons of sleep inertia. But anything is better than nothing — even a 15-minute replacement nap has been proven to downplay sleepiness and sharpen logical reasoning, and will still help chip away at sleep debt.
Anticipating a later-than-usual night where you need to be quick on your feet? Taking a 2-hour prophylactic nap in advance can help with alertness, mood, and performance during a period of sustained wakefulness.
Sometimes we’re inclined to nap for no other reason than it feels nice. But even short pleasure naps can still improve our post-nap cognitive function and curb afternoon drowsiness.
The best nap for us will always depend on our unique situation and needs, and won’t be the same from day to day. Before deciding on a nap, carefully consider what your nap context looks like. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Napper beware: when we have considerable sleep debt, the benefits of naps are muted and the disorienting effects of post-nap sleep inertia can be much more pronounced. So naps, while good for us, are not a substitute for a full night’s sleep, and it’s important to make sure you aren't regularly relying on naps to make up for less-than-healthy sleep habits.
RISE can help! Your RISE app suggests a bedtime for you each night based on factors like your individual sleep need, your circadian rhythm, and how much sleep debt you’re carrying. Minding the recommended bedtime is a straightforward and effective way to stay on top of sleep debt, and keep your midday naps as power-packed as possible.
While it might seem counterintuitive, caffeine and napping can make a great pair. Having a cup of coffee or tea immediately before taking a short nap has been proven to further alleviate feelings of sleepiness post-snooze.
The effects of caffeine typically peak 15-20 minutes after ingestion, so it won’t keep you from falling asleep, but will instead provide an added boost upon waking, and also act as a failsafe against over-napping.
But, a word of warning — caffeine can linger in your system for up to 10 hours, so plan your “coffee nap” carefully to protect your nighttime sleep! RISE can help by predicting a personalized cut-off time for caffeine, based on that day’s projected Melatonin Window.
Not everyone is an ideal power nap candidate, and there are some specific instances where we should avoid napping altogether:
If you have a diagnosed sleep disorder or generally have trouble sleeping, any type of nap can interfere with your sleep schedule and make it more difficult to get healthy sleep at night. In this case, you should steel yourself against the temptation of a midday catnap in order to let sleep pressure build up over the course of the day, which will make it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.
If you’re a night owl who’s giving the early bird lifestyle a go, either out of curiosity or necessity, and in the process of trying to shift your circadian rhythm earlier, you may find that napping interferes with your ability to fall asleep at your desired bedtime, which then makes it harder to wake up when you’d like to, and so on.
Similarly, if you’ve recently moved or are traveling to a new time zone and need to acclimate to an earlier bedtime, you may find it more effective long-term to maintain a regular wake and sleep schedule, which means you’ll want to avoid naps until your circadian rhythm adjusts.
If you're looking for more personalized information about the ideal nap for your needs, RISE can help. RISE monitors your natural energy schedule and your ongoing sleep patterns to help you decide on the right nap duration and timing for your individual situation.
A 30-minute nap can be "good," but it's not a power nap, which by definition lasts 10-20 minutes. A 30-minute nap may result in post-nap sleep inertia, which can make it more difficult for you to get up and moving again after you wake.
Yes. A 45-minute nap is good if you’re suffering the effects of sleep deprivation and trying to pay down your sleep debt. However, a 45-minute nap likely comes with sleep inertia, which can interfere with some of the more immediate benefits. Revisit your nap goals, and consider how a bout of sleep inertia might impact the rest of your day.
If you want to feel refreshed when you wake, you should cap your nap at 20-25 minutes. After about 30 minutes, sleep inertia threatens to kick in upon waking.
Research indicates that naps shorter than 10 minutes aren’t as effective benefit-wise for most people, but it won’t hurt if 5 minutes is all you can manage. Power naps of 10–20 minutes offer the best chance of waking up restored and energized.
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