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I keep farmer’s hours, getting up at 5:30 to squeeze in a workout and feed my horse. While I love having a few ping-free hours before the content mill that is journalism churns to life, 0-dark-30 wakeup times result in drowsy afternoons. Around 2 p.m., after my sandwich has been devoured, I often find myself glassy-eyed and refreshing Twitter ad nauseam. Worse, by the end of the workday, I tend to be overtaken by sloth and skip out on the gym or cut my interval session short.
Researchers have long known that while occasional sleep deprivation may not affect things like an athlete’s max power for a single effort, it does impact an athlete’s mood and attitude. As a recreational cyclist, runner, and occasional triathlete, I don’t really care about how high my max power is at any given moment, but I do care that I keep giving up on my workouts. The good news is that naps appear to be good for athletes. A 2007 study found that athletes had improved sprint performances in workouts after a 30-minute snooze.
Plus, emerging research is showing short naps can boost work productivity, too. “Napping for just 20 minutes may provide ample benefits, including improved alertness, mood, and vigilance,” says Aarthi Ram, MD, a sleep neurologist at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital. It may even help you learn more efficiently. In a 2002 study published in 2002 study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers saw improved learning among a group who took a nap between teaching sessions versus those that did not.
A nap seemed like it might be the solution to my post-lunch lethargy and workout wussiness. And since I work from home, there was nothing stopping me. I waste a good 30 minutes a day (probably more if we’re being honest) rabbit hole-ing through the Internet, so why not repurpose those squandered minutes into a few gasps of actual rest?
The ideal nap interval is 20 minutes, says Christopher Lindholst, a sleep expert who is so fanatical about naps he founded MetroNaps, a company that makes cozy sleep pods for offices. Sleeping longer than 20 minutes allows your body to enter into a deeper sleep. While that’s a good thing at night when you need to catch your REM cycles, during the day it may result in grogginess.
Of course, I didn’t know this handy fact when I snuggled in for my first siesta. I gave myself 45 minutes and woke up wondering what day it was. It took a cup of coffee and a bunch of mindless Facebook cruising before I was alert enough to work again.
On day two I dialed back my timer to 15 minutes. Unfortunately, I spent the first 11 minutes worrying I wouldn’t fall asleep before my phone chirped. I returned to work feeling about the same as if I hadn’t lain down at all.
On day three I toggled the timer up to 23 minutes, which gave me time to actually drift off, plus a few solid minutes of sleep. I also reminded myself that just lying peacefully in bed for 23 minutes had benefits, even if I didn’t actually get to the point of drooling on my pillowcase. I awoke feeling rested and ready. I’d found my magic number.
As I started to get into my nap groove, things really did get better for me. I normally do all my writing in the morning, when my brain is more of an al dente, versus the mush it turns to by 3 pm. But after a nap, I found I could actually stitch words and ideas together in a (mostly) coherent way. My productivity felt less stilted, with long stretches of checking things off my to-do list all day long. Best of all, when quitting time hit, I didn’t feel as morose about my upcoming workout. I started lifting weights again—something I tend slack on, especially if I’ve ridden or run that morning.
Not everything was perfect, of course. There were days when stacked deadlines made an extra 23 minutes tacked onto my lunch break impossible. On those afternoons, I realized I’d become addicted my new mid-afternoon tradition. The come-hither glances my queen bed threw my way were almost too much to bear. I also developed the not-ideal habit of resetting my alarm for another 20 minutes after my first nap was up. As good as naps could be for my productivity, there were days where I blasted through an hour (or more) of work time because I lacked the discipline to hop out of bed on my first try.
Towards the end of my experimental month, I found my golden ticket for napping: The coffee nap. Researchers have shown that drinking caffeine right before lying down for a short nap results in fewer work mistakes than just drinking coffee or taking a break or rest alone. The idea is that your body processes the caffeine during the nap, so you wake totally alert. Now I finish lunch with a cup of coffee, set my alarm, snooze peacefully for exactly 23 minutes, and wake up swinging.