Every once in a while, my computer bogs down. Everything I do takes longer than it should. Some programs don’t even work. When that happens, I do a forced shutdown and reboot the computer. A few minutes later, it runs like new. You can do the same thing for your brain. Rather than trying to think and do things with a fraction of your cognitive abilities, you can reboot your brain with a ten-minute power nap.
Some of the world’s leading companies encourage employees to sleep during their workday. For several years, companies like Google, Zappos, and Uber have had designated nap spaces and “nap pods” to help their workforce refresh their minds at midday.1Costa, D. (2017). “Should Employers Encourage Power Naps?” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from hbr.org And no, they aren’t doing this to be ‘cool’ or ‘hip.’ There’s a science-backed reason behind it.
This midday snooze isn’t your typical slumber; it’s a ‘power nap.’ You might be wondering: “What is a power nap?” A power nap, as the name implies, is a short bout of sleep designed to quickly rejuvenate your brain, leaving you more alert, focused, and yes, more productive.2Dhand, R., & Sohal, H. (2006). “Good sleep, bad sleep! The role of daytime naps in healthy adults.” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. Retrieved from journals.lww.com
Reports indicate that after incorporating power naps into their daily routine, employees at these forward-thinking companies have seen noticeable improvements in job performance, creativity, and overall job satisfaction. This is where the power of a power nap truly shines.
In this article, we’ll dive into the amazing brain-rebooting benefits of power naps, explore how long a power nap should ideally be, and discuss what happens to your brain during this period of rest. Along the way, we’ll make sure you’re armed with evidence-based knowledge so you can optimize your own routine for peak performance.
As always, keep the conversation going: Ask a question or leave a comment.
What is a Power Nap?
To put it simply, a power nap is a brief sleep that occurs during waking hours. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
Scientifically speaking, a power nap isn’t about catching up on lost sleep or lazily dozing off during a dull meeting.3Mednick, S., & Ehrman, M. (2006). “Take a Nap! Change Your Life.” Workman Publishing. It’s a strategic, short sleep that’s meant to revive your mental sharpness.4Dinges, D. F., Pack, F., Williams, K., Gillen, K. A., Powell, J. W., Ott, G. E., Aptowicz, C., & Pack, A. I. (1995). “Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night.” Sleep, 20(4), 267-277.
A power nap can last anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes. The key here is to keep it ‘short.’ Why? Because if you nap for too long, you risk entering the deeper stages of sleep, which can leave you groggy and disoriented when you wake up. This phenomenon is known as sleep inertia.
Think of a power nap as a pit stop for your brain—a quick, but effective pause in the midst of your daily race. Just like how a quick fuel top-up can help a racing car run more efficiently, a power nap is meant to recharge your brain, so you can zoom through the rest of your day with mental clarity and agility.5Gillberg, M., Kecklund, G., Axelsson, J., & Akerstedt, T. (1996). “The effects of a short daytime nap after restricted night sleep.” Sleep, 19(7), 570-575.
In the following sections, we’ll delve into the science behind power naps and their benefits, and answer the question that’s probably lingering on your mind: “How long should a power nap be?”
The Science Behind Power Naps
When you lay your head down for a power nap, what exactly happens to your brain? The answer lies in the unique architecture of sleep.
Sleep comprises cycles, each including various stages, from light sleep to deep sleep and the dream-infused Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.6Carskadon, M. A., & Dement, W. C. (2011). “Monitoring and staging human sleep.” In M. H. Kryger, T. Roth, & W. C. Dement (Eds.), Principles and practice of sleep medicine (5th ed., pp. 16–26). Elsevier Saunders. A power nap primarily revolves around the lightest stage of non-REM sleep, which offers significant benefits without the grogginess that can accompany deeper sleep.7Lovato, N., & Lack, L. (2010). “The effects of napping on cognitive functioning.” Progress in Brain Research, 185, 155-166.
