How to master the art (and science) of the work-from-home nap

The ideal nap should last between 20 to 30 minutes, according to sleep experts. (Molly Tucker/MEDILL)

By Molly Tucker
Medill Reports

As the work-from-home shift caused bedrooms to replace boardrooms, many 9-to-5’ers who no longer needed to commute gained an hour or two to accomplish tasks – or nap.     

Working in-person and commuting builds in a structure that allows someone to control their circadian rhythms, or the 24-hour biological clock that tells the body when it’s time to sleep and wake up. But nearly two years into the pandemic, 61% of people who are working from home are doing so by choice, according to a January survey of social work trends by the Pew Research Center. A hybrid schedule, erratic napping and excessive time in bed can hinder a person’s ability to get enough shut-eye. Nearly a quarter of employed Americans (22%) napped during the workday in 2021, according to a study by the Better Sleep Council. Napping, a common habit for kids, is oftentimes viewed as lazy or a way to make up for lost sleep in adults. But if one sleeps well at night, and it doesn’t affect their work, is taking a midday snooze OK? 

Who should nap

Ever wonder why some people can fall asleep the second they get into bed or start a road trip? Although all humans are diurnal creatures, research shows that certain people are more genetically predisposed to daytime napping, according to a study published in Nature Communications. A homeostatic sleep drive, or the pressure the body puts on people to snooze, differs from person to person, the same way height differs. It works like an hourglass, explained Dr. Kristen Knutson, a professor of neurology and preventive medicine with a background in anthropology at Northwestern University. “When you wake up, the hourglass flips and starts to accumulate as you’re awake. But when you nap, it flips over and some of the sand starts to fall out,” Knutson said.  When the hourglass is full, you are ready to sleep. If you’re already struggling to fall asleep at night, napping will only worsen the problem by lessening your urge to sleep. But those with a strong homeostatic process, who feel like their hourglasses are almost always full, will hardly be affected by daytime rest.

When to nap

A midday nap at the hottest part of the day is ingrained in the cultures of countries like Morocco and Spain. Similarly, hunters and gatherers conserved energy this way, Knutson said. Biologically, the body enters into a “post-lunch dip,” which has nothing to do with ingestion or the outside temperature. This natural part of the body’s rhythm causes a midday decrease in  energy levels, according to a 2009 study. This brief early afternoon sleepiness is the ideal time to hit the hay. 

How long to nap

If napping is supposed to make one feel more alert, why do people feel more tired when they wake up? Sleep occurs in stages, progressively deepening the longer one sleeps. Sleep inertia, or that groggy feeling one has when they wake up, occurs if they are pulled from this deep level of rest. “One of the reasons to suggest shorter naps is that they’re typically associated with less sleep inertia than a longer nap,” said Dr. Kathryn Reid, a research professor of neurology and sleep medicine at Northwestern University. People typically don’t doze at this deep level until after a half hour of shuteye.

To ensure  waking up feeling refreshed, limit  snooze times to 20 to 30 minutes.

Molly Tucker is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @mollydtucker.