Two feet sticking out from under a small, opaque dome. If they weren’t jammed into worn out Converse, you might think they belong to the Wicked Witch of the East—if she got trapped under a futuristic-looking igloo while kicking back in a lounge chair.
Yet this isn’t Oz, it’s actually on campus at Washington State University, where one of the nine new nap pods were installed over the past few years. Nap pods are exactly what they sound like: comfy recliners designed for short bouts of shut-eye, and enclosed to block out light and sound. Though newer to college campuses, similar sleep stations have become so popular in the offices of tech companies like Google and HubSpot that they’ve practically become a trope.
Students and techies, who tend to have more flexible schedules than the average 9-to-5er, might be onto something with this: there’s evidence that taking a midday nap could be a better use of your time than a 15-minute coffee break. Plenty of studies suggest napping improves cognition and the ability to focus, and may even decrease the risk of heart attack. And for students, memory and fact retention improves with a short, 15-minute nap (great for a study break!) But if you’ve ever experimented with a siesta in the middle of the day, you know that sometimes it leaves you feeling even more groggy and grumpy than before.
Turns out you could be napping all wrong. Here’s how to boost productivity, improve mood, and start getting more out of your days by snoozing the proper way.
First, decide if you need it
If you’re already dragging and it’s only 10:30 a.m., you might need more than a short nap. Odds are you’re dealing with a serious sleep deficit or something more serious, like a cold or flu. Napping is meant to enhance regular sleep, but not replace it. If you just can’t focus and feel like you’re about to crash, it’s best to call it a day and head home to recharge.
The best time to nap when you’re healthy, but just a little fatigued, is mid-afternoon, when humans seem to have a built-in urge to nap (whether you ate a huge lunch or not). There’s a dip in intellectual capabilities and alertness across the board. If you’ve hit a wall, a short snooze could be exactly what you need. But if 2 p.m. rolls by and you’re feeling wide awake, try a short meditation instead to keep the mind fresh and energy levels high.
If you decide that a nap is in order, it’s time to find the perfect spot that’s dark and quiet, where you can remain relatively uninterrupted. It might feel like snoozing anywhere is fine (a car, a closet, under the desk) but research proves that factors like lighting and background noise have a negative impact on the effectiveness of sleep. Basically, sleep quality dips when you’re not in a calm, dim room.
Small, medium, or large?
Consider what the rest of the day looks like when deciding how long to set your alarm (yes, definitely use an alarm because naps are hard to naturally rouse from!). If you want to really spike your energy levels and cognitive skills for the next two hours, take a 30-minute power nap.
If you have time for a 45- to 60-minute rest, it’s possible to enter into deep sleep. You’ll experience a little grogginess in the moments immediately after you wake up, but you’ll moderately improve your cognition and energy levels and reap the benefits for twice as long (about four hours).
Have longer than 90 minutes? Then you can get through an entire REM sleep cycle—which means you’ll experience dreams and enter a state of deep, restful sleep. Waking up after a full REM cycle might leave you more foggy at first and might take you a while to snap out of, but you’ll notice an extended spike in energy and cognitive benefits that lasts longer than when you sleep for just 30 or 60 minutes.
You’re getting very sleepy …
So you’re secure in the nap cave, it’s dark, the alarm is set … but sleep won’t come. First, try to release any lingering tension or guilt. Remember that this small break will actually increase your creative and problem-solving abilities as soon as you wake up, in turn making you more efficient. Next, start breathing. This is a great time to use a sleep meditation method to lull yourself into a relaxed state. And don’t stress if the zzzs don’t come—if you end up meditating for 20 minutes, that’s incredibly beneficial, too.
Wake up strong
You should wake up feeling rested, but if there’s any lingering drowsiness pour yourself a cup of coffee or matcha tea. The caffeine will jumpstart your energy levels, and there’s even research that suggests drinking caffeine before a short nap can help you wake up feeling more lively.
Given how much scientific research exists supports napping in the workplace, it might be time for more employers to invest in nap pods. Hey, if it’s good enough for Google, it’s good enough for us!
Illustration by Foley Wu