The slow part of my day — when there isn’t any wind in my sails — is usually between 2:30 and 4:30. With lunch eaten and afternoon work piling up, time seems to slow down. Minutes take what feels like hours to pass. Thoughts seem to slow down with the time and energy takes a massive dip. For me, the choice it always comes down to seems to be between coffee and a nap.
For a long time, coffee usually won. That’s because of an abiding love of coffee, of course, but it’s also because I used to be a terrible napper. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that I actually hated naps. Instead of refreshing breaks, they felt more like terrible miniature comas that I would awake from even more drained and grumpy than before. And they almost always lasted much longer than I expected, so that I felt guilty on top of it all.
I assumed that those two things were connected somehow: That my naps weren’t the mythical recharging “power naps” I’d heard of because I slept for too long. But how long should a nap be in order to effectively energize you for the rest of the day?
The Dali method
Salvador Dali answered most of my questions. I don’t mean that the Surrealist painter actually appeared to me, waxed mustache gleaming and pet anteater on a chain, to lay down the secret wisdom of sleep. I mean that I heard an anecdote about the “Dali method” of napping. The key is, well, a key. And not actually falling asleep.
Dali wrote in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship that in order to get the most out of your nap, to turn it into a real power nap that revives your body and reinvigorates your imagination, you keep a key in your hand that’s poised to fall on an upside down plate as soon as you doze off and release your grip. Dali wrote:
The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you, and you may be equally sure that this fugitive moment when you had barely lost consciousness and during which you cannot be assured of having really slept is totally sufficient, inasmuch as not a second more is needed for your physical and psychic being to be revivified by just the necessary amount of repose.
It sounds like a weird set-up, for sure. And it’s being recommended by a man who famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” But it works. The first time I tried it myself I leaned back in the chair of my home office with a spoon in hand and plate strategically placed underneath where the spoon would fall if I were to casually let go of it. Before I even had time to register whether it was working or not, I woke up with a start. Completely awake. Completely refreshed. And it was even better than a cup of coffee because there wasn’t a crash after the effects wore off.
The science of napping
If Dali and my own personal testimony aren’t enough to convince you, then maybe the sleep science that backs the method up will. Your brain and body work in a fascinating tandem when it comes to sleep, moving through different phases of activity in a fairly predictable pattern. Waking up before you enter deep sleep, right on the verge of what is sometimes called a “hypnagogic reverie,” allows you to sidestep the grogginess that comes with naps over 20 minutes long that go through complete dream cycles. In other words, Dali felt not just refreshed, but actually creative after his mini-naps because he let himself finish his dream during his waking life.
Of course, Dali had his own studio. I dropped my spoon in the safety of my home office. Maybe the most difficult part of perfecting the art of the power nap is convincing your boss and co-workers that five minutes asleep with a spoon in your hand is a more efficient use of resources than staring, totally uninspired, at your inbox for an hour every afternoon.
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