The perfect nap is a mythical beast, witnessed perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, if ever. There’s an indefinable formula to daytime sleep—a lie down that leaves you feeling alert rather than sluggish or irritable; energized and ready for work, rather than ready to clear your calendar and turn in for the day.

Here are some tried and tested napping best practices, methods that separate the napping noobs from the siesta supremos—chief among being the timing and duration of your nap.

How long is the perfect nap?

Healthline recommends napping for no longer than 10 to 20 minutes or taking a longer, 90-minute nap. The theory here is that you’re aiming to either capture a full sleep cycle, or to cut your nap short before entering the later stage, slow-wave sleep. Being roused from slow-wave sleep can leave you feeling groggy and confused, as anyone who’s struggled to adjust to a new alarm time can attest.

What are the 5 stages of the sleep cycle?

Diana Walcutt of PsychCentral describes the sleep cycle as the circling stages of sleep that bring the body in and out of different kinds of rejuvenating rest, the most famous being the final stage: Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM). During the first sleep cycle, REM only lasts a short amount of time, becoming longer with each cycle through to the morning.

Stages 1 & 2: Light, alpha and theta wave sleep

Light sleep helps prepare your body and mind for a full night’s rest. This is the dozing or napping period of sleep. The brain begins to operate on alpha and theta waves, which induce a feeling of dreaminess, which also occurs during restful moments when we’re awake.

People skilled in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or simply the ‘flow state’ of being absorbed in an activity, can often enter alpha stages during the day. At those times, many people find their imagination becomes more vivid, and they’re able to summon up unusual thoughts or make connections that aren’t apparent in other stages.

Stages 3 & 4: Deeper, short wave sleep

As sleep gets deeper, you lose consciousness and your body begins to run through restorative processes. Stage 3 and 4 are important for muscle growth and repair, as well as conditioning in your brain. Upstairs, delta waves take over from alpha, which are responsible for the lack of awareness. Being woken during these stages is likely to cause sleep inertia—a lag in mobility and alertness.

Stage 5: REM sleep

Rapid Eye Movement sleep is the primary dreaming stage, where your brain carries out memory conditioning and problem-solving. As the brain gets more active, your muscles become more relaxed and may become paralyzed, to avoid sleepwalking and the acting out of dreams.

So, the lesson here is to go short or long with your nap. Sleeping for 20 minutes will keep you safely within stage 2 sleep, which enhances alertness and concentration without entering the deep sleep cycle. In fact, a 1995 NASA study plumps for 26 minutes as the ultimate nap duration.

If you can, try to never set an alarm for a 30-60 minute nap. Half-hour naps cause “sleep inertia,” a groggy state that can last for about the same amount of time after waking. This is because the body is forced to wake during the process of slowing or shutting down muscle movements.

What’s the ‘power’ in power nap?

Apart from sounding catchy, the idea of a power nap again relates back to the sleep cycle. Power naps are naps that don’t go past that stage 2 threshold, making it relatively easy to get back to work straight away. If you reach the deeper stages of the sleep cycle, you shouldn’t get that ‘new day’ feeling of having to recall information from your longer-term memory. A more technical term for a power nap could, therefore, be a non-REM nap.

Where are you napping?

Perhaps it’s obvious, but heading to your bed for a nap is probably a bad idea, as it becomes overwhelmingly likely that your quick 15 minutes will turn into a few hours of missed calls and a drooled-on pillow.

Today’s mattresses are designed for the optimal sleep experience, with a softness that helps you quickly enter the sleep cycle and a level of support and temperature regulation that keeps you asleep. This is dangerous napping territory. Instead, choose a spot that strikes a good balance between comfort, seclusion, and just enough environmental stimulation to stop you from falling deeply asleep.

If you have a comfortable office chair, you may not need to leave your office for a nap. Other good alternatives include a shady park bench, a corner of a quiet public building (art gallery, foyer, etc), or even a custom sleep pod, as can be found in many modern offices.

Businessman sleeping with feet up at desk

Time of day affects nap quality

The best time to take a nap depends on individual factors like your average bedtime and your age. For most, napping early in the afternoon is the best way to gain an energy boost without disrupting your night. Talking to Forbes, Dr. Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, recommends aiming to nap at the time of day when you’re likely to experience the biggest balance of slow-wave and REM sleep.

Dr. Mednick has even created an interactive tool to calculate what time of day that window exists, based on when you wake up (check out her free tool here). Unsurprisingly, this window is around 2-3 pm for most people, confirming the anecdotal evidence provided by the long history of siestas and afternoon naps in many cultures.

This can change according to age, however. Children under five may benefit from up to three, one-hour naps per day. A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on napping and the elderly found a self-reported association between moderate post-lunch napping and better cognition. And while napping may have personal benefits, there are no definitive findings suggesting that most adults need to nap to remain healthy.


  • Nap long or nap short, never in-between. While a 20-minute power nap can give you a boost without sending you into a deep sleep, a 90-minute nap allows you to cycle in, and all the way through, deep sleep stages.
  • Find an environment that will truly let you nap: somewhere quiet, cool, and comfortable—but not too comfortable. Supplement your napping with earplugs, pillows, headphones, and/or sleep meditation apps to enrich the experience.
  • Choose a napping time that fits your schedule as well as your 24-hour sleep cycle. Early afternoon is the time when most people will encounter the best balance of slow-wave and REM sleep. You may want to check out these tips on how to prolong REM sleep.