How to Take the Perfect Nap

9 minute read

A former boss once assigned me to the only office on our floor with a column right down the middle. She apologized, but I quickly sensed my advantage. Positioning my desk behind this eyesore, I could nap after lunch without detection, head angled toward my computer screen in case someone walked in. These covert catnaps were less about laziness than productivity. They transformed me from lunch-laden zombie to fully functional human—and a better employee.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a personal napping column. But stigma around napping in American workplaces is slowly changing, in light of the growing recognition that sleep (even the daytime kind) can help productivity. One in five Americans now nap on the job. “Napping might be where nighttime sleep was 25 years ago,” says writer Daniel Pink, author of WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, which extols the virtues of napping. Some employers are realizing, “maybe napping isn’t a sign of weakness,” Pink says. 

In fact, research suggests your workday siesta builds several strengths, including brain health. In our early 20s, the brain starts shrinking, which increases dementia risk and slows cognition. In nappers, though, brain size is better preserved, according to this 2023 study, possibly because naps can reduce anxiety. “We aren’t sure of the mechanisms, but there’s a strong link between stress and dementia,” says Victoria Garfield, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool who co-authored the paper. Research also shows that napping supports heart health and boosts cognition, creativity, and memory. 

Here’s how to perfect your nap to reap the benefits.

Seize the daytime dip

It’s important to time your nap when you start getting tired but well before evening, so it won’t steal any zzzs from your overnight slumber. For most people, this Goldilocks zone is from 1 to 4 p.m. “That’s when we have a natural dip in our alertness,” says Charlene Gamaldo, professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

You may get more benefits from naps when they’re taken consistently—daily, if possible—and at the same time each afternoon, plus or minus 30 minutes, Gamaldo says. This way, you’re more likely to actually sleep during the nap and fall asleep again later that night, as our bodies come to expect this routine. “We’re rhythmic animals,” says Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Irvine. “Whenever you’re learning an activity, doing it regularly helps.”  And the plusses of daily napping are cumulative for brain health, whereas any one nap has a small effect, Garfield says. 

You could also time your nap before making an important choice. “Naps help us solve problems and make better decisions,” says Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and author of The Sleep Revolution. “They’re a tool that every leader should use when needed.”

Find your magic window

Gamaldo recommends napping for 20-40 minutes, which can improve cognitive function and performance. It’ll be a satisfying snooze, yet it’s short enough to avoid deep sleep, which is harder to wake from. She calls this length the “magic” window.

Read More: 4 Signs Your Body Is Telling You It's Time to Take a Break

Some research points to shorter, 15-20 minute naps. The right length may depend on your fatigue level and the unique way your brain shuts down for sleep, Garfield adds.

Mednick thinks longer daytime dozing is underrated. If you rest through the deep-sleep stage, your brain will cycle back to lighter sleep after about 60 minutes. At that point, waking up is easier, you’ll feel more rested with better emotional control, and you won’t sacrifice any sleep later on. “When people regularly take longer naps, their nighttime sleep is similar to non-nappers,” Mednick says—so the extra rest is a bonus, instead of taking away from nighttime shut-eye. She suggests increasing your duration gradually over several weeks to get used to it.

Relax before you rest

Pre-gaming your naps with progressive muscle relaxation can improve the quality of your rest. The technique involves contracting and relaxing muscles throughout the body while focusing on your breathing. 

Autogenic meditation is another approach that could serve as a useful warmup to napping, Mednick says.  With this type of meditation, you conjure mental images that induce peaceful feelings, such as heaviness in your limbs, aimed at destressing the nervous system. “These are ways of slowing down your physiology to help you access a state that is deeply restorative,” says Mednick, who also authored The Power of the Downstate.

Delphine Oudiette, a neuroscientist who researches sleep, dreams, and creativity at the Paris Brain Institute, recommends experimenting over a weekend with different strategies and timeframes. “Just see if you feel regenerated or not,” she says. 

