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Sleep your way to the top: How to power nap

(MoneyWatch) I'm the least likely person to recommend naps. I've never been a napper. I've never understood why someone would want to sleep in the middle of the day. To me, it seems counterproductive, lazy and maybe even a little un-American. "Why sleep when I could be working, reading, writing, or exercising?" I would ask myself.

But it turns out that a power nap, done correctly, can help you become more productive, creative and operate at peak performance. Now that's nearly as wholesome as baseball, apple pie and the national anthem.

Research shows that naps can be good for your health and for business. A short nap can restore wakefulness, improve memory, boost cognitive performance, combat fatigue, decrease response times and improve motivation. It also can do wonders if you have a sleep deficit (accumulated from, say, that weekend in Vegas). In short, sleep -- even a brief nap as short as five or 10 minutes -- can clear your mind and restore your body in ways that allow you to perform better.

I was first inspired to try power napping after reading Dr. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz's book, "The Power of Full Engagement." They stress the importance of learning how to manage your energy -- if not necessarily your time -- more effectively to live and work at peak performance. I've been power-napping two to four times per week for about six weeks now, and I'm happy with the results. I definitely feel a little groggy when I wake up and for a few minutes after, but the fog lifts quickly and I feel more alert.

Unlike sleep, however, there is a skill to power napping. Here's how to do it right:

1. Make it dark. It's a bit unnatural to sleep in the middle of the day, so you're going to need all the help you can get. Make your sleep area (whether your office, bedroom or other area) as dark as you can. That means pulling down the shades and turning off computer monitors, lamps or other devices that might keep you awake. I also suggest a sleep mask to block out even more light.

2. Make it quiet. Turn off the TV, mute your computer, put your cell phone on vibrate and hit the "do not disturb" button on your office phone. To drown out external noise, such as traffic or photocopy machines, play relaxing music or white noise (ocean waves, rain or even a blow dryer seems to do it for a lot of people) through your computer or cell phone. If comfortable, you can wear headphones to block out even more noise. If you have trouble falling asleep to music, wear earplugs.

3. Make it short. A power nap is not a casual siesta in the middle of the day for an hour or two. It's called a "power" nap for a reason -- mainly it is to appease the "type A" folks who wouldn't think of taking an ordinary nap in the middle of the day. It needs to be short. You don't want to start a full sleep cycle. If you do this, you'll feel groggy and won't be able to fully wake up for hours. This is counterproductive. The ideal amount of sleep is 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Quiet your mind. In the beginning, your mind will race -- maybe for the entire "nap." You'll be thinking of all the things you should be doing instead of sleeping. Focus on a single word or intently listen to the music. Power naps take practice!

5. Skip the guilt. This is much easier said than done for some people. Think of the nap as an investment that will yield a significant return. It's not wasted time -- a few minutes of strategic sleep will help you accomplish more. Another important step to eliminate guilt is to get approval from your boss or supervisor, if that is necessary. Convince them that a short afternoon nap makes business sense and that it will allow you to excel while the rest of the office is in its usual post-lunch coma.

6. Use caffeine for an extra boost. Down a cup of coffee right before your nap. As you're waking up from the nap, the caffeine will just be kicking in to give you even more energy and mental focus.

Enjoy your afternoon power nap. Wake up with a renewed sense of purpose, increased energy and heightened clarity of mind. Just be sure to wipe the drool from your mouth.

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