The Science Behind Optimal Napping

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Napping is a delicate art that's difficult to master. Getting midday Zzz's has a multitude of benefits, but finding the time isn’t easy -- and even if you do, being unable to relax or waking up groggy can defeat the whole purpose.

A little afternoon shuteye has the power to seriously boost your productivity, but only when it’s done right. Following these expert-approved tips will help you become a master napper in no time.

Make it clockwork

Let's be real: most adults only catnap when they’re sick or hungover. But from a biological standpoint, your body would actually be down for it even on ordinary days. According to Dr. Thomas Penzel of Germany’s Charité Sleep Medicine Center, humans are naturally wired to feel sleepy in the afternoon.

"The rhythms of being awake have internal fluctuation," he explained. "And what we call sleep pressure, or when we want to go to bed, is high in the late evening... but also has a minor peak during daytime."

Most people feel like nodding off around 1pm, after lunch, but systems and schedules can vary by person. Still, Dr. Penzel says that anyone can benefit from a little doze in their daily routine. Go and tell your boss a doctor said so.

AMC Studios

Keep it short and sweet

Have you ever woken up from a nap feeling like a character from The Walking Dead? That's what happens when your body is roused out of a deep sleep stage, according to Dr. Penzel. 

That’s why "light sleep, or even just some rest without sleep" is key to taking a satisfying power nap (also, avoiding bedhead). Twenty or 30 minutes is the number you're shooting for.

Set a schedule

Hitting the sack doesn't guarantee shutting off the brain -- sometimes no matter how many sheep you count, those fluffy buggers start turning into work emails, appointments, and all kinds of other fodder for being conscious and cranky.

But before forfeiting siestas for espresso, Dr. Penzel says to give napping on a fixed schedule a try. It doesn't matter if you take a nap on your break or first thing after getting home after work (well, second if you count taking off pants). Be consistent and your body will understand what to do.

"Nap one day at 1 o'clock, and then the next day at 11 o'clock and the third at 6 o'clock and so on doesn't help," Dr. Penzel says. "Try to keep the same time of day each day. If it's not possible, don't do a nap that day but start again the next day at the same time."

Flickr/Joe St.Pierre

Have a naptime ritual

Whether it's reading or listening to a track of frogs croaking before rainfall, bedtime routines are important. The same goes for taking a siesta.

According to Dr. Penzel, it needn't be much -- a simple cozy blanket and drawing the blinds will do.

"The internal clock wants a routine, but it has to be a different routine than what you do before bed," said Dr. Penzel. "It’s not a normal routine to make everything deep and dark during daytime."

Get into bed with caution

For that same reason, it's usually better to catch Zzz's somewhere other than your bed, especially for those who already have trouble sleeping at night.

That could mean a couch, reclining chair, or -- why not? -- curling up underneath your desk Costanza-style. Whatever works out to be convenient and comfortable (staying employed is another story).

But there's no need to restrict yourself to nontraditional sleeping location. If your favorite place for napping is still your bed, go for it. As Dr. Penzel puts it, "It depends on what makes your body calm and ready to relax." So hop into bed if that's what works/you're independently wealthy and don't need to work, and start being a better version of yourself.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Barbara Woolsey is a Berlin-based freelance writer who loves to power nap (and she does all the time, because she's a freelance writer). Follow her adventures on Facebook and Twitter.