Warning: I have revised my thoughts on this subject after reading Pietr Wozniak’s excellent breakdown of polyphasic sleep and my own experiences. While my article (this blog post) was not a strong promotion of polyphasic sleep, I thought I would comment that I no longer really agree with cutting out sleep. I think quality sleep is vital to creativity, short- and long-term happiness, and, most importantly, one’s health. I am thankful that I had this experience, but would not recommend it to others.
What could you do if you only needed to sleep four hours a day? Assuming you sleep eight hours a day right now, your average day would be 25% longer!
A few summers ago, I tried sleeping 4.5 hours a day while holding a full-time job. Here’s what I experienced as the result of doing this.
Most people get their sleep in one big chunk, called monophasic sleep. Some get a consistent sleep pattern with two intervals. This biphasic sleep might include slightly shorter nighttime sleep and a siesta during the day. Polyphasic sleepers, on the other hand, split their sleep up into smaller chunks and spread them out throughout the day.
I first found out about polyphasic sleep by reading Steve Pavlina’s excellent and detailed series on polyphasic sleep. The idea of getting much greater awake time was compelling to me. Steve used the “uberman” pattern of sleep, which was six naps of twenty minutes stretched in equal parts throughout each day. I researched various polyphasic patterns, and figured out what I thought would be the best pattern based on my schedule. For over a month I tried to stick to the following sleep schedule:
- Core sleep: 1a to 4a
- Nap: 9a
- Nap: 2p
- Nap: 9p
The naps were all timed to be exactly twenty-five minutes long, meaning I got around four and a half hours of sleep per day. The core sleep block was chosen to coincide with when I normally would always be sleeping.
Here are some actual quotes from the experience, recorded at the time.
How I started:
Woke up yesterday at 6:15 am to go to work, and then did not sleep until 1:00 am ostensibly because I was doing laundry. Slept until 4:00 am, then woke up and started working on some audio stuff with the csound library. Then I napped from 9:00-9:25. Pretty cool overall, this schedule, I don’t really feel tired at this point. There is kind of a nagging feeling every now and then and I wonder how long it is until the next nap, but I think that could be because my brain knows that my body is not used to the schedule yet and does not want to miss a nap or something inadvertently. On the ride to work, I felt somewhat foggy. I will say that when I laid down to nap at 9 that I felt mostly awake and then my brain just about seized when it realized that it was going to sleep. Like I could feel the REM sleep firing up like it sometimes does when I am really tired and lie down to rest and have a dream immediately. I rested with minimal dreaming for about 10 minutes (once laughing at the way my brain was just sputtering) and then dreamt hard….
Overall, I can’t really see any negatives of this routine, as it allows for only 4 hours of sleep per day with quite a bit of flexibility. I did feel a little groggy after being woken up by the alarm both times. The first was probably just because I was legitimately tired, but the second was no worse than normal. That could be because I basically only hard napped for 10 minutes or so, so I didn’t finish the cycle. When I was in the shower I felt like the dream consciousness was still present. At the current time, I kind of feel like I am floating a little, could be due to the somewhat increased amounts of water that I have been drinking. I am only marginally concerned about my 2:00 nap. At this point, I am trying for 1-4, 9, 2, 9 as the core and nap times. Overall, I feel that I have a ton of time!
So basically, I kicked off the sleep deprivation process to get my body ready to take naps by first staying up a long time. I think this helped get in a rhythm earlier than I might have if I went at it normally. Strangely, I didn’t write down too many other experiences with this sleep method.
I happened to do this at the height of summer, and with not sleeping much during the night, days felt extremely long. I quickly shifted over to using military time (24 hour clock) because it made equal sense to be up at five AM or midnight as it did to be up at five PM or noon. I found this helpful in keeping days a little straighter, although they started to run together a bit. Time generally seemed more continuous than before.
There were two social aspects I noticed. One was that the world (rightfully) shuts down at night. There’s not a whole lot of social interaction possible. At the time I was living alone, so it was kind of spooky. Having the nap at 2100 wasn’t quite as difficult as I thought it would be at first, although there were still times that I was glad to leave somewhere or needed to crash.
Exercising at full strength was a bit tough. The body needs rest time to recover from sprint workouts and the like.
Napping at work was pretty straightforward, just needed to allocate some time and find an empty conference room or head out to my car. It seems controversial to write this, but at the time it was critical.
Generally I felt at least somewhat tired during the day because I needed to have high amounts of focus for work. There were some oversleeps (a definite no-no), which caused the adoption cycle to be longer than necessary. If I were doing a line of work other than software development, I might have been able to afford not being able to focus consistently.
As a result, I’m not sure that I saved much time overall, although I did get quite a bit more uninterrupted time at night. I was able to read quite a bit, and it would have probably been a good time to learn something that didn’t require intense mental focus. Learning to play the guitar might have been a good choice of something to do when I didn’t feel like thinking and wanted to stay awake. Steve also recommended cooking or baking as low thought things. I filled my time up, and it seemed useful at the time. However, in retrospect, I’m not sure how much I got done.
As I did more research on altered sleep schedules, I came upon literature that suggested that night workers and people who are more nocturnal have significantly higher incidences of cancer than “normal” sleepers. This is because they are exposed to light when their bodies are supposed to be in the dark. While light exposure might seem innocuous, our bodies produce a compound called melatonin that can only get created in darkness. Melatonin production cannot occur when light, specifically blue wavelengths (due to intensity), is absorbed in the eyes.
As a result, I was pretty paranoid about having a lot of light around during the night, and it was hard to stay awake without some degree of light. Computer time was limited at night, leaving reading or other activities of the sort.
I also stopped because I worried about permanently messing up my circadian rhythm. Throughout my life, I had a stable sleeping schedule, generally getting enough sleep and keeping a consistent schedule. I felt pretty flaky at times, and it was a fair amount of work to keep up with everything.
In summary, I didn’t want to trade good health and a good sleeping pattern for poor health, unpredictable sleep schedules, and a bit more time that was unusable because of my energy levels.
Afterwards I can sleep for twenty-five minutes basically on demand by going through calming thoughts as I did when I had trouble napping. I naturally wake up right about at the twenty-four minute mark, and feel a lot better. I was not able to do this beforehand, but was conditioned to do this by the sleep schedule. I didn’t really like naps before I tried the experiment, so I consider this a win.
Every summer since the experiment, when the days are quite long, I get a longing to do the experiment again. I think this is a mixture of nostalgia and some sort of hormonal memory.