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The fine art of the power nap

When the going gets tough, the tough take a power nap—a 20-minute-or-so mid-afternoon doze that reenergizes our day. Winston Churchill donned his pajamas daily for a short snooze, saying he got “two days in one” thanks to napping. Other famous power nappers: Einstein, Edison, Napoleon, JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Somehow, we’ve learned to scorn afternoon siestas, though many other regions embrace them, especially Europe and Latin America. Yet many people could use a nap now and then. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most of us are sleep-deprived—too busy to get the rest our bodies need. Although eight hours’ slumber nightly is vital to good health, Americans currently average seven hours … and the trend is dropping.

Take one, guilt-free

At first blush, power napping runs contrary to our concept of hard work—after all, who wants to get caught sleeping on the job? But a quick catnap permits us to get 20 to 30 minutes of light, refreshing stage-one sleep—the portion that relaxes the muscles and mind prior to the heavier sleep and dreaming that occurs in stages two through four. As a result, researchers have found that power nappers have higher productivity, make better decisions with fewer mistakes and accidents and have sunnier dispositions than their sleep-deprived counterparts. They are even less prone to heart attacks and gastrointestinal problems.

Some companies endorse the idea and are inviting employees to take advantage of nap rooms outfitted with cots, pillows and blankets. NASA says pilots on long, uneventful flights perform much better after power naps (one pilot is always awake).

Convinced that you want to try napping? Use these pointers to get the most benefits:

  • Power nap in the early afternoon, or about eight hours after you wake up. Our energy naturally sags between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. when our body is diverting oxygen-rich blood from the brain to the stomach to digest lunch.
  • Limit naps to between 15 and 30 minutes. Longer napping causes deep, dreamy sleep and a non-refreshed, foggy state called sleep inertia. This lessens our ability to stay sharp and focused and could cause trouble sleeping at night.
  • “Power rest” if you’re not tired enough to nap. Relax, close your eyes and take a short break from chores.
  • If your workplace isn’t nap-friendly, fight afternoon fatigue with a brisk 10-minute power walk, stretch for several minutes or snack on fruit and water to boost energy. Don’t drink coffee or eat candy for a midday charge—after the brief caffeine and sugar pick-me-up wears off, you’ll be even more tired.