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Sep  6, 2012

Secrets of the Productive Nap

If you think naps are only for slackers, think again.

An afternoon snooze can improve your effectiveness on the job. But achieving the optimal nap isn’t as simple as it first appears.

Forward-thinking companies such as Zappos, Google, and Nike have heeded the research of sleep scientists, and now encourage team members to snooze on the job and refresh when they need it.

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So what if you want to put this wisdom to work to benefit your company? Do you just crawl under your desk and close your eyes? Napping may sound so simple an infant could excel at it, but according to an infographic from The Boston Globe, optimizing your afternoon sleep actually requires a bit of know-how (hat tip to Barking up the Wrong Tree for the pointer).

First off, the optimum time to catch a few extra winks depends on your natural body rhythms. So the first step to the perfect nap is determining if you’re a lark or an owl.

“What time would you get up and go to sleep if you were entirely free to plan your day?” asks the infographic. The answer determines when you should schedule your nap:

If you’re a lark, apt to wake as early as 6 a.m. and go to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m., you’re going to feel your nap need around 1 or 1:30 p.m. If you’re an owl, preferring to go to bed after midnight or 1 a.m., and to wake around 8 or 9 a.m., your afternoon “sleep gate” will open later, closer to 2:30 or 3 p.m.

Once you’ve chosen when to nap, the obvious next question is how long you should allow yourself to drift off for. The infographic goes into the science of sleep stages and concludes that very short or very long naps are the way to go. Sleep around an hour, and you’ll wake up foggy and struggle to reengage with your day because of “sleep inertia.” Instead, go for these sleep durations depending on which effects you’re after.

A short afternoon catnap of 20 minutes… enhances alertness and concentration, elevates mood, and sharpens motor skills. To boost alertness on waking, you can drink a cup of coffee before you nap. Caffeine requires 20 or 30 minutes to take effect, so it will kick in just as you’re waking.

But you might want to take a long nap, at least 90 minutes. Many of us get about an hour to an hour and a half less sleep per night than we need… Naps of 90 to 120 minutes usually comprise all stages, including REM and deep slow-wave sleep, which helps to clear your mind, improve memory recall, and recoup lost sleep…. A nap that is long enough to include a full sleep cycle, at least 90 minutes, will limit sleep inertia by allowing you to wake from REM sleep.

Check out the infographic for more information on the science of napping and other tips and tricks to ensure you get the most out of your afternoon snooze.

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel