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The Secret of the Ultra-Productive: Naps?

The Secret of the Ultra-Productive: Naps?

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What does Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison have in common? Yes, they were pioneers, innovators and thought leaders in their fields. Yes, they were incredibly productive people in their lifetimes. And, they shared a common habit that may have contributed to their great achievements.

They were all habitual power nappers.

Einstein and Edison, who both thought sleeping was a waste of time, slept very little during the night and took short naps during the day. Da Vinci allegedly only slept by napping.

The list doesn’t stop there. Other busybodies like Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller were also advocates and practitioners of the power nap. Bill Clinton reportedly retired to his private quarters for a power nap at 3pm every day (insert intern jokes here).

Traditionally, there seems to be certain stigma associated with napping (particularly in North America). The perception that only underperformers and slackers would indulge in mid-day siestas. No more. In fact, companies like Google and Nike are beginning to realize the benefits of power naps to employee productivity. In recent years, Google has installed sleeping facilities in their offices for their employees. Googlers can enjoy naps in the comfort of the company’s $8,000 ergonomic napping pods, built by MetroNaps.

The Secret of the Ultra Productive: Naps?

Improve employee well being & workplace productivity. A win-win corporate strategy.

So what is the magic of the short nap? And how can aspiring ultra-producers take advantage?

The Science Behind the Nap

Across all of the research done on napping, from studies on memory functions to reaction time, there is evidence that napping, even for short periods, can improve both mental and physical performance, and by an astonishing amount.

A Harvard study published in 2008 reports that a 20 – 40 minute nap improves both learning and memory functions, and reverse information overload on student test subjects. A NASA study on pilots who took a 30 minute nap showed a 16% improvement in alertness and response time. Other studies echo similar results. The verdict? A well-placed nap can improve waking alertness, concentration and mood for up to 10 hours – time that could be well spent on productive work instead of nodding off.

So how long should a power nap be?

We can all attest to the fact that sometimes naps can make us feel groggy and disorientated. This is a phenomenon known as sleep inertia, where your body enters deep sleep but does not complete the sleep cycle. To remedy this, try to keep the duration of naps under 45 minutes. Personally, any naps over half an hour tend to make me groggy- but I am a quick sleeper. While longer naps net you more performance benefits, it may take you a while to recover from the effects of sleep inertia, which is counterproductive if you need to make an important phone call or fly a plane (?) immediately after.

The best compromise between time and sleep benefits in my experience? 20 minute naps, stacked with caffeine beforehand.

The Holy Grail: Caffeine Naps

Perfected by five years of college. This is a variation on your average catnap that has saved my ass on several occasions with looming deadlines and back-to-back exams. It is also the best compromise, in my experience, between maximizing benefits to nap time.

The idea is that caffeine takes up to half an hour after consumption to have an alerting effect. Timed correctly, your body wakes up as the caffeine kicks in.

This is my setup:

i) Caffeinated drink. My weapons of choice being 250 – 500ml of drip coffee or green tea, cooled to room temperature (Temperature is important, as beverages that are too cold/hot may interfere with falling asleep)
ii) Kitchen timer or cell phone alarm.
iii) Notebook. To jot down spur of the moment ideas and dreams (lucid dreaming, baby!)
iv) Ear plugs & sleep shield

The Secret of the Ultra Productive: Naps?

Caffeine nap essentials.


Set your kitchen timer on for 30 minutes. Consume the caffeine infusion right as you’re about to take the nap. Make sure you can hear the timer with your earplugs on! To prevent oversleeping and sleep inertia, get your butt out of bed when the alarm goes off.

Based on other sleep hacker’s self-experiments and my own experiences, here are some best practices to improve your nap:

1) Lower your body temperature.
A drop in core body heat helps facilitate sleep. When possible, nap with ambient temperatures between 65 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Taking a very cold shower within an hour of nap time can also have the same tranquilizing effect.

2) Meal before the Nap. A small meal of protein and some fats will help induce sleep. Stay away from sugar and white carbs up to 2 hours before your nap.

3) Body Position. If you’re napping in a chair, prop your legs on a elevated platform to reduce pressure on your lower back. On a bed, try sleeping on your side, legs slightly curled. Place a small pillow between your knees to relieve pressure off your spine. This position, known as the “Sleeping Beauty”, is one of healthiest positions to sleep in.

There you have it. The single, most effective nap that I’ve ever taken. Naps that were fantastic in preschool, now made even better.


About the Author


Wants to explore the world, write about it, and inspire others.

Cathy  26 Apr 2011

Check out the Uberman sleep cycle Tony, if you haven’t already. 2 hours of sleep total per day! Imagine how much farther would society be if we only slept that much.


Nishun's advisor  26 Apr 2011

Big fan of the nap. I used to work night shifts after my full-time job that really killed me. I would sleep in the car for 10 minutes in between and feel completely refreshed. Funny thing is, my internal bio clock began to wake me up after 10 min every time… I didn’t even need to use an alarm.

I think corporate America should seriously consider introducing naps into the workspace.

Michael Kwan  3 May 2011

Caffeine nap… what a brilliant idea!

rick  4 May 2011

Hey Tony,
Check out more on the sleep cycle.
Sleep cycle kicks into full gear in about 1.5hours, by completing the fulls sleep cycle you are able to wake up fresh.
Take a look at the uberman sleep cycle mentioned above, as well as Tim Ferriss’ notes on this matter.


tonykwan  4 May 2011

@Cathy, Rick:

I have heard some things about the uberman sleep cycle (via the Four Hour Body) and wanted to try it out. I did so for 3 days over a long weekend but had to give it up due to my schedule. It was fun for a while I think my body needs the extra rest with my physical training, which is fairly intense.

1.5 hours nap sounds nice, but man, any nap longer than 45 minutes kills me when I wake up…

Harrison Li  29 Jun 2011

Ahh nice study, I also find taking hot showers useful :)

Kirsten @ Green Global Travel  19 Feb 2014

Catnaps got me through college. I’ve never thought/heard of a caffeine catnap though. Very interesting.

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