When you begin to drift off, your brain enters a state of relaxation and your brain waves slow down—a stage scientifically known as the alpha state. This is when the magic happens. The alpha state is often associated with relaxation, meditation, and yes, creativity.8Jannati, A., Block, H., Obermeit, L., Boynton, G. M., & Handy, T. C. (2019). “The effects of a midday nap on the neurophysiological correlates of insight problem solving.” Cortex, 119, 168-181. By dipping into this rejuvenating realm, you give your brain a chance to reset, which can have a profound impact on cognitive function and creativity.9Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.” Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117-1122.
Even more impressive is what power napping can do for your memory. Researchers at the Saarland University in Germany discovered that a brief nap of about 45-60 minutes could significantly improve memory recall, likening the impact to cramming the night before an exam.
10Diekelmann, S., Büchel, C., Born, J., & Rasch, B. (2011). “Labile or stable: opposing consequences for memory when reactivated during waking and sleep.” Nature Neuroscience, 14(3), 381-386. But remember, longer naps can also leave you feeling groggy, so it’s essential to strike a balance, as we’ll discuss later.
Sleep Inertia: The Anti-Power Nap
Sleep inertia is a term that sounds as heavy as it feels. Ever been roused from a deep sleep, only to feel groggy, disoriented, and even more tired than before you went to bed? That’s sleep inertia. It’s like trying to drive a car with the parking brake on – your brain wants to go, but something is holding it back.11Tassi, P., & Muzet, A. (2000). “Sleep inertia.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, 4(4), 341-353.
Here’s why this happens. During a normal night’s sleep, your brain cycles through different stages, from light to deep sleep and maybe a bit of REM sleep. Each stage plays a vital role in rejuvenating your mind and body. However, when you take a nap, you don’t have enough time to go through this entire cycle.
If you nap for too long and enter the deeper stages of sleep, you’re likely to wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, causing sleep inertia.12Hilditch, C. J., & Dorrian, J. (2017). “Time to wake up: reactive countermeasures to sleep inertia.” Industrial Health, 55(3), 192-204. This defeats the purpose of a power nap, which is meant to leave you feeling alert and refreshed, not groggy and yearning for your bed.
That’s why keeping your power naps brief is essential, ideally between 10 to 30 minutes. This allows your brain to stay in the lighter stages of sleep, avoiding the depths of sleep that can lead to inertia.
Benefits of a Power Nap
If you thought the primary benefit of a power nap was simply to catch a few Z’s, brace yourself. These short bouts of sleep pack more benefits than you might imagine, all backed by scientific evidence.
1. Improved Alertness and Productivity
This might seem like a given, but it’s worth noting: one of the most immediate benefits of a power nap is increased alertness.13Hayashi, M., Watanabe, M., & Hori, T. (1999). “The effects of a 20-min nap in the mid-afternoon on mood, performance and EEG activity.” Clinical Neurophysiology, 110(2), 272-279. This boost in alertness can lead to improvements in performance and productivity, whether you’re working on a complex project or simply trying to make it through a post-lunch meeting without dozing off.
2. Enhanced Mood
Ever heard of the term ‘nap happy’? There might be more truth to it than you think. Power naps have been shown to elevate mood, thanks to the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that fosters feelings of contentment.14Faraut, B., Nakib, S., Drogou, C., Elbaz, M., Sauvet, F., De Bandt, J. P., & Léger, D. (2015). “Napping reverses the salivary interleukin-6 and urinary norepinephrine changes induced by sleep restriction.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(3), E416-E426.
3. Better Memory and Learning Ability
Earlier, we touched on how power naps can enhance memory recall. But that’s not all. A power nap can also boost your learning ability. Studies show that napping after learning something new can help your brain retain the information better.15Lahl, O., Wispel, C., Willigens, B., & Pietrowsky, R. (2008). “An ultra short episode of sleep is sufficient to promote declarative memory performance.” Journal of Sleep Research, 17(1), 3-10.
4. Increased Creativity
Here’s one for the artists and innovators: power naps can even spark creativity. As we mentioned earlier, during a power nap, your brain enters the alpha state, which is often associated with creativity.
