Sleeping outside of your regular schedule may seem counterintuitive to feeling well-rested, but all kinds of people sing the praises of a good nap—from sleep experts to entrepreneurs to new parents. The problem is that too long or short a nap can leave you more sleepy than you were before. If you're napping and not seeing the benefits, or you want to try it and ensure you wake up feeling fresh, we've got some tips.
Understand Sleep Cycles
To comprehend the most optimal nap for anyone, it’s important to know that a full sleep cycle consists of five phases and takes between 90 minutes and two hours. The third phase is where we start to enter a deeper sleep, waking from which causes grogginess, a.k.a sleep inertia.
So how long should a nap be? It’s best to either keep naps under 30 minutes to avoid entering deeper phases of sleep, or around 100 minutes to complete a full sleep cycle. The time it takes to enter different sleep phases can vary from person to person. If you’re aiming to incorporate short naps into your day, track your sleep to see where you usually enter the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) phase, and plan them to be just a little shorter than that.
Know Your Goals
To optimize your naps, you first need to understand why you're trying to sleep outside of your usual schedule. If you’re looking for a quick-fix for the afternoon slump, a short nap is an obvious solution; whereas if you’re looking to top-up your sleep because sleeping through the night is difficult, taking the time for a whole REM cycle would be best.
It also pays to be realistic about the time and environment you have available to you. As previously mentioned, under 30 minutes or over 90 will make the most of a nap, so if you have an hour, try to be disciplined about only taking a two-phase snooze. You can always use the rest of your time for something else that will feel refreshing: like stepping out for some fresh air or sending a couple of messages to people you’ve been meaning to contact.
Commit to Sleep
If you really want to get that shut-eye, you need to commit to it. That can be a lot for an afternoon: , switching devices off, getting rid of distractions. A lot of people have a hard time getting to sleep even when they are exhausted and it’s dark, so an afternoon nap may not come easy, but with practice, you will be able to get your 40 winks in. In the meantime, if you only get a little quiet (awake) relaxation, that's ok too. One thing that’ll help is creating a sleep-friendly environment.
Nap Early, Nap Often
Ok, so ‘often’ may be an exaggeration—although practice makes perfect—but napping earlier in the day is certainly less likely to interfere with your nighttime sleep. If you’re feeling sluggish, don’t wait for exhaustion to set in. Try to take naps before 3 pm so that you can stick to your regular sleep schedule.
Don't Hit Snooze
Assuming you don't want your nap to take you through the night, you'll need to set an alarm. Many sleep trackers have alarms that will wake you as you come out of a REM cycle so that you aren't woken from a deeper sleep abruptly. If you’re aiming for a full sleep cycle nap, this is probably your best option for waking up refreshed. If you have a shorter time set aside and you need a specific wake-up, set a gentle alarm, or wake up to noises that you find uplifting or calming.