The afternoon slump is real. If you find yourself feeling drowsy, distracted or unmotivated in the afternoon, you may do one of two things: reach for a second (or 5th) cup of coffee, or hit the sack for a brief nap. While coffee can certainly help ward off sleep, it doesn’t necessarily fight fatigue or increase alertness when we’re feeling tired. Thus, in many cases a nap may actually be your best bet. But for how long? What’s the optimal nap length?
Best Nap Length
Everyone reacts a little differently to naps, but most experts agree that the best amount of time to nap should roughly 20 minutes.
When you sleep for 20 minutes you will remain in the lightest stages of non-REM sleep. This makes it easier to wake up, and leaves you feeling alert and ready to face the rest of the afternoon.
If you sleep for much longer than that, you may enter a deeper sleep cycle. While we need deep REM sleep in order to function, it’s not something we want to experience when we are napping. If you enter a deep sleep cycle and then are rudely awakened by your blaring alarm, you will likely find it quite difficult to get out of bed. Plus, you may actually feel more tired than before you napped!
So, for most people the best nap length will be about 20 minutes or so. From 30-60 minutes or so you’ll enter REM sleep, and unless you complete a full cycle you will likely wake up feeling groggy.
If you have time for a longer snooze, the best amount of time to nap is 90 minutes or so. This allows adequate time for a complete sleep cycle.
To summarize, the best nap length should be less than 30 minutes, or over 90 minutes. Anything in between and you might wake up in worse shape than before napping.
Timing the Optimal Nap Time
The problem with a 20 minute nap is that it might take you 10 or 15 minutes just to fall asleep! If you’re someone that falls asleep very quickly, then setting your alarm for 20 minutes might work perfectly. If you take a bit to fall asleep, you may wish to aim for 25-30 minutes or more.
The idea is to try to engineer a schedule that allows you to actually sleep for roughly 15-20 minutes. If you’re feeling exhausted and are confident that you will fall asleep quick, set your alarm for maybe 20 or 22 minutes. If your mind is active and it may take some time to calm your thoughts, an alarm set for 30 minutes might be better.
Personally, I usually set an alarm for 30 minutes. This allows me to relax and not feel pressured to fall asleep quickly, and I usually wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go. I find that if I snooze for longer than that, I am quite groggy.
Ultimately it may take some experimenting and tinkering to figure out the ideal timeline for you. But once you’ve figured it out, naps can be a refreshing – dare I say glorious – part of your afternoon.
Chris was a psychiatrist and neurologist with board certification in sleep medicine Clinical Associate Professor at the University of California. For over 10 years, he served and helped patients at Stanford Health Care-Stanford Hospital with their sleeping disorders.
After suffered from sleep disorders for years, Chris has been passionate about sleep health ever since. He wants to help others sleep better and wanted to make the world of sleep easy to understand for everyday people.