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The case for taking a midday nap, according to experts

Here’s why you should opt for a 20-minute snooze over another cup of coffee when you’re working from home.

The case for taking a midday nap, according to experts
[Photo: :jacoblund/iStock]
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During the pandemic, many of our sleep schedules have completely changed. Workers are sleeping more hours, but often this sleep is not entirely restful, with bad dreams and unsettled emotions disturbing a healthy snooze.

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Taking a nap can help you get through the day and offer a natural rejuvenation right after lunch, when that afternoon slump sets in. We spoke with two experts who made the case for taking an effective midday nap while working from home during the pandemic.

 The best conditions for a nap

It’s important to focus on two attributes of your nap—the length, and the impetus behind the nap. According to our experts, the optimal length should clock somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

“Sleep is comprised of two main states, REM and non-REM sleep. REM is when you’re dreaming, and non-REM is basically when you’re not getting REM sleep. And non-REM is further broken down into stages [including] N1, N2, and N3,” explains Eileen Leary, a sleep scientist and Ph.D. from Stanford School of Medicine, who has studied sleep for two decades.

These stages operate like walking down individual steps, bringing you to increasingly deeper levels of sleep. If you go too deep when napping, you may come out feeling more confused and out of it than rested.

Have you ever woken from a nap and feel groggy or like you’re moving through cement? Leary says you’ve entered into a stage of sleep that is reserved for a complete night’s sleep. “These feelings mean you’ve napped for too long, and you’re waking up out of N3.” says Leary.

It’s appropriate to nap is when you need a quick refreshment to reinvigorate yourself and clear your mind. If you are napping after an all-nighter, like a college student after a study binge, or from waking up in the middle of the night to hop on a cross-time-zone call, these are legitimate reasons to nap. But, says Leary, if you feel you may suffer from a sleep disorder or don’t sleep consistently through the night, a nap may not be your answer. “Where we begin to get concerned about naps is [when] somebody literally can’t keep their eyes open, because they’re so exhausted during the day,” says Leary. In these cases, it’s time to properly treat a sleep disorder, rather than trying to patch over a medical problem with a series of naps.

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The optimal time in the day to lay down your head to rest is between noon and 4 p.m., says Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Medical School. “Anything later than that or anything after dinner might negatively affect your sleep. But if you are absolutely exhausted, it’s not a bad idea.”

It’s also important to note that sleep patterns can differ from person-to-person. Some people may struggle with sleep disorders—such as forms of sleep apnea—and people may also require different levels of sleep, depending on individual levels of sleep deprivation and biological factors, like age.

What are the benefits of napping?

Besides the obvious benefit of helping you feel more well-rested, a brief nap has plenty of positive effects. A nap can relax you, improve your mood and temperament, as well as refresh you for improved performance afterwards.

A nap helps you reduces a sleep-science concept called your homeostatic sleep drive, which slowly builds up, linearly, the longer you are awake. “You really get to wipe that slate clean,” says Robbins. She often recommends naps to professional athletes, prior to big games. “[Naps] can increased focus and that feeling of being in the zone.”

A nap, and adequate sleep in general, will make you quicker on with reaction times. Grabbing some brief shut-eye can reinvigorate you so you are better equipped you are to absorb knowledge. “[Sleeping] can also consolidate your memory,” says Leary. “Sleep and mood and memory are very highly associated. The more well-rested you are, the better your mood, and also the more prepared you are to learn.”

Many cultures have a norm of taking afternoon naps, usually after lunch. This kind of sleep refreshment is unique to certain cultures and environmental factors, but also fits with the ebb and flow of  human beings’ circadian rhythms, or our body’s natural internal clock. However, if you suffer from a sleep disorder or feel your sleep schedule is already irregular, taking a nap may harm more than help.

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Tips for napping

To get the most out of your brief sleep, carve out a space that is inviting and separate from other responsibilities. Robbins suggests closing the blinds, surrounding yourself with cozy bedding and visuals. During the shorter and colder winter days, a brief, warming nap may prove more tempting than a cup of coffee.

It’s important that your home’s equivalent of a “nap pod,” live apart from other leisure and work areas, since creating these associations will, ironically, only impede your sleep.

“If you start to work, sleep, and watch Netflix in bed, your brain gets confused,” says Robbins. “And that’s where we can develop insomnia.”

For nap skeptics, Robbins recommends embracing snack-size amounts of rest, which can amaze you in their almost instantaneous benefits. Also, you shouldn’t feel pressure to sleep for a strict amount of time (remember—the key is to refresh yourself, not to work yourself up).

“Do not stress about whether you’re sleeping the full 20 minutes,” says Robbins. “Even if you close your eyes and get a little bit of shut-eye, that’s going to confer some benefits, in terms of refreshment and an ability to power through the afternoon.”

About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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