Nap Your Way to Success

Thomas Edison did it all the time. So did Winston Churchill. And just about every one of us had childhood training to be a star in the field. What field is that? Why, napping, of course. Yet despite these famous examples and early practice, most of us would never dream of napping on a regular basis – or admitting it if we did. Feeling drowsy an hour or so after lunch? That’s why Web 2.0 invented wireless in coffee shops!

As a confirmed napper myself, I’m here to tell you that you’re missing out. The right afternoon nap, 8 hours or so after you get up in the morning, can leave you refreshed and energized for the rest of the day. Call it a “power nap” if you’re feeling trendy, or a “catnap” if you’re more traditional. The idea is the same in either case: to derive the maximum benefit from the minimum sleep.

The key is to recognize that sleep isn’t a simple on-0ff switch, but a set of cycles. A typical sleep cycle includes five to ten minutes of falling asleep, then another ten minutes or so of light, restful sleep. Then comes an hour or more of deep and dreamless “slow-wave sleep” followed by a quick period of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, when the most vivid dreams occur. All told, a single sleep cycle takes most people 90 to 120 minutes.

If your nap includes just the first two stages, you get the rest without the dazed feeling that can come from being awakened from slow-wave sleep. So for most people, a 15 or 20 minute nap is good, a 90 or 120 minute nap (a full cycle) is good, but in between is much less restful. It’s those short naps that are the energizing power naps that we nap addicts go on about.

Some tips, based on my own experience of using catnaps to survive a crazy work schedule and a house full of kids:

  • Use a timer to make sure that you only nap for as long as you intend. If your cel phone has a loud alarm, great. Otherwise invest the five bucks in a kitchen timer. Get up as soon as the alarm goes off.
  • Experiment to find your own optimum nap length (mine is 16 minutes). Start around 12 minutes, and increase by 1 minute as a time until the naps start leaving you less rather than more refreshed. Then dial back by a few minutes. Remember, the goal is to energize yourself, not to sneak away for a long time.
  • Train yourself to fall asleep quickly. There are any number of self-hypnosis techniques for this. I like breathing as slowly as possible, and counting each breath, starting from 100 backwards. That’s just enough concentration to get my brain to stop worrying about the next e-mail that it has to send, without being so mentally taxing as to keep it awake.
  • If you don’t fall asleep easily, try to arrange for a dark, quiet place – or at least for eyeshades and earplugs. (But make sure you can hear your alarm through the earplugs!)
  • Lay off the caffeine. If you jangle your nerves up too much, you won’t be able to nap at all. Lunchtime is a good point to switch to decaf.
  • If you feel groggy post-nap, splash some water on your face or exercise for a few minutes – and cut your nap down by a minute or two next time.

True nap fanatics like to cite all sorts of benefits to power naps, from increased creativity to enhanced coordination to higher brain activity. In truth, the scientific literature is mixed on this, and you can trot out studies on either side of the argument. If you’re systematically depriving yourself of sleep at night, it seems unlikely that an afternoon nap is going to be the entire answer. Be that as it may, I’m happy just knowing from personal experience that one well-timed 16-minute nap can save me from 4 hours of yawning at my desk. That’s all the reason I need.