5. Reduced Stress
Feeling stressed out? A power nap might be just what you need. Research shows that even short naps can reduce stress and lower blood pressure, which is good news for your heart health.16Faraut, B., Boudjeltia, K. Z., Vanhamme, L., & Kerkhofs, M. (2011). “Immune, inflammatory and cardiovascular consequences of sleep restriction and recovery.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, 15(2), 137-149.
All these benefits highlight why the power nap is a valuable tool in your arsenal for better health, productivity, and overall well-being. But there’s an art to power napping, and it all hinges on timing, which we’ll discuss next.
Timing Your Power Nap
We’ve discussed the what, why, and how of power naps, but how long should a power nap be? The answer lies in understanding your body’s natural rhythms and the underlying structure of sleep.
Most experts agree that a power nap of 10 to 20 minutes is optimal for boosting alertness and mental clarity.17Waterhouse, J., Atkinson, G., Edwards, B., & Reilly, T. (2007). “The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(14), 1557-1566. This length keeps you in the lighter stages of non-REM sleep, making it easier to get back into the swing of things upon waking.
Personally, I find that I need ten minutes or less. I lie flat on my back on our bedroom floor and stretch my arms out to the sides. This position feels great on my spine and lightly stretches out my chest, which gets tight when I’m sitting at my computer.
However, if you’re looking for a creativity boost, you might want to extend your nap to around 30 minutes. This length allows your brain to enter the alpha state, which, as we’ve mentioned, is associated with creativity and idea generation.
If you’re aiming to enhance memory or learning, a slightly longer nap—around 60 minutes—can help, as it allows your brain to consolidate memories. But beware: napping for this length of time may lead you into deeper stages of sleep, increasing the risk of sleep inertia.
As a rule of thumb, keep your power nap short and sweet. And, ideally, try to nap in the early afternoon, when most people naturally experience a drop in alertness.18Dhand, R., & Sohal, H. (2006). “Good sleep, bad sleep! The role of daytime naps in healthy adults.” Current Sleep Medicine Reports, 2(4), 191-200.
Tips for an Effective Power Nap
Mastering the art of power napping involves more than just closing your eyes. Here, we’ll delve into the practical aspects of power napping and offer some tips to help you maximize their effectiveness. From timing to environment to post-nap activities, let’s explore the ins and outs of napping like a pro.
1. Timing is Everything
As we’ve discussed, keeping your power nap to 10-20 minutes can ensure you wake up feeling refreshed and alert, not groggy. Also, try to schedule your nap for the early afternoon, around the time most people naturally experience a drop in alertness.
2. Create a Calm Environment
Your napping environment plays a big role in the quality of your sleep. Aim for a quiet, dimly lit room with a comfortable temperature. If noise is an issue, consider using earplugs or a white noise machine to drown out the distractions.19Mednick, S., Nakayama, K., & Stickgold, R. (2003). “Sleep-dependent learning: a nap is as good as a night.” Nature Neuroscience, 6(7), 697-698.
3. Post-Nap Activities
Jumping straight back into work or a hectic activity immediately after waking up from a nap can cause disorientation. Take a few moments to fully wake up before resuming your tasks. Light stretching or a short walk can help shake off any residual sleepiness.20Tietzel, A. J., & Lack, L. C. (2002). “The recuperative value of brief and ultra-brief naps on alertness and cognitive performance.” Journal of Sleep Research, 11(3), 213-218.
4. Try a Coffee Nap
Now, if you’re a coffee lover, you’re probably wondering how your beloved brew fits into the power nap equation. Well, you’re in for a treat. Meet the ‘coffee nap’—a surprising strategy that combines the benefits of caffeine and napping to supercharge your alertness.
Here’s how it works.
First, you consume a cup of coffee quickly. Then, instead of getting back to work, you immediately lie down for a power nap of about 15 to 20 minutes.21Hayashi, M., Masuda, A., Hori, T. (2003). “The alerting effects of caffeine, bright light and face washing after a short daytime nap.” Clinical Neurophysiology, 114(12), 2268-2278. By the time you wake up, the caffeine has started to kick in, right when you’re reaping the benefits of your power nap. The result? An extra potent boost in alertness and cognitive function.22Reyner, L. A., & Horne, J. A. (1997). “Suppression of sleepiness in drivers: combination of caffeine with a short nap.” Psychophysiology, 34(6), 721-725.
