The Ultimate Guide to Power Napping

Tattooed woman power napping on a sofa.

At a Glance

  • A power nap is a short daytime sleep approximately 20 minutes in duration
  • There are numerous benefits to taking power naps, and these are becoming increasingly recognized as beneficial to individuals’ health and to the work efficiency of employees.
  • There are right and wrong ways to power nap, and following our power napping tips, detailed below, will make sure you feel the full benefits that power naps have to offer.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2013, American adults manage to get an average of around 6.8 hours of sleep per night. (source)

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults should get between seven and nine hours sleep every night. This means that 40 percent of Americans are regularly not getting enough sleep.

Historically associated with very young children, naps have not been considered a normal part of adult culture in the US – until recent years.

There is a growing body of research to suggest that power naps can be a highly beneficial addition to our regular daily routine.

Following a growing trend, many employers are now recognizing the value of power naps, with some of the larger companies providing sleep pods and dedicated rooms for relaxation and power naps.

What Is Power Napping?

A power nap is a short sleep taken during the day which revitalizes and refreshes the mind and body. The most important point about a power nap is that it we need to wake before the onset of deep sleep.

To explain further, let’s look at how sleep works:

Sleep Patterns

Sleep is actually a series of events which occur in a cyclical pattern through the sleep period.

When we first fall asleep, we begin with a sleep phase called non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM), which, on average lasts for approximately 60 minutes. As developments in technology have allowed us to study brain activity during sleep in more depth, we now know that the NREM phase can be divided into three further parts:

N1 – In this stage, your eyes are closed, but it’s easy to wake up with very little disturbance. This phase or NREM sleep lasts on average for between five and ten minutes.

N2 – This phase of NREM sleep is characterized by light sleep. Heart rate and body temperature begin to decrease as your body gets ready for deep sleep. This stage usually lasts for between 10 and 25 minutes.

N3 – The third stage of NREM is also known as slow-wave or deep sleep. The brain gradually becomes less aware of and less responsive to stimuli that would easily cause waking in the previous two phases. This stage usually lasts for approximately 20 to 40 minutes, and waking up during this phase would make you feel groggy and slightly disorientated.

During the progression through the NREM sleep phases, brain waves have been shown to become slower and more regular, and research has shown that the body starts to initiate healing and repair processes, build new muscle and bone tissue, and strengthens the immune system.

After the first phase of N3 in a normal night’s sleep, experts have observed a second phase of N2 sleep before we enter the rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep phase, where very deep sleep and dreaming normally occurs. REM sleep makes up approximately 25 percent of our total sleep, and periods of REM sleep lengthen as the night’s sleep progresses. This sleep cycle continues throughout the night. (source)

The Sleep Cycle and Power Napping

The aim of a power nap is to benefit from a short rest period of a combination of the N1 and N2 NREM sleep phases, but avoid progression into the N3 and REM phases. A good quality power nap should last between 20 and 30 minutes, with the exact timing varying between individuals.

If you have a natural tendency to fall asleep very quickly, aim to time your power nap at the shorter end of the range. If it usually takes you a little while to settle into sleep, allow yourself slightly longer.

Types of Power Naps

According to the National Sleep Foundation, daytime naps generally fall into one of three categories:

Planned Naps – where a nap is taken as a regular part of a daily routine before the person feels drowsy or has difficulty focusing on tasks. This technique is often used when the person knows that they will have less time to sleep later in the day, or for example, when employees working on a project know that they will be doing a significant amount of overtime later on.

Emergency napping – when the person experiences tiredness or lack of focus during the day and feel unable to continue with an activity. An example of this is pulling over during a long drive and taking a nap to reduce the chances of being involved in an accident. In the workplace, this technique is particularly useful for employees who regularly operate heavy machinery.

Habitual napping is when a person has a scheduled nap at the same time every day. For example, if you know you feel drowsy after lunch, or recognize that you are not at your most productive at mid-afternoon, you might choose to take a regular short nap to get you back on track. (source)

The Benefits of Power Naps

Woman in sunglasses taking a nap in the woods on a bench.

Research has highlighted many benefits of power naps, both to the individual and to employers in terms of increasing employee efficiency, satisfaction and well-being.

Increases Mental Alertness and Performance

NASA was one of the first organizations to identify the benefits of power napping. They conducted a study on the effects of napping for 25 minutes a day, and found that it resulted in superior performance and alertness in pilots.

They also observed that napping for longer periods resulted in decreased performance immediately following waking. (source)

Other studies have observed the effects of napping on doctors and other medical staff who work on night shifts. One trial involved participants napping for 25 minutes mid-shift. Their motor skills were tested towards the end of their shift and compared with another group of participants who didn’t have a power nap.

The power nap group was able to demonstrate better performance, perform clinical tasks more efficiently, and felt less tiredness than the other group. (source)

Promotes Good Heart Health

In a research paper presented to the European Society of Cardiology, Dr. Manolis Kallistratos, an eminent cardiologist presented the findings of his study of the effect of midday sleep on blood pressure in people with hypertension.

The findings of this research indicated that there was an average 5 percent decrease in the blood pressure of participants who slept during the day when compared to study participants who did not.

While this appears to be a small difference, Dr. Kallistratos pointed out that a reduction of 2 percent can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 10 percent, resulting in a total potential decrease of up to 25 percent.

