Whether it’s a daily craving that strikes at exactly 2:17 p.m., the result of a steep caffeine crash or an aching that hits after staying out way too late the night before, the need for naps is a constant for the typical college student, making napping—the right way—an essential skill.
But here’s my guess: Right as the “Must… take… nap” alarm begins ringing in your brain, you probably sprint/crawl to the nearest bed to fulfill your need for slumber, disregarding any planning concerning the time of day or the duration of said nap. And, more often than not, you probably wake up feeling groggy and rather uncertain about where you are and what day it is.
Not surprisingly, this strategy of fulfilling nap desperation tends to be ineffective. But have no fear—you can master the art of napping by understanding these key factoids about sleep.
The Evolution of Human Sleep
First off, although common knowledge says that you’re supposed to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, this isn’t the only way to become well-rested. In fact, humans are innately wired to have a more nap-like sleeping schedule.
A 1992 study by Thomas Wehr found that when subjects are given ten hours of light per day (as opposed to a typical modern day of sixteen hours, with lots of artificial light), they sleep in two symmetrical blocks of several hours each, which are separated by waking up for one to three hours in between. This “biphasic” sleep schedule is how people used to sleep. Old literature, like the “Canterbury Tales” and “Wuthering Heights,” refers to this by noting a “first sleep” and “second sleep.”
However, this sleep schedule simmered out as society became more industrialized, which exposed people to more artificial light during the day. Homo sapiens shifted away from taking two naps in the middle of the night, and they moved towards sleeping straight through it.
Changes also began happening with how people incorporate sleep into the day. With the modern value of work productivity, in which time is money, people have become more experimental with ways of sleeping to maximize the workload and creative output they can produce within twenty-four hours. This is where many turn to napping, with the hopes that it will enhance their performance during the day.
The Golden Duration
To determine how long your nap should be, you have to consider the sleep cycle. There are five stages, which include stages one through four, plus the REM (rapid eye movement) stage.
The key to a successfully timed nap is to spend it in stages one and/or two, and to not wake up during stage three or four. If you wake up during these latter stages, you risk feeling “sleep inertia,” which the Journal of the American Medical Association defines as “the state of impaired cognition, grogginess and disorientation commonly experienced on awakening from sleep.” Stage three is hit at around forty-five minutes of sleeping, so you want to avoid setting an alarm for between forty and sixty minutes, just to be safe.
The rule of thumb is to avoid getting into a deep sleep. Not only will you wake up feeling “off,” but you could throw off your circadian rhythms, which dictate your typical sleeping patterns.
However, if you truly want to replenish sleep and are craving an hour-long nap, it would be most beneficial to take a ninety-minute nap, which is approximately one full sleep cycle. The ninety-minute duration is particularly useful, as the period of REM sleep is shown to increase creativity and improve emotional and procedural memory while also limiting sleep inertia.
To reap all of the benefits of a shorter nap without feeling groggy and disoriented, you should set an alarm for anywhere between ten and thirty minutes. This way, your brain can go through the first and/or second stage, but not enter the third. A power nap of ten to twenty minutes is long enough to improve alertness, mood and concentration.
Six minutes of sleep, known as an “ultra-short sleep episode,” has also been shown to improve declarative memory, which helps to recall facts and knowledge. If you’re up in the library or studying at home, this can be a great tactic to aid in memorization!
Know When to Nap
Keep in mind that naps are most effective when you’re deliberate and intentional with them. Remember that you should choose when to take a nap—don’t let it choose you.
The ideal nap is around six to eight hours after you wake up, and at least four hours before you’re planning to go to bed.
This time frame typically falls between 1 and 4 p.m., which is when you experience the afternoon slump (aka when you’re sitting in class or attempting to study and all you want to do is belly flop onto a comfortable surface and take a load off).
For a customized guide for when to nap, check out this wheel!
Be Wise with Your Naps, Young Grasshopper
Remember that naps aren’t meant as a supplement to getting a good night’s rest. Students often take all-nighters or stay out late, thinking “Oh, I’ll just take a long nap tomorrow. No biggie.” However, it’s actually most beneficial to nap before you embark on these sleepless endeavors.
Additionally, you’re more inclined to keep snoozing your alarm and sleep for longer periods if you’re in your bed, so it may be wiser to opt for a couch instead.
And of course, your phone is likely to serve as a roadblock on your journey to toward a state of nap euphoria. Therefore, putting it on airplane mode and disabling notifications is your best bet.
With practice of these tips, I deem you adept at using naps to enhance your quality of life. So go get ’em tiger, and you shall attain that true nap nourishment you’ve been hoping for.