If you’ve ever found yourself pining for the days when nap time was part of your schedule (ah, simpler times), get ready to feel totally justified—the physical and psychological benefits of napping are seemingly endless. On that massive list of mid-day nap benefits? Productivity. Yes, you can nap your way to increased productivity. When you grab 20–30 minutes of shut-eye in the afternoon, you also get several brain benefits that can help you stay sharp and focused, ultimately doing more to reach your goals. And that’s according to a vast body of research.
Let’s take a quick look at some science-backed nap facts, then dig into how naps affect productivity specifically, and get expert advice on making naps work for your work—and you in general.
Why is Napping Important?
In general, napping provides restoration for your body and brain, when you need it most. According to the National Sleep Foundation,“Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents.” More specifically, research has shown the benefits of napping include some serious physical perks, such as improving your motor skills, speed, and reaction time.
The National Sleep Foundation even reports that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 100 percent in a NASA study performed on groggy military pilots and astronauts. We’re not saying you can exactly nap your way to becoming a fighter pilot, but hey, if a little mid-day snooze can improve their performance, it can certainly boost yours. The research is clear about one thing for the non-fighter pilots among us: Naps affect productivity. And we’re going to tell you why.
5 Productivity-Boosting Benefits of Napping
Here are five of the most significant ways napping can increase your productivity. Plus, we asked an expert how to take the most effective nap to leave you feeling rested and ready to kick ass.
1. Boost your memory
Up first on the list of benefits of napping: Improved memory. Memory gaps are the slow leak in your productivity. If you have to go back and reread what you just wrote or ask someone to repeat what they just said, your productivity is toast. A short nap can serve as the ultimate stop-gap, according to a growing body of research.
Researchers have long been aware that napping can improve memory. In a 2003 study, a team of researchers established that a 60-90-minute nap can help you hold on to new information just as well as a full night of sleep can. And that’s just the beginning.
New research published this year found that your dream of being able to learn while you sleep might actually be a reality. A team of researchers asked participants to learn associations between words and pictures (sort of like the matching game). Then while participants napped, the researchers played half of the words to “reactivate” the matched pairs in their memory. After their snooze, the researchers quizzed the participants. “We found that their memory was better for the pictures that were connected to the words that were presented in sleep, compared to those words that weren’t,” Dr. Scott Cairney, lead researcher on the study, explained.
This is big news for your productivity. “When you are awake you learn new things, but when you are asleep you refine them, making it easier to retrieve them and apply them correctly when you need them the most,” Cairney said. “This is important for how we learn but also for how we might help retain healthy brain functions.” Consider us sold.
2. Rev your creativity
For the creative tasks on your to-do list, a power nap can help you tap into a creative flow state. In a small study, researcher and study author Andrei Medvedev monitored the brain activity of 15 nappers. He found that while the left hemisphere snoozed peacefully, the right hemisphere—the side of your brain responsible for your creative genius—hummed with activity. Further, brain scans of the nappers showed that the right hemisphere was also talking to the left. In other words, a nap seemed to promote better communication between the two halves of your brain. More research is needed to confirm the findings, but it’s a promising step. So next time you’re stuck brainstorming for a project, a power nap could open the creative floodgates.
Need more? Previous research suggests that REM sleep (aka deep Rapid Eye Movement sleep) is the key here. A 2009 study found that REM sleep (as compared to non-REM sleep cycles) helps your brain pull together bits of unassociated information—the core of creative problem-solving. This suggests that the best way to nap your way to a creative breakthrough is by snoozing for a full 90 minutes, which allows your body to go through a full sleep cycle, including REM sleep.
If you want to enhance your creativity, try a 90-minute nap. Just make sure you clear your schedule and chat with your boss about it first. Point them to this article if they need more explanation.
That fuzzy slump you always seem to fall into in the afternoon has nothing to do with how much sleep you got last night or how much coffee you had this morning. It’s all about the way humans are wired, explains Dr. Michael Breus, a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Around 1 p.m., two things happen for the next couple of hours, Breus explains:
- Your body temperature drops
- Your natural levels of melatonin—aka the sleep hormone—rise.
The result is a recipe for drowsiness that leads to that afternoon productivity lull.
But the good news is, research shows a short nap can help you regain the sharp sense of focus you had earlier in the day. In a 2008 study, researchers put participants in fMRI scanners and had them perform two back-to-back simple perception tests in order to track their focus. Half of the study participants got to take a quick snooze in between quizzes, while the other half powered through.
The fMRI scans of the non-nappers showed that activity in the area of the brain associated with concentration started to drift off. But the nappers not only showed increased focus, the researchers determined their focus was as sharp during the afternoon experiment as it was during the more alert hours of the morning.
4. Up your alertness
That brings us to one of the best productivity-boosting benefits of napping. Hopefully, there’s no question that sleep affects your alertness. (We could get into the research on how drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving, but that’s another topic for another time).
Naps have a particular way of increasing your alertness and productivity even when you’ve gotten your full eight hours. A 2009 review of research on the benefits of naps found that napping can get you through the post-lunch dip—but they also concluded that the quality of the nap counts. Based on the research they reviewed, naps taken around 2 p.m. seem to show the biggest boost in alertness for people who regularly get enough sleep. For the sleep-deprived among us, earlier naps may be a better bet.
