No matter how much we wish we could fall asleep on command, and stay asleep throughout the night, sometimes we find it out of our reach just when we need it most. Yet we typically wind up powering through our day anyway, downing as many coffees as it takes to make us feel less exhausted than we really are.
While we may be used to it, carrying on with our schedules in a state of sleep deprivation means we’re not operating at our ideal capacity. The truth is, from a scientific perspective, the only real remedy for a lack of sleep is, well, sleep. And in the time you took to fix yourself a K-cup or pop out to the coffee shop across the street, you might as well have closed your eyes for a quick nap.
A wide body of research over the years, reviewed in the Journal of Sleep Research, supports how even short naps can tangibly improve alertness, mood, focus, and cognitive performance, in the short term as well as throughout the day. For maximum effect, cognitive science experts say to aim for one of the two optimal nap lengths: either 20-30 minutes or 60-90 minutes. Try not to time your nap in between these two time frames, as you’re more likely to enter into a full-on sleep cycle. Waking up before that cycle is complete can leave you with what’s called sleep inertia — slower to wake back up and somehow feeling more tired than you did before you nodded off.
If even 20 minutes sounds like too much to squeeze into your calendar, start smaller: One study published in Sleep found that a 10-minute nap has been found to measurably improve alertness and cognitive performance, and a German study found that even a six-minute nap improved performance on a memory recall exercise. A micro-nap could mean just resting your head on your desk, or settling into a quiet corner with headphones to help drown out the ambient noise around you. And if you don’t end up actually dropping into sleep, there’s no need to worry; just taking the time to rest your eyes and quiet your racing thoughts is restorative enough to leave you feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, and ready to tackle the rest of your to-do list.
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