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Is It Better to Get 2 Hours Sleep or None? Sleep MD Explains

Published
2023-12-05
Updated
Woman taking a nap after getting 2 hours of sleep

Is It Better to Get 2 Hours Sleep or None? 

  • Most of the time, it’s better to get two hours of sleep over none. Even short naps can boost your alertness and mood. 
  • You may feel groggy after the two hours, so give yourself enough time to fully wake up before you need to be “on.” 
  • The RISE app can show you when you’ll have more energy as part of your circadian rhythm, so you can make the most of when you’ll be feeling your best on this little sleep. The app can also help you catch up on sleep to get you back on top form.

Two hours of sleep or an all-nighter — it’s not a great choice. But if you really can’t get more sleep, two hours of sleep will be better than none in most cases. 

Read on to find out the best time to get this sleep and how the RISE app can help you harness the energy you do have and catch up on sleep when possible.

Advice From a Sleep MD

Advice from a Sleep MD

“If you’re choosing between a few hours of sleep or an all-nighter, go for the sleep. Even short naps can help you feel and perform better. When possible, catch up on lost sleep with a few afternoon naps or early nights as your energy, well-being, and performance will still be impaired with two hours of sleep.”

Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu.

Is It Better to Get 2 Hours Sleep or None?  

In most cases, two hours of sleep is better than none. Not getting enough sleep will impact your energy levels, focus, mood, and decision-making skills — just to name a few things — so the more sleep you can get, the better.

One study found a two-hour nap after an all-nighter increased alertness and cognitive performance and even reversed the increased cortisol (the stress hormone) the sleep loss caused

Even shorter naps can be beneficial. A 2023 study found a 20-to-90-minute nap can reduce how impaired your athletic performance is after a night of sleep loss, a 20-minute nap can improve sleepiness and performance, and a tiny six-minute nap can improve memory. 

“I can't think of any circumstances when not getting two hours of sleep is better,” said Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, Co-Director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and one of our sleep advisors. “It is theoretically possible that you will have bad sleep inertia, but the complete lack of sleep is usually worse.” 

Heads-up: Sleep inertia is the grogginess you feel when you first wake up. More on how to shake it off soon. 

Opting for the two hours of sleep? Here’s what you need to know to make the most of this time asleep.

Time Your Nap Right 

Think about when you need to be “on” after taking the two-hour nap. 

Sleep inertia will feel worse when you’re sleep deprived, including when you’ve been awake for a long period of time before sleep. Keep this in mind if you need to wake up and be “on” straight away (like when napping during a night shift). 

If possible, give yourself about 30 to 90 minutes of buffer time to shake off sleep inertia before any important tasks. 

If you need to be your best ASAP, a 10-minute power nap may be better. 

One study compared naps of five, 10, 20, and 30 minutes after getting five hours sleep at night

The 10-minute nap was best, improving energy and performance immediately with some benefits lasting over two and a half hours. The 30-minute nap had the same benefit, but caused some grogginess. 

Napping later in the night may be better for morning performance. 

While napping at night is okay (research shows it doesn’t disrupt your circadian rhythm, or body clock), when you nap during the night can affect how you feel and perform the next day.

  • One study found a two-hour nighttime nap was better for morning performance than a one-hour nap. Nap timing didn’t affect performance, but participants slept more efficiently (aka less time awake during naptime) if they napped later in the night.
  • A 2019 study compared two-hour naps from 10 p.m. to midnight, midnight to 2 a.m., and 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. The next morning, participants were sleepier and performed worse with the 10 p.m. nap. compared to other nap times. 

If you’re napping during the day, think about your circadian rhythm. 

You have natural peaks and dips in energy as part of your circadian rhythm. These happen even when sleep deprived, although they’ll be lower than usual. It’s easier to fall asleep during a dip in energy, like during the afternoon.

Generally, we recommend avoiding naps too close to bedtime, as you may struggle to sleep that night. However, this won’t matter as much if you’ve just pulled an all-nighter or are about to pull one.

RISE predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when these peaks and dips in energy will be. You can make the most of the energy you have by doing your most challenging tasks during your peaks and using your dips in energy for easy tasks or taking a nap.

“I really love how [the RISE app] tells me the best time to wake up and go to sleep, as well as telling me when my energy highs and lows are and what kind of things I should be doing at those times to make the most of my day!” Read the review

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app can predict your circadian rhythm.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen here.  

Consider Splitting Your Nap Up 

A 2023 study compared taking one two-hour nap, two naps (one 90-minute nap and one 30-minute nap), and no naps during a night shift. Taking two separate naps resulted in less sleepiness in the early morning compared to taking one nap or skipping naps altogether.

Get More Sleep Later if You Can 

If you’ve only got two hours available now, try to get more sleep later on.

The same thinking applies no matter how much time you have. It’s better to get three hours of sleep than stay up all night and better to get one hour of sleep than none. Any sleep you can get will help you feel and perform better. But prioritize catching up on sleep when you can. There’s plenty of research showing markers like your mood and performance only bounce back after multiple nights of recovery sleep — or getting more sleep than you need to help you catch up.

Heads-up: Everyone needs a different amount of sleep. Check RISE to see how much sleep you need

Naps may not be as effective as you become more sleep deprived. A 2022 study found a 20-minute nap during a first night shift significantly improved cognitive performance. But the nap had no effect during a second night shift. 

This study didn’t look at what a longer nap could do, though, or how it could improve other factors, like your energy levels. 

Another 2022 study showed naps can be beneficial over slightly longer-term sleep deprivation. It found 90-minute naps helped lessen cognitive performance deficits when people got just five hours of sleep on weekdays for two weeks. However, performance only held steady at baseline levels for participants who got six and a half hours sleep and a 90-minute nap (i.e., when total time in bed across 24 hours more approximated an average sleep need). 