In addition, the study suggested that people who nap have less damage in their arteries, and needed fewer antihypertensive medications compared with people who don’t take a nap, and so reduce the potential side effects from some medications. (source)

Reduces Cell Damage

Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep has been found to cause oxidative stress in body tissue on a cellular level. Oxidative stress has been shown to increase cell toxicity, negatively affect gene expression and increase cellular inflammation and the risk of cancer. (source)

The cells which have been found to be particularly vulnerable are those in the lungs, liver and small intestine. Scientific studies have shown that recovering some lost sleep facilitates the body in healing and renewing damaged cells when compared with subjects who remain sleep deprived. (source)

Increased Memory and Learning Power

Research also indicates that power naps can improve performance in terms of learning ability – even for naps as short as ten minutes. (source)

One study investigated the effect of a nap involving only NREM sleep on the ability to learn to navigate a route through a 3D maze, and found that participants who took a nap were able to learn more easily and perform much better than participants who didn’t nap. (source)

Decreases Stress and Boosts Immunity

The endocrine system involves many different organs, and is responsible for secreting hormones and other chemicals in the body to regulate cell functions, including growth, sexual development and function, metabolism, the immune system and in mediating our physiological responses to stress.

In recent years, scientists have started to investigate the effect of napping on the endocrine system, and in particular, for its effects on our neuroendocrine stress and immune system responses.

One such study observed one group of participants and found that limiting their sleep for two nights produced significant increases in biological markers which signal increased stress levels and poor immune system function.

Under the same conditions, but with the addition of two 30 minute power naps following the restricted night’s sleep, the same subjects displayed no increase in their biological markers, suggesting a highly beneficial effect of power naps. (source)

The Negative Effects of Power Naps

For all the benefits conferred by power naps, there are some points to be aware of.

Some research indicates that napping for more than 30 minutes, or taking frequent naps may be associated with higher rates of disease and mortality. (source)

Napping in the daytime may not be an option for everyone. If you already have trouble sleeping at night, a power nap may make the problem worse, especially if taken later during the day.

Some people may not be comfortable sleeping when they’re not in their own bed, or may feel it’s unprofessional to take a nap at work. Despite the hard factual evidence to the contrary, napping in the daytime may still be seen by some as lazy. It is possible that in some situations, attempting to power nap could increase anxiety.

If people accidentally oversleep on their power nap, they may enter the deeper sleep phases, and end up feeling groggy and disorientated – known as sleep inertia – which may impair their performance rather than improving it.

How To Power Nap

Man napping on a wooden bench outdoors.

As we have seen, there is most certainly a right and wrong way to power nap. Following our power napping tips will make sure your power nap gives you the optimum effect and makes sure you avoid the pitfalls:

Plan Your Nap in the Afternoon

Even a bad or short night’s sleep will generally get us through the morning. Most people experience difficulty concentrating and feel less productive during the afternoon, especially a little while after eating lunch, when our parasympathetic nervous system diverts much of our energy to the digestive system to help process the food we have eaten.

When planning your power nap, take note of how you feel during your working day. If you notice, for example, that you regularly feel tired and have difficulty concentrating on your work at around 2-3pm, plan your nap for around 2pm if possible.

Choose a Place Where You Feel Comfortable

While this is easier said than done in some circumstances, it is important to find somewhere you feel comfortable. If you happen to have a sofa in your office, close the door, and lie down in a comfortable position.

Relax back into your office chair, put your head on the desk, keep a pillow in the office to use as support – do whatever feels comfortable for you.

If you’re lucky enough to work for an organization that provides sleep pods or relaxation areas, don’t be afraid to use them! They are there because employers have done their homework, and recognize that allowing you to have a nap during your work time makes you a better, happier and more productive employee.

Consider Room Temperature

For optimum power napping, you need to make sure you’re not too warm, but not too cold either. If you have control over the temperature in your chosen power nap spot, setting it to around 18⁰C is about right for most people. Consider keeping a blanket in your workplace, or use your jacket if you’re too cold.

Avoid Disruptions

Again, this can be difficult to do, but turning off your desktop computer or laptop, muting the volume on your phone, or diverting phone calls can help to give you that little bit of undisturbed time.

If you have a colleague who would also like to enjoy the benefits of power napping, it’s worth thinking about making a deal with them that you protect each other’s nap time, and make sure the other isn’t disturbed.

Set an Alarm

As we have discussed, it’s important to make sure you don’t enter the deep sleep phases when you power nap, as this will make you feel groggy, disorientated and less energized when you wake. Use an alarm to make sure you don’t sleep for longer than is helpful.

Don’t be tempted to use the snooze function on your alarm – sleeping for longer – especially when you’ve only just woken up from a light sleep phase – makes it more likely that you will enter a deep sleep phase.

Somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes is about right for most people, but you may need to experiment with exact timings to find out what’s right for you.

Use a Power Nap App

There is a range of power nap apps available that guide you through your power nap, and provide music recording and relaxation techniques, like this one. If you use a power nap app, make sure your phone is on airplane mode!

Use Gentle Music

Music has a variety of different effects on the body. Whether you prefer dolphin or whale music, classical music or any other type, some soft, gentle, soothing music can help you to relax and get into the mood for a power nap. If you’re not one of those people who can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, try music to see if it helps you.

Use a Sleeping Mask

If it’s difficult to find a spot with low lighting for your power nap, consider using a sleeping mask to block out light and help you sleep. It may feel strange at first, but you do get used to it, and blocking out light can help your body adjust more quickly to the idea that it’s about to get some sleep.

If You Can’t Sleep, Don’t Stress

It will probably take time for your body to adjust to having a power nap if you’re not used to it, so don’t be surprised if you don’t sleep at first. Research shows that simply relaxing without sleeping gives some health benefits.

The most important thing is not to get stressed because you’re not sleeping in your power nap time, and don’t give up. Your body is likely to get used to it and respond accordingly after a period of adjustment.

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