- If You Haven’t Been Sleeping Well… Here’s How to Change It!
- How to Hack Your Sleep – Sleep Less, Do More, Feel Better: Part 1
- How to Hack Your Sleep – Sleep Less, Do More, Feel Better: Part 2
- How to Hack Your Sleep – Sleep Less, Do More, Feel Better: Part 3
Maybe sleep is for the weak, but letting our workloads get the best of us is for the lame. Today, we’re faced with more options—more work, more opportunities, more of life in general. We’re also expected to do more—but no one has given us more time to do all of these things. Why not take advantage of the remedy nature has provided us? Napping is free, easy to learn, doesn’t require special equipment, and is actually hardwired into us! Read on to find out more about this “secret” life-optimizing skill we’ve all been born with!
Maybe you want to sleep better at night. Maybe it’s an upcoming schedule change, like a long trip or a vacation you need to get ready for. Maybe you’d even like to lose a few pounds, or keep that beautiful boyish figure (if you’re a dude…). More than likely, though, you’re definitely interested in getting more out of the few hours a day you’re given. You want to make the most of the time you have, and right now, it’s just not happening.
There’s nothing wrong with looking into alternate sleep cycles or special schedules for some instances, but take from someone who knows: when you begin to invest time in practicing something the Uberman sleep cycle, be prepared to really invest. In short, it’s hard.
For the rest of us, though, we can take advantage of our natural antidote to tiredness, laziness, and unproductivity immediately: napping.
Our natural rhythms
Whatever physiological variables we measure, we usually find that there is a maximum value at one time of day and a minimum value at another. Jurgen Aschoff, “Circadian Rhythms in Man,” Science, 1965.
I know it sounds pretty elementary. Naps are for old people and kindergarteners, not to mention the animal kingdom. Actually, most animals sleep in a multi-phasal cycle—that’s why your dog always seems “so awake,” and is ready to go at a moment’s notice (and you thought it was because he loved you so much…) But let’s look at the research behind this in humans: A long time ago, a crusty old German guy named Jurgen Aschoff did a study on circadian rhythm, where he stuck a few human subjects inside converted World War II bunkers, where no outside light could get in. He disallowed any timekeeping devices in the bunkers, forcing the subjects to let their bodies “tell” them when they should sleep.
After a brief “readjustment” period, these subjects (turns out they were actually paid volunteers, so he wasn’t such a crazy guy after all) all reverted to their “natural” bi-phasic sleep cycle—they’d sleep for about six to seven hours at a time, wake up for another eight or so, then have a “mini phase” of sleep followed by another block of wakefulness. The cycle would repeat itself indefinitely, and thus Aschoff proposed that we, as humans, were not that unlike our animal friends after all. He concluded that humans actually have endogenous circadian cycles (read this article for more on the study, its preceding study in a Kentucky cave, and its follow-up studies in space!).
So if we were meant to sleep in multiple “chunks” during a 24-hour period, how long should each be, and how can we actually get it to work for us?
Hacking your sleep: Deciding on your “nap time”
If you’d really like to dive into this further, I’d suggest taking cues from an actual researcher who’s written a book on napping. I can think of one that’s worthy of mention, and one I use to “chart” my naps: Take a Nap! Change Your Life. By Sara Mednick (not an affiliate link) is hands-down the easiest to use and read. No wading through pages of dissertations and theses, just the cold, hard facts.
For me, here were the takeaways:
Not all sleep is created equal. We sleep in different phases, each offering our bodies different benefits. Here’s a basic breakdown from Dr. Mednick’s book:
- Stage 1 – This stage is least understood, as we spend the least amount of time in it. Really, it’s the first few minutes of “pseudo sleep,” where our minds aren’t really awake and our eyelids are pressuring us to give in.
- Stage 2 – Stage 2 is like the foundation of sleep—it’s the stage we spend more than half of our sleep time in, and it’s the stage that helps to “reset” our brain to be more alert when we wake up.
- Stage 3 & 4 – We can lump these stages together because they represent what’s known as “slow-wave sleep,” which is the process during which our body and brain “rebuilds” and rejuvenates.
- REM (Rapid Eye Movement) – Perhaps the most popular and well-known sleep phase, REM sleep is the time of sleep that most resembles our waking state. As such, we are most likely to dream those wildly fantastical dreams during REM sleep, and it’s the stage that helps us improve our creativity as well.
Choosing a nap really is just about deciding what you need most out of your waking hours—if you know that you have a big project coming up, you’re going to want to be alert and focused, but mostly at your creative best. So choosing a nap from the above menu would consist of trying to get mainly into a REM sleep phase, with some Stage 2 thrown in for good measure (and because we can’t help it anyway…).
There are, of course, some specific rules that generally apply to the average 9-5 working person. Without going too far into it, the phases of sleep are not always accessible to us. For example, Slow-Wave Sleep isn’t always followed by REM sleep, and we only get the full benefit of the three main phases of sleep (Stage 2, Slow-wave, and REM) during a full-night’s sleep of six to eight hours. This means that we need to plan our naps according to what we need to get out of them:
- REM sleep, for most of us, is going to be available to us mostly in the wee hours of the day, starting at 4 am and reaching its peak around 8-10 am.
- Slow-Wave sleep depends on when we go to bed and wake up, but generally can be found mostly right after we go to bed, and then again a few hours before bed. This means a nap of mostly Slow-Wave sleep would need to happen closer to your bedtime, possibly in the afternoon.
- We can ride the Stage 2 sleep train at any time—it’s most accessible, so it’s there for taking, whenever we fall asleep.
Bottom line: if you’re a 9-5er, or have a similar, regular, and consistent day-to-day schedule for the most part, you’ll get the “perfect storm” of a nap between 1 and 3 pm, assuming a bedtime of 11 pm and a wake time of 7 am. Again, doing more research for your specific needs will help, as will understanding how age comes into play as well (I’m speaking mostly to 20-30 year olds, here, but most adults will fit these categories. Teenagers, adolescents, and kiddos—you need much more sleep anyway, but you have a parent or two to tell you when to do that.).
Further, Dr. Mednick (quoting researcher Roger Broughton) actually outlines the “perfect nap” in her book as this balance of sleep phases:
- 5% Stage 1
- 60% Stage 2
- 17.5% Slow-wave
- 17.5% REM
…and goes on to say: “if you nap when the clock strikes the zone and ride it for 90 minutes, you score a nap that couldn’t be more optimal…” Mednick, 59.
Basically, “hacking your sleep” by using naps can help you by optimizing your “asleep” hours. We can’t always have a perfect night of sleep, but when we do, we need to use it to our greatest productive and motivational benefit for when we’re awake.
The other times, when we toss and turn, wake up regularly, or just feel awful, we can use naps–systematically, thoughtfully, and well-planned, throughout the day to “fix” our bi-phasal tendencies!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, “How to Hack Your Sleep.”