"3 Ways You're Screwing Up Your Nap—and How to Fix Them"

Maybe you slept like crap last night or your bedtime lately has been more like a suggestion than a definite. You figure you can make up for it with a nice, long nap—but then you end up feeling way worse than if you hadn’t slept at all. What gives?

Naps actually can be incredibly refreshing, but if you’re a groggy mess instead, you may be taking the incorrect approach, according to W. Chris Winter, M.D., Men’s Healthsleep adviser and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.

Here are some possibilities for what you’re doing wrong when you're napping, and how to right yourself.

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Nap mistake: You’re not setting an alarm
It’s a nap, not a meeting, so why would you restrict how long you sleep? For very good reasons, Dr. Winter says.

Defining a certain timeframe—and sticking to that for every nap—trains your brain to expect rest for that amount of time. That can help you fall asleep faster during naps, and to wake up more refreshed.

Plus, if you don’t set an alarm, you might end up snoozing too long, and waking up during a stage of sleep that can leave you groggy.

In terms of how much time to get, Dr. Winter recommends two distinct choices: Either nap for about 20 minutes or for 90 minutes. The latter is how long your full sleep cycle—including REM sleep, when you dream—takes from start to finish. That’s important, because if you wake up during the middle of it, your brain doesn’t have time to adjust, Dr. Winter says. That can leave you feeling out of it for a few hours.

But a 15 to 20 minute nap is long enough to power down your cortisol, the hormone most responsible for your stress response. That will make your energy more balanced during the day, Dr. Winter says, and increase your chances of falling asleep more easily for the night.

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Nap mistake: You laze around before or after your nap
A big, empty Sunday stretches out before you, so you lounge inside through the morning and then decide to fill your sleep account with some nap-time credits.

Most likely, you’ll wake up blurry, Dr. Winter says. That’s because this technique doesn’t establish enough “wake time” before you actually nod off. Basically, he says, your circadian rhythm is getting offline. When that happens, you may struggle to be fully awake and refreshed, and it could lead to trouble falling asleep later.

Instead of the lounge-sleep-lounge approach, get some light activity outside first, even if it’s for half an hour. It sounds counterintuitive since light and exercise can both serve to wake you up more. But Dr. Winter says that it establishes a better circadian effect.

“Natural light is very important, because it’s a big signal to your body to wake up after a night of sleep,” he notes. “If you don’t get that signal, and then go back to bed, your sleep quality may suffer.”

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Nap mistake: You nap at random times
Part of developing good sleep hygiene is going to bed at the same time every night, says Dr. Winter. Naps can be the same, since it creates a routine that makes it easier for your brain to slip into sleep mode.

That doesn’t mean you have to nap every day, or at the exact same time if you do, but choosing a set, regular time when you do nap can be very helpful, he says.

To be truly efficient, consider scheduling the nap hours before it happens. This also gives your brain time to “power down” in a habituated way.

“The brain prefers to anticipate something, not react to it,” notes Dr. Winter. “A nap is no different, which is why a scheduled nap always works better over the long haul when compared to a random nap.”

In general, creating just as much structure for naps as you do for regular sleep can turn a little snooze into a big-time energy hack.

This article originally appeared on
www.menshealth.com