In my quest to become healthy, happy, and productive, I’ve become fascinated with sleep over the past few years. I always exercise regularly and for the most part I eat very healthy, but a good nights sleep eluded me for a long time. The problem started in high school where I routinely got less sleep than I needed, and then just sort of continued into college and the workforce. Like most of us, being sleep deprived became the norm.
However, since I started working for myself a few years back I’ve been able to experiment with what makes me operate at my best. On 1/1/2008 I became an early riser. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve become much more productive hitting the ground running at 6 AM as opposed to starting lethargically at 8:30 or 9.
But there was a problem. The trouble started in the spring when the Detroit Red Wings – my favorite hockey team – won the Stanley Cup. For two straight months I was up until midnight watching games and it often took me an hour or two to wind down after a game. I began napping during the day to make up for the lost sleep, but for the most part I was lethargic all of the time.
After the finals were over, I was happy to try to get back on my 10 PM – 6 AM sleep schedule. While in theory it worked well, I felt like it wasn’t realistic to always have to sleep those same 8 hours. Sometimes I need more sleep than just 8 hours. Sometimes I’m out late and only get 6 hours of sleep. I needed a way to nap productively.
So based on a recommendation from Lifehacker, I picked up Take a Nap! Change Your Life. By Dr. Sara Mednick, the leading nap researcher in the world. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to be more productive, whether you think you sleep good or not. Napping tends to get a bad name and is associated with “lazy” people, but it’s really the opposite. Among other things, here are the key things I learned from the book:
- Studies have shown that people are naturally biphasic sleepers, meaning that people prefer to sleep twice per 24 hour day. In a laboratory setting, people tend to sleep 8 hours at night and then take a short nap during the afternoon. This is consistent with siesta’s that were common in all cultures until about 100 years ago.
- The benefits from just a 20 minute nap are HUGE. Short naps give you a dose of Stage 2 sleep, which drastically improves alterness and motor skills, much more so than a cup of coffee does.
- Along those lines, all naps are beneficial, whether 5 minutes or 2 hours. If you happen to wake up during Stage 3 or 4, you’re likely to feel a bit lethargic. This doesn’t mean the sleep didn’t help. A splash of water to the face or a small dose of caffeine should take care of it.
- Your body spends more time in different sleep stages depending on what time of day you nap, giving you different benefits. (see Dr. Mednick’s nap wheel).
- Naps don’t hurt your night time sleep. In fact, people who nap regularly have an easier time sleeping at night.
However, the most important thing that this book taught me was that it’s OK to nap. And not only is it OK, it’s very beneficial for your health and productivity. That got rid of the mental block I had that napping was somehow lazy or unproductive. The book also gets into how to get rid of the “nap stigma” at work/school so you can work napping into your lifestyle (something rather easy for me).
Armed with this information, I’ve been able to tweak my sleep schedule so it works for me. For the most part I’ve never been productive in mid-afternoon, so I’ve begun working a daily nap into my schedule between 2 PM and 5 PM, depending on how my schedule shakes up for the day. If I got my 8 hours of sleep the night before, I take a 20 minute nap to refresh myself. If I didn’t get enough sleep, I try to sleep a full sleep cycle (roughly an hour and a half). It takes me about 10 minutes to fall asleep, so I factor that in when setting my alarm.
If you don’t have time to read the book, I definitely recommend watching Dr. Mednick’s presentation she gave to Google employees last year:
So, exactly one year later, I no longer feel like I’m going through life sleep deprived. I feel like I’ve laid the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy sleep. This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever accomplished, primarily because old bad habits are really really hard to break. I’d imagine it’s much the same way that procrastinators have a hard time getting on top of their work, or that sedentary people have a hard time sticking to a new exercise routine.
It was a good lesson for me because things usually come pretty easy to me. Sometimes things that come naturally to other people are hard for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t make changes in your life that you want to make, provided you’re willing to put the work in, make a few sacrifices (like giving up going out on the weekends until 4 AM in my case) and don’t give up easily.