If you need to sharpen your attention or boost your creativity during the workday afternoon, skip the vending machine candy bar or trip to Starbucks and do what they do in preschool: put your head down and take a nap.
"The majority of us experience a post-lunch dip in alertness that corresponds to a drop in body temperature," says Natalie Dautovich, environmental scholar for the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). "Often, we try to rebound with sugar and caffeine, but the affect is intermittent and is followed by another drop in energy. A nap can increase energy and focus, and it doesn’t have the unwanted side effects."
Once a sign of laziness, napping is becoming a more accepted habit as people start prioritizing sleep in their daily lives due to its mental and physical benefits. While it won’t correct inadequate or poor nighttime sleep, a nap can boost your mood and performance. You’ll also be in good company: Bill Clinton, John D. Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and George W. Bush are all known to have valued an afternoon snooze.
The best time to nap is early afternoon, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. "Napping later than that can be problematic because you can start to meet some of your nighttime sleep needs and will be less sleepy when it’s time to go to bed," says Dautovich.
The longer you’re awake, the sleepier you feel. If you nap at 6 p.m., for example, you won’t have enough time in day to be awake to build up the need to sleep again.
While it can be tempting to shut your eyes and let yourself go, the length of your nap is key to getting its benefits. Dautovich says there are two good options: a brief 20-minute nap or a longer 60- to 90-minute nap.
"The brief nap will sharpen your attention and motor skills, and you’ll wake up refreshed," says Dautovich. "A longer nap helps with problem solving; you’ll feel more creative upon awakening."
Avoid naps with lengths between 30 and 60 minutes; you’ll wake up while you’re in a deeper stage of sleep and feel groggy, says Dautovich. If you sleep for more than an hour and a half you might wake in middle of sleep cycle and have sleep inertia. Set an alarm to stay within the proper range.
To find the best amount of time for your body, Dautovich says it’s helpful to keep a sleep journal, monitoring naps of different lengths and at different times to see how they relate to your wellness and your ability to sleep at night.
The ideal environment for sleep is one that dark, quiet, cool and comfortable, says Dautovich. "Whatever extent you can do to achieve those conditions in a work environment will help your ability to nap," she says. Close the blinds, shut the door, and try to minimize noise. Putting on a sound machine or introducing white noise, such as a fan, can help eliminate distracting sounds.
"We are very habitual creatures, and napping might not feel natural at first," says Dautovich. "But it’s a behavior that could become more familiar and learned over time."
Twenty-nine percent of workers battle sleepiness at work, and a lack of sleep costs the United States $63 billion each year in lost productivity, according to the NSF. Dautovich says that a recliner at the University of Alabama, where she is a professor of psychology, gets used by the staff for naps, and companies such as HubSpot, Huffington Post, Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos, Nike, and Google are all reported to have designated nap rooms.
"We’re starting to make a link in society between personal wellness and productivity," says Dautovich. "Sleep is a key component of our personal wellness. As we see more studies about sleep and work productivity, we could see an increase in companies that encourage taking a nap at work."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the National Sleep Foundation kept a recliner for napping; The recliner is located at the University of Alabama.