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Master the Catnap

Too tired to study? Do what some of the hardest-working people in history have done: Take a nap. Here, 6 tips to make it count.

It’s 2 p.m. and you’ve been studying for a few hours when a wave of exhaustion hits you. You’ve got one more round with your notes, but your eyelids feel like 10-pound weights. Do you (a) reach for a Red Bull? (b) power through? Or (c) give in and close your eyes?

If you think option (c) is a waste of time, think again. Sleep and study experts tell us that a nap might be just the thing you need to keep your brain sharp and your study schedule intact.

Napping isn’t just for slackers. Some of the smartest, hardest-working people on the planet have recognized its benefits: Napoleon, Thomas Edison, and the artist Salvador Dalí were all fans. And there are Hall of Fame lady nappers as well: Eleanor Roosevelt, former Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer, and supermodel Cara Delevingne make no apologies for their noonday dozing.

Corporate America has also started to settle in on the trend. Companies including Uber, Zappos, and Google offer dedicated nap spaces to their employees.

Still not convinced? Consider that 85% of mammals sleep for short periods throughout the day. Anyone with a dog or cat can certainly attest to that. Many scientists are convinced that we humans need midday naps like many other animals, but we ignore our biological need and keep on plugging on. You know how you naturally become a little sluggish in the afternoon — your mind gets fuzzy and your body feels heavy? It seems to be built into our DNA.

In fact, until the age of electricity and industrialization, many people slept in two segments, rather than a single block of time (called “monophasic sleep”). Critics say that for some of us, a single p.m. slumber may not cut it. We need a midday break to get back on track. In other cultures, napping is still built into the daily routine: Think of the Spanish siesta. The Japanese also have their inemuri — sleeping while at work — in order to boost productivity later in the day.

“Catnaps are great,” says Roman Gelperin, author of Addiction, Procrastination, and Laziness. “If you find yourself too groggy and too tired to comprehend what you’re studying, you should definitely stop and take a brief nap. It’s a great way to recharge your brain when you’re tired.”

So now that you know you should take a nap, here are six tips to make it count.

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1. Get horizontal

get horizontal for a better nap

There’s an app for that!

Of course there’s an app for that. Here are three apps for naps:

Sleep Cycle power nap (available for iOS; $1.99)
Uses the built-in accelerometer in your phone to monitor and analyze your movements to determine when you fall asleep, or are about to fall asleep. The app offers three nap modes: Power nap (20 minutes); Recovery nap (45 minutes); or 1 sleep cycle. Enable Sleep Aid for a soothing sound to help you fall asleep. Choose from 17 relaxing alarm melodies.

Power Nap App (available for iOS; free)
Power naps of less than 30 minutes restore wakefulness and promote performance and learning. This app eases you into a sleepy state with relaxation sounds (ocean, rain, thunder, and more) and wakes you up before you fall into deeper sleep, helping you reenergize in a scientifically proven way.

Pzizz (available for iOS and Android; free)
Admired by the likes of NBA all-star Roy Hibbert and Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, this app has two modules: Power Nap and Sleep. It uses a patented system that plays you a sleep-optimized mix of music, voice-over, and sound effects to quickly quiet your mind, put you to sleep, keep you asleep, and then wake you up feeling refreshed.

Lying down beats sitting. Studies show that it takes 50% longer to fall asleep upright. So if possible, get yourself in a reclining position somewhere dark, quiet, and cool, which all encourage sleep.

If there’s no sofa in sight, the floor and a chair will do for this relaxation technique, based on a yoga pose called Legs up the Wall. Take off your shoes. Lie on your back with your feet on a chair, legs bent at a 90-degree angle. Close your eyes for 15 minutes or so. Elevating your legs allows the mind and body to relax and also relieves stress and tension, so afterward you’ll feel rested and more clearheaded.

2. Keep it under 30 minutes …

It’s all about timing. The length of your nap will affect how refreshed you feel when you wake up, and what benefits you get. According to the experts, under 30 minutes is the sweet spot for improving alertness, performance, and your mood — at least for a few hours. A 20- to 25-minute snooze keeps you in the first and lightest stages of what’s called non-REM sleep (when you’re not dreaming). Sleeping longer will put you into a deeper sleep and you’ll wake up feeling groggy.

3. … Unless you have an hour and a half

A 90-minute sleep allows you cycle through all five stages of sleep, including the last stage when REM (rapid eye movement) sleep occurs. Our REM (dreaming) sleep is believed to be instrumental for laying down new memories, not to mention better information retrieval and creative thinking — a nice set of skills for finals week. “If you can spare an hour and a half, that’s a great length for a nap. It confers all the benefits of each sleep stage,” says Sarah Mednick, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

4. Set your alarm

Be sure to set an alarm so you don’t sleep too long. Keep in mind that it takes most people 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, so schedule your wake-up alert for about 45 minutes out.

5. Choose the perfect nap time

Between 2 and 3 p.m. is the optimal window of time to lie down. That’s because you’ve already eaten lunch and your blood sugar and energy levels will naturally start to dip. Plus your body clock is programmed to make you feel a little sleepy come midafternoon.

If you try to nap earlier, your body might not actually be ready for more sleep. Later than that can mess up your ability to fall asleep that night. Experts say the best time to put your head down is about seven hours after the time you wake up. So for instance, if you were up at 7 a.m., your ideal naptime is around 2 p.m.

6. Try a “coffee nap”

Have you heard of it? Though it sounds counterintuitive, it’s not. It’s actually a way of tricking your brain so you get the benefits from both the caffeine and a quick, restorative sleep. Here’s how to do it: Have a cup of coffee (or caffeinated tea), then lie down for 20 to 25 minutes. Caffeine takes about 30 minutes to hit your bloodstream, so when you wake up you’ll get the one-two punch of caffeine and a good snooze. (Awesome!) Research shows that this combination is super effective for sharpening your focus.

If you’re not a napper

Power napping tips

If you’re not a pro at sleeping in short bursts, Tim Pychyl, PhD, director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, recommends going for a walk to jump-start your brain. Oxygen is essential for healthy brain function, and our brains are super sensitive to low oxygen levels. Taking a walk outside and breathing some fresh air will improve your focus and cognition — two excellent skills for acing those finals.

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