They also found micro naps—less than 10 minutes—likely don’t do anything to up your alertness; participants needed to snooze for at least 10 minutes. And the longer they napped (up to an hour), the bigger the alertness effects. One thing to note: Those effects are delayed the longer you nap due to sleep inertia (i.e., the grogginess you feel right after you wake up as you’re making the transition out of sleep). So a 10-minute nap would show alertness gains more immediately than a 30-minute one. But the benefits of the lengthier nap are still there; they just take a little bit longer to show up.
If you need to up your alertness at your desk, the researchers concluded a 10- to 20-minute power nap can help you wake up feeling more vigilant.
5. Make decisions more quickly
One of the ways grogginess can sap your productivity is by making even simple decisions drag on forever. One of the benefits of napping is that it can increase what experts dub your “cognitive flexibility,” which is your brain’s ability to jump between different points of information you need to make a call on something, Breus says.
In a 2015 study, researchers tested a group of 15 adults on their cognitive flexibility at three different times of day: in the a.m., in the post-lunch doldrums, and then again in late afternoon. Before entering the post-lunch slump, half of the participants took a 30-minute nap, while the other half spent that time watching a documentary. Unsurprisingly, the latter group showed a dip in cognitive flexibility between the morning test and the one performed post-lunch, according to the findings published in the journal PLOS One. The nappers actually showed more cognitive flexibility than they had in the a.m. It’s a small study, but an encouraging one nonetheless.
The lesson? If waffling between options is getting in the way of your productivity, it might help to sleep on it.
Productivity-boosting bonus: The coffee nap
On days when your to-do list feels mountainous, you need all the productivity help you can get. Scientists know that there are vast productivity benefits of napping—caffeine has a similarly research-backed resume. When used together, research shows caffeine and naps can actually boost productivity even more than using either of these productivity hacks alone.
In a study published in 2007, researchers tested the effects of napping, caffeine, and both combined in one of the most sleep-inducing situations ever: a boring two-hour drive. Drivers that neither napped nor had caffeine got expectedly drowsy. (Don’t worry about their safety—the experiment was performed in a driving simulator). Drivers that were given a 30-minute break to nap and have a cup of joe showed much fewer signs of sleepiness. In fact, the researchers found that participants who took a nap combined with caffeine actually showed no signs of the normal afternoon slump.
In other words, if you really need to power up your productivity, grab a coffee before taking a 20-minute snooze.
How to Nap for Maximum Productivity
As the research shows, how—and when—you nap matters. Here are the three science-backed tips you need to take the most productive nap.
1. Set your alarm
To reap the maximum productivity-boosting benefits of napping, you have to sleep for the right amount of time. So how much time is that exactly?
Breus says it can depend on your goals. Snoozing less than 20 minutes will take you into slow-wave sleep, giving your brain a refresh and boosting your energy for the next few hours. A 90-minute nap will take you through a full sleep cycle, he says, getting you those creativity-boosting benefits. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a 10-minute nap is your best bet. They cite research from the journal Sleep, which found that a quick 10-minute nap produced the most benefits on productivity without risking any lingering grogginess.
Whatever length of time you choose, don’t leave your wake-up to chance. Set your alarm and plan a few additional minutes for grogginess if you’re going longer.
2. Timing is everything
Those benefits of napping depend on more than just how long you nap. When you nap is just as important as how long you nap. As a general rule of thumb, research suggests afternoon naps are best. If you snooze too close to bedtime, you could wake up feeling groggier and risk throwing off your sleep cycle.
“Different timing of naps will produce different results,” Breus says. The optimal nap window largely depends on what time you wake up in the morning. “For example, if you wake up at 6:30 a.m., then a nap between 7 and 10 a.m., will have a good bit of REM sleep in it. This stage promotes creativity and heightens perception,” he explains. Meanwhile, “a nap between 5 and 8 p.m. will include more slow-wave sleep, which improves memory and clears your mind. Finally, a nap between 12:30 and 4 p.m. would have more stage two sleep, in which you’ll increase alertness and motor skills.”
To maximize every minute of your nap, he points to research that found the best time to nap is approximately seven hours after you wake up. But again, it depends on the goal of your nap and the nature of your work.
3. Take a coffee nap
Use the power of the coffee nap wisely, Breus says. “Obviously, caffeine will prevent napping if you drink it 60-90 minutes before you plan to nap,” he says. But drinking six ounces of coffee (preferably cooled down, Breus says) immediately before you take a little snooze can have major productivity benefits. “This allows a person to get 20 minutes of unaffected stage one and stage two sleep,” he says. “Upon awakening, the caffeine kicks in and they are good for about four hours of increased productivity.”
Naps give more than the time they take
Still a little stressed about taking 20+ minutes of your day to sleep? Don’t be. Research has consistently shown that napping gives more than it takes. But the only way you’ll know is to try. Give mid-day sleep a shot over the next week to reap the benefits of napping on your productivity. You might just perform better, be more alert while working, and find creative solutions to problems you’ve been mulling over. It takes a little experimenting to get your naps working for you, but keep at it. The benefits are so worth it.
Your turn: What benefits of napping have you experienced? Share your nap insights in the comments below.
Want the benefits of napping to last even longer? Get better sleep at night with a bedtime routine.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.