The research didn’t look at how effective these naps would be over a period of sleep deprivation longer than two weeks.

Expert tip: To get better sleep — whatever the amount — make sure your sleep environment is cool, dark, quiet, comfortable, and has the best air quality possible. 

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Should I Sleep a Full Sleep Cycle? 

When deciding whether to get two hours of sleep or none, don’t worry about sleep cycles. You can’t control them. 

Sleep cycles are the 70-to-120-minute cycles of sleep we move through each night. 

Each cycle is made up of four stages of sleep: 

  • Stage 1: When you first drift off. This stage only lasts a few minutes.  
  • Stage 2 or light sleep: Your breathing, heart rate, and brain activity slow down. This stage can last 10 to 25 minutes in the first sleep cycle and longer with each cycle. 
  • Stage 3 or deep sleep: Your immune system is strengthened and your brain activity produces patterns of slow brain waves. This stage lasts 20 to 40 minutes in the first sleep cycle and gets shorter with each cycle. 
  • Rapid-eye-movement sleep or REM sleep: Most muscles are paralyzed and your eyes move rapidly under your eyelids. This stage lasts one to five minutes in the first cycle and longer with each cycle. 

When you’re thinking about sleeping for two hours or not at all, you might be wondering whether to sleep for one full sleep cycle instead. It’s said you’ll feel less groggy if you wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, compared to midway through deep sleep, for example.

But, unfortunately, you can’t time your sleep to match your sleep cycles. 

Sleep cycles vary in length from person to person and can change from night to night and throughout the night. And it’s hard to track them — wearable devices aren't fully accurate. 

Plus, research is mixed on whether you’ll feel less groggy waking up from different sleep stages. And as you’re getting so little sleep, you’ll probably feel groggy anyway.

What Are the Risks of Not Getting Enough Sleep? 

The risks of not getting enough sleep include: 

Your energy, well-being, and performance will take a hit in the short term, and you’ll have an increased risk of long-term health issues. You can feel these side effects even if you get two hours of sleep as this is far less than what most of us need. 

Heads-up: Enough sleep looks different for everyone. Among 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, sleep needs (the amount of sleep you genetically need) ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. Use RISE to find out how much sleep you need.

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
How much sleep RISE users need.

If you regularly get poor sleep, get medical advice. A healthcare provider can check for underlying sleep disorders or health conditions.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here

How to Wake Up After 2 Hours of Sleep? 

You’ll probably feel sleepy after just two hours of sleep. Wake yourself up by exercising, getting out in sunlight, and drinking coffee. These tips can also help if you’ve pulled an all-nighter. 

  • Exercise: A 2021 study found 30 seconds of exercise after a two-hour nighttime nap helped participants shake off sleep inertia. High-intensity exercise was most effective, but low-intensity exercise also helped. 
  • Get out in sunlight: If it’s the morning, get out in sunlight for 10 minutes or 15 to 20 minutes if it’s overcast or you’re getting light through a window. This resets your circadian rhythm, setting you up for a good night’s sleep later that night. Get out in sunlight at the time you usually would each morning. Bright light at any time can boost alertness, and natural light is best. 
  • Drink coffee wisely: Coffee can perk you up, but be very careful how much you drink and when you drink it. The FDA recommends capping yourself at 400 milligrams (about four 8-ounce cups of coffee) a day to avoid adverse effects. You should try to avoid caffeine about 12 hours before bed, too.

Heads-up: One study found after being awake for 18 to 20 hours, you have the same cognitive impairments as you do with a blood alcohol level of 0.1%, which is over the legal limit for driving in every state. If possible, avoid driving, manual work, and doing any dangerous activities on no or little sleep. 

Check RISE to see when your energy peaks will be and schedule any important tasks for this time. 

We’ve covered more on how to function on no sleep here, which applies to both getting two hours of sleep or none.

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How to Catch Up on Sleep? 

Whether you went for the two-hour nap or the all-nighter, you’re going to build up sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body. 

You can function on two hours of sleep, but you won’t be functioning anywhere near your best without the hours of rest you need. 

Pay back sleep debt as soon as you can to improve your energy, productivity, and physical and mental health. 

Do this by: 

  • Heading to bed a little earlier 
  • Sleeping in a little later
  • Improving your sleep hygiene (to make your sleep more efficient) 
  • Taking afternoon naps

We usually recommend keeping afternoon naps short, but if you’re severely sleep deprived, longer naps might be necessary and they won’t be as disruptive to your nighttime sleep.

RISE can tell you how much sleep debt you have and keep track as you lower it. 

We’ve covered more tips on catching up on sleep here. 

Expert tip: If you know you’ve got an all-nighter or a two-hour night of sleep coming up, lower your sleep debt beforehand. This can help you function better afterwards and you’ll have less sleep to catch up on. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app works out how much sleep debt you have.

To get the best shut-eye possible when catching up — and always — focus on your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the set of daily habits that help or hurt your sleep. 

RISE can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day, such as when to stop drinking coffee, stop eating, and when to get and avoid bright light. 

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep hygiene reminders
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep debt here and set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here.

Some Sleep Is Better Than No Sleep 

Most of the time, some sleep is better than none. If you’re choosing between two hours (or any amount of sleep) or an all-nighter, go for the sleep. 

You may wake up groggy, but you won’t be at your best without any sleep, either. 

RISE can predict your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when’s best to get some sleep and when you’ll have more energy. And the app can help you get a full night’s rest when you can. 

You can get back to your best fast — 80% of users say they feel more energy within five days.

FAQs

About Our Editorial Team

Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.

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