But how does this work, you ask? It’s all down to how caffeine interacts with a molecule in your brain called adenosine. Adenosine is a by-product of brain activity that accumulates during the day, promoting sleepiness. When you sleep—even a short nap—you decrease the levels of adenosine in your brain, making you feel more alert.23Landolt, H. P., Rétey, J. V., Tönz, K., Gottselig, J. M., Khatami, R., Buckelmueller, I., & Achermann, P. (2004). “Caffeine attenuates waking and sleep electroencephalographic markers of sleep homeostasis in humans.” Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(10), 1933-1939.
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, helping you feel more alert. So, when you take a coffee nap, you’re attacking sleepiness from two angles: the nap reduces adenosine levels, and the caffeine blocks what’s left. The combined effect is more powerful than either a nap or caffeine alone.24Brooks, A., & Lack, L. (2006). “A brief afternoon nap following nocturnal sleep restriction: which nap duration is most recuperative?” Sleep, 29(6), 831-840.
5. Try Binaural Beats
There’s another tool you might consider adding to your power nap toolkit: binaural beats. These are auditory illusions that occur when you hear different frequency tones in each ear. The brain processes these frequencies and perceives a single tone that equals the difference between the two frequencies. For instance, if you hear a 300Hz sound in one ear and a 310Hz in the other, your brain “creates” a 10Hz binaural beat.
But how do these beats help with power napping?
Binaural beats in the theta (4-8Hz) or delta (0.5-4Hz) frequency range have been associated with promoting relaxation and deeper sleep.25Huang, T. L., & Charyton, C. (2008). “A comprehensive review of the psychological effects of brainwave entrainment.” Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 14(5), 38. Listening to these sounds during your power nap could potentially help you fall asleep faster and reach a state of relaxation more quickly, although results can vary from person to person.26Chan, A. S., Ho, Y. C., & Cheung, M. C. (1998). “Music training improves verbal memory.” Nature, 396(6707), 128.
Several studies have shown positive effects, such as enhanced mood and decreased levels of anxiety.27Garcia-Argibay, M., Santed, M. A., & Reales, J. M. (2017). “Efficacy of binaural auditory beats in cognition, anxiety, and pain perception: a meta-analysis.” Psychological Research, 83(2), 357-372. Another study suggested that binaural beats could improve sleep quality and post-nap performance.28Weerakkody, T. D., Mahinda, I., & Maduranga, D. (2016). “The effects of binaural beats on the moods of university students.” Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 3(3).
However, more research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits and applications of binaural beats for power napping.
You’ll find numerous binaural beats apps in the Apple or Google app stores. BrainWaves, which I’ve used and like, is one of the most popular. It’s essential that you use headphones or Airpods, and have them in both ears, as the whole premise is that each ear gets a different rhythm. Binaural beats would not work any other way.
In our non-stop, hustle-hard culture, the humble power nap might seem like an oddity, a luxury, or even a sign of laziness. But as we’ve seen, the science tells a different story. From the perspective of your brain, a power nap can be as restorative as a full night’s sleep.29Lovato, N., & Lack, L. (2010). “The effects of napping on cognitive functioning.” Progress in brain research, 185, 155-166. It can increase your alertness, enhance your memory, lift your mood, and generally reboot your cognitive machinery.30Takahashi, M., Arito, H., & Fukuda, H. (1998). “Nap after lunch: Effects on alertness, performance, and autonomic balance.” European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 78(2), 93-98.
In the end, remember that a power nap is a tool. It’s not a replacement for a good night’s sleep, but it’s a powerful supplement. If you use it wisely, it can be a secret weapon in your productivity arsenal, a little slice of “me time” in the middle of your day, and a quick trip to dreamland that leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world. So go ahead—give yourself permission to close your eyes, drift off, and discover the amazing, brain-rebooting benefits of power naps.