A catnap might sound like the ultimate indulgence. Yet it’s a natural part of daily life for people in many cultures, not to mention more than 85% of other mammals. If you’re chronically overworked and under-rested, however, you’ll probably want to make every minute of your nap count. And if you’re a science junkie, you’ll undoubtedly want to ensure that your napping technique has the scientific stamp of approval. So just for you, here’s a snore-by-snore guide to the most efficient, most effective naptime ever.
Step 1. Give yourself permission.
If you've been perfecting your napping form for years, you can skip this step. But if you haven’t napped on a regular basis since preschool, you might have some lingering doubts about whether napping is really a productive use of your grown-up time. Rest assured: It is. In healthy, non-elderly adults, research has shown that naps can:
Step 2. Choose your time.
Nap too early, and your body may not be ready to sleep yet. Nap too late, and you may find it harder to fall asleep at your usual bedtime. For most people, an early afternoon naptime—starting somewhere between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.—is optimal. Napping at this time can help counter the classic post-lunch dip in energy and alertness.
Step 3. Pick your place.
If you can nap lying down on a couch or bed, that’s ideal. Not surprisingly, in a recent study from China, napping in bed was more refreshing than napping in a seat. But if you’re stuck at your desk or on a bus, it’s not a total loss. Both groups of nappers in the study experienced less sleepiness, decreased fatigue and an improved mood, compared to those who didn’t nap at all.
Step 4. Make yourself comfy.
Say sí to siesta with a restful environment. Make it as quiet and dark as possible by shutting the door, turning off the phone, switching off the lights and closing the blinds. The room temperature should be comfortable but not too toasty, which might make you oversleep.
Step 5. Gather your gear.
When napping away from home, a small pillow and light blanket may help you get cozy. If you can’t make the room dark and quiet, use a sleep mask and earplugs instead. Or put on earphones and tune into relaxing sounds, such as the Pzizz soundtrack for napping, which improved people’s sense of post-nap well-being in a study from New Zealand. If you need to be wide awake immediately after napping, drink a cup of coffee or can of caffeinated soda right before dozing off. The caffeine will kick in 20 to 30 minutes later—just in time to wake up.
Step 6. Grab 20 winks (not 40).
Think short. For healthy, young adults, research indicates that the ideal nap length is only 10 to 20 minutes. Such short naps boost alertness and performance without leaving you groggy afterward or interfering with your sleep that night. In contrast, naps lasting longer than a half-hour can cause sleep inertia—a sense of grogginess and disorientation that may linger for several minutes after awakening from a deep sleep. To ensure that you don’t snooze too long, set an alarm.
P.S. The Zzz-less Nap
Don’t worry if you can’t always fall asleep at naptime. As long as you don’t stress out over it, the rest and relaxation will still do you good. In fact, a study by British researchers found that just lying down with the intention of napping was enough to cause a drop in blood pressure.
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master’s degree in psychology. She's author of Stress Control for Peace of Mind (Main Street, 2005) and the Encyclopedia of Depression (Greenwood, 2010).