When I was growing up, my parents always napped after lunch. Each day at 1:30pm they were to be found fast asleep in their respective armchairs, rugs upon their knees and the television murmuring quietly in the background. At the time I didn’t realise that they were unusual in doing so – that most people didn’t work from home and couldn’t nap even if they wanted to – and it came as quite a surprise to discover that napping wasn’t a universal practice.
Like many people I went through a phase of wanting to do everything as differently from my parents as possible, so for a while I was a determined non-napper, using caffeine, sugar and sheer obstinacy to help me through the saggy bit of the afternoon. However, in recent years my behaviour has started to change – largely because I can’t help but notice that a brief period of sleep has the most extraordinarily restorative effect on me. It’s like an afternoon ‘reboot’. In just the same way I might try turning electronic devices off and on again when they start malfunctioning, I find that I think better, feel happier and am more creative and resourceful after just a few minutes of switched-off-ness. And it seems I’m not alone…
It seems that the length of nap is all important. In this study, researchers found that the optimum nap length is 10 minutes. Much shorter and the associated benefits (improved cognitive ability, increased vigour and reduced fatigue) don’t show up. Much longer and there’s a risk of experiencing ‘sleep inertia’ – waking in a state of confusion, mental fogginess and exhaustion.
This study suggests that early afternoon is the best time for a nap and that napping regularly works better than occasionally.
It’s also worth knowing that very frequent or long-lasting daytime naps can be associated with reduced mental and physical health (more here).
In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing he explores the subject in detail, including a description of how to take the perfect ‘nappuccino’ – a coffee/snooze combination that seems to bring the greatest benefits of any type of nap.
So, after all these years, I’m beginning to think that my parents were onto something with their little siesta. How amused they’d be to hear me say that…