Polyphasic Sleep

October 20th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

A couple days ago, I saw a post about polyphasic sleep on LifeHack.org. Since then I’ve been emailed about this topic as well, probably because I’ve written previously about becoming an early riser.

Polyphasic sleep involves taking multiple short sleep periods throughout the day instead of getting all your sleep in one long chunk. A popular form of polyphasic sleep, the Uberman sleep schedule, suggests that you sleep 20-30 minutes six times per day, with equally spaced naps every 4 hours around the clock. This means you’re only sleeping 2-3 hours per day. I’d previously heard of polyphasic sleep, but until now I hadn’t come across practical schedules that people seem to be reporting interesting results with.

Under this sleep schedule, your sleep times might be at 2am, 6am, 10am, 2pm, 6pm, and 10pm. And each time you’d sleep for only 20-30 minutes. This is nice because the times are the same whether AM or PM, and they’re consistent from day to day as well, so you can still maintain a regular daily schedule, albeit a very different one.

How can this sleep schedule work? Supposedly it takes about a week to adjust to it. A normal sleep cycle is 90 minutes, and REM sleep occurs late in this cycle. REM is the most important phase of sleep, the one in which you experience dreams, and when deprived of REM for too long, you suffer serious negative consequences. Polyphasic sleep conditions your body to learn to enter REM sleep immediately when you begin sleeping instead of much later in the sleep cycle. So during the first week you experience sleep deprivation as your body learns to adapt to shorter sleep cycles, but after the adaptation you’ll feel fine, maybe even better than before.

It requires some discipline to successfully transition to this cycle, as well as a flexible schedule that allows it. While you’ll be sleeping a lot less, apparently it’s very important to sleep at the required times and not miss naps.

It was interesting to read some of the posts from people who’ve tried this sleep cycle. They reported higher alertness and energy, more vivid dreams and more lucid dreams, and of course lots of extra free time. I also read of failures, but in each case the person wasn’t strict about the nap schedule and overslept on occasion. A side effect of this sleep schedule is that you need to eat more, since you’re spending more time moving around. It appears that the long term health effects of this sleep pattern aren’t well known. That’s irrelevant to me though because I find that being a long-term vegan, I can’t rely much on long-term studies done on non-vegans anyway. Some say that hormones in animal products negatively affect sleep patterns, and more restful sleep is commonly reported after making dietary improvements. So long-term studies on people eating average diets wouldn’t be of much use to me personally.

The downside to this sleep schedule is that it can be inflexible. I’ve read that you can delay naps by an hour if necessary, but missing a nap can cause a rapid crash that takes a while to recover from. This means you only have about 3.5 hours of waking time between naps, 4.5 hours if you push it. So this can restrict your options a bit. Of course, you have to balance that sacrifice against the gain of many extra hours per day, every day. Interesting trade off…. It reminds me of something you’d find in The Book of Questions.

Plus it’s just plain weird. So naturally I want to try it. :)

Since I work from home and have control over my schedule, I’ve decided to test polyphasic sleep to see what it’s like. I’m already good at falling asleep fast (within a few minutes), and I often have dreams during 15-20 minute naps, so I wonder if I’ve partially conditioned myself to enter REM rapidly. This test obviously requires a bit of adjustment, but I’ve managed to work things out with my wife to make it practical enough. Since I’ve read that energy and alertness plummet during the first week, I’ve kept next week’s schedule very light mentally (no meetings, speeches, or major projects). Depending on how functional and coherent I am during the adjustment period, I’ll be doing mostly domestic projects like organizing the garage — nothing involving power tools. :)

I’m starting this polyphasic sleep schedule today, so last night was my last night of “normal” sleep for a while. I still got up at 5am this morning, and then I’ll begin doing the naps every 4 hours starting this afternoon. I’ll use a countdown timer alarm set for 30 minutes, so I won’t oversleep. I’ve decided that my sleep times will be 1am, 5am, 9am, 1pm, 5pm, and 9pm. I aim to continue at least until Halloween… or death, whichever comes first. If it seems to be going well and I retain basic functionality, then I’ll decide whether I want to continue with it.

My main motivation for trying this is curiosity, and it seems like it would be a fun test of self-discipline. Plus it meshes nicely with my own general weirdness. Whether the experiment succeeds or fails, it should be an interesting learning experience.

Of course I’ll be sure to blog about this experience, but if I start making posts about seeing dead people, then you’ll know I’ve become delusional due to sleep deprivation. ;)

What would you do with an extra 30-40 hours of free time per week?

Read more about polyphasic sleep at Wikipedia.

Edit 4/14/06: For your convenience, here are links to