Photo: DenisenFamily via Flickr
During the early 1900s, surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, developed a napping hack for generating his new creative ideas and staying productive with his work.
Dali would sit on a chair with one arm resting on the armrests and his wrists draped over the chair, whilst holding a heavy metal key in hand, held over an upside-down plate.
As soon as Dali would doze off and start to fall asleep, the key would fall from his hands, hit the plate and wake him up from his nap.
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In Dali’s words describing this method:
“You will have merely to let yourself be progressively invaded by a serene afternoon sleep …The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you.” (Source: “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”)
Decades later, this state of mind between sleep and the state of being awake, which Dali uncovered was later formally described as hypnagogia.
Just like Dali, other renown innovators, artists and writers including Thomas Edison, Beethoven and Mary Shelley, have tapped into the power of naps to give way for their best creative breakthroughs.
Let’s dive in to discuss and uncover the science behind how to nap for better productivity, creativity and health.
Why do we need to nap?
Firstly, the afternoon nap, more so than other methods of productivity, requires little to no effort to execute with similar benefits. Napping could help you overcome feelings of fatigue and raise your energy for the rest of the day, however, napping the wrong way could also leave you feeling even more groggy and waste valuable time.
Secondly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approximately one in three adults sleep below the National Sleep Foundations minimum requirement of 7 hours of sleep per night.
I have personally struggled to stay consistent with this requirement and just like most adults who are sleep deprived, taking a nap provides another opportunity during the day to catch up on sleep.
Thirdly, if you’ve ever wondered why you may feel energized and sleepy during the same times of the day, that’s because of your internal biological shifts between sleepiness and alertness in what is called the circadian rhythm.
Most people experience their biggest dip of energy levels in the middle of the night between 2:00 am and 4:00 am and just after lunchtime (between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm, when we usually crave that post-lunch nap).
The afternoon nap could also help you to counter these drops in energy levels during your circadian rhythm. This way you can more effectively match your peak energy levels with your most important tasks for improved productivity.
Afternoon naps and mental performance
Recently, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on the effects of naps on our mental health and memory. 
The researchers studied 3,000 adults to examine the relationship between the frequency and duration of naps and their performance on various mental ability tests.
These tests included basic tests including questions about the date, basic math problems, memorization and recall of words. In total, approximately 60 percent of the participants examined during the study took a nap after lunch, with an average nap time of 63 minutes.
The researchers discovered that higher memory abilities and mental performances were significantly associated with taking a nap post-lunch compared to the participants who didn’t nap at all.
Additionally, the participants who napped for approximately one hour (moderate group) performed better on these tests than participants who took shorter or longer naps.
Participants who took no naps, shorter or longer naps than one hour experienced decreased performance in their mental ability up to four-to-six times greater than participants who took hour-long naps.
These participants also experienced similar declines in their mental performance and abilities that a five-year increase in their age would be expected to cause.
The key findings from the study suggest that the absence of napping could be associated with weaker mental performance than otherwise. This study also suggests that the duration of your naps is strongly associated with the benefits you gain from it. Too long or too short, and you’d still end up without the benefits and feeling groggy.
Now that we’ve covered some of the science on napping, let’s discuss some practical strategies on how to take the perfect nap …
How to take the perfect nap
Here are some science-backed tips to use naps for better productivity, creativity and health.
1.Time the duration of your naps.
As previously discussed in the research study on napping, the duration of your naps is extremely important. According to various sleep experts, a power nap duration of 10 to 20 minutes should be enough to boost your energy and mental capabilities, whilst being short enough to fit into the work day without feeling groggy.
The reason behind this is that your sleep happens in cycles of approximately 90 minutes, moving from one stage to another and inducing slower brain wave activity in each stage.
Essentially, once you enter one of these “slow” stages of sleep you’ll struggle to wake up and experience the dreaded feeling of tiredness that you may have previously experienced.
If you’ve got more time i.e. 60-90 minutes, free in the afternoon, take advantage of this to get a full revolution through the sleep cycle and the additional mental performance benefits from this.
Don’t forget to take account for the non-nap period of time spent before the actual nap itself. It takes the average person approximately 14 minutes to fall asleep at night, so chances are if you’re like me, you probably won’t nap immediately.
Another quick tip here is to use your phone’s inbuilt timer to wake you up once your nap period is over.
2. Pick the right time during the day for napping.
As previously discussed, the best period to take a nap are during the low energy periods of your circadian rhythm. Typically, this would fall between the hours of 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. during the post-lunch energy dip.
The danger with napping after this time window is that you risk messing with your bedtime sleep cycle because your body may keep you up at night. So i’d suggest you pay close attention to your how your naps affect the quality of your sleep at night.
3. Practice napping.
Yes napping takes practice, it’s a skill. Plus, just like other things in life, napping is habit that takes time to form and establish in your daily rituals. Be intentional about what, where and when you plan to take your naps. Fit your naps into your daily schedule and keep a record of your progress as you would a workout journal.
If you struggle to nap quickly enough, you could use some deep breathing exercises like the “4-7-8” breathing technique to induce sleep faster.
4. Nap in a dark and quiet environment.
Ideally, the best conditions for napping would be dark and quiet, similar to those best for sleep. The problem is this; unless you work from home or have flexible working hours, it’s nearly impossible to find these type of places around your office or school in the afternoon.
The best ways I’ve found to counteract this problem is to invest in and use these two affordable items: an eye mask and a pair of headphones.
The eye mask will help you to shut out the light in any room you choose to nap, whilst my personal favorite use of the headphones is listening to calm music, podcasts or sermons during my nap.
5. Try the caffeinated nap.
I know you’re probably thinking that I made a typing error in the previous sentence, but there’s a weird trick which involves drinking a cup of coffee or a caffeinated drink, followed immediately by a 20-minute power nap.
As silly as this may sound, you could actually benefit from both the caffeine and the nap, because caffeine typically takes about 20 minutes to kick in your system.There’s a bit of science that could also explain why this works.
A chemical, adenosine (builds your desire to sleep) is released in the brain during the day. After you take a nap, adenosine clears out from your system and you’ll feel more energized.
Interestingly, caffeine molecules are similar in structure to adenosine molecules and as a result, adenosine receptors may be blocked by these molecules, preventing the real adenosine molecules (that make you feel tired) plugging into the receptors.
In short, the combination of the nap and caffeine, could make you feel more alert and energetic. However, I’d recommend you only use this method as a last resort, to avoid caffeine dependency problems.
Napping is not a substitute for quality sleep
Although I’ve made a case for the importance, benefits and how-to of napping, I’d also like to emphasize that taking naps is not a substitute for quality sleep.
If you struggle with poor sleep on a regular basis, like myself these days, the majority of your efforts should be directed towards achieving quality sleep first, before perfecting the art of napping.
Naps shouldn’t be a band-aid or cover up from addressing other bad healthy habits in your life. If you’re constantly tired, your exercise, eating, thinking, social or work habits could be the culprit.
Napping is just another effective tool in your arsenal that could give you that much-needed boost in productivity and creativity, for that extra edge to stand out in today’s competitive world.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas and proven science for better health, productivity and creativity. To get practical ideas on how to stop procrastinating and build healthy habits, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.
A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The science behind the perfect nap to boost your productivity and creativity”
- Afternoon Napping and Cognition in Chinese Older Adults: Findings From the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) Baseline Assessment.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
- Hat tip to Thomas Frank and Lifehacker for inspiring some ideas within this article.