Build a nap pod

Take pride in cultivating the perfect environment for daytime rejuvenation. Many veteran nappers have a dedicated napping couch, which their bodies learn to associate with daytime sleep. Pink wears a sleep mask, earplugs, and sometimes headphones over the earplugs. “It’s my poor man’s nap pod,” he explains. “I like the full immersion.” Gamaldo advises her patients to “simulate a cool dark cave.”

You may prefer to nap under a soft light, so your body senses it’s still daytime, potentially making the nap less intrusive on evening sleep. Most importantly, keep your ambiance consistent if possible, whether it’s your couch, car or cubicle. “You want similar cues around you each time,” Mednick says.

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Adam Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and visiting research fellow at Outer Coast College who focuses on sleep and dreams, plays thunderstorm recordings as an audio cue that it’s naptime, but you can learn to associate just about any soundtrack with napping. Horowitz used to play his ukulele before sleeping, he told me—and yawned at the thought of it.

Clear your nap area of any gadgets buzzing with afternoon notifications, advises Huffington. At Thrive Global, she encourages employees to use a designated nap room. 

Before putting her phone away, though, Huffington uses it to play her Thrive Reset (a tool on Thrive’s platform) with photos, music, and quotes that bring calm and joy while breathing deeply. “Just 60 seconds of breathing has a dramatic effect” on reducing fight-or-flight mode while nurturing nap mode, she says.

Caffeinate before your nap

Before napping, set yourself up for success afterward. It sounds counterintuitive, but drinking some coffee beforehand can invigorate you when you wake up (especially if combined with zippy wake-up music). Metabolizing caffeine takes about 30 minutes, the length of a nap, so your rested feeling after waking up will be amplified by the caffeine jolt, according to some research. Pink takes it a step further: drinking coffee right after waking up, in addition to before. “I’ll admit to working both sides of it,” he says. (Experiment to find what works best for you: Avoid afternoon coffee if it disrupts your nighttime sleep.)

Instead of engineering an energy blast when waking up, you may want to just try to ensure you can get to sleep during the nap. Teas with ginseng, blue lotus, or mugwort may help with inducing sleepiness, Horowitz says, though the effects vary from person to person. Avoid spicy foods and sugary carbs; acid reflux and blood glucose crashes don’t make for pleasant wakeups.

Hack your creativity

New research in napping points to an old trick for creativity: Thomas Edison liked to hold a steel ball while napping. As he nodded off, the ball would fall and hit the floor. The sound woke him in a dreamy state, providing unique windows into his subconscious that sparked new ideas. Oudiette, the researcher in Paris, studied this strategy in modern-day nappers. She found that falling asleep for just 15 seconds, before the ball drop, tripled their chances of solving a math problem requiring creative insight.

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But you may not need the ball trick. Just napping with an alarm set for 60 minutes or a bit longer leads to a 40% increase in creativity, Mednick has found. “There’s this space between wake and deep sleep where these interesting ideas are bopping around, and we can maneuver inside there,” she says. An amateur musician, Mednick was recently struggling to write a song. Just before napping, she reviewed the elements she wanted to include. After she got up, the song flowed right out.

In a study last year, Horowitz tested his own technology for nurturing sleep-related creativity. As study participants fell asleep, this device verbally prompted them to dream about trees. Post-nap, they wrote more creative stories about trees, compared to control groups. Napping opens up some helpful distance between you and the problem you’re working on, similar to gleaning insights after taking a walk or shower—but napping is “an intensified form of mind wandering,” Horowitz says. .

Rest to learn, and learn to rest

Studies show that naps can boost memory and learning, regardless of how often you take them. Gamaldo recommends naps when cramming for college exams. Reviewing test materials and then napping “will cement your knowledge,” she advises, especially if you revisit the info after waking up. Naps also help with recalling learned skills.

Not everyone needs to nap. Oudiette doesn’t. “When I’m tired, I just like to close my eyes,” she says. “It’s helpful even for two minutes.” The biggest thing is taking time to rest, no matter how. “You could lie down and stare at the ceiling,” she says, “but you’re not on your laptop or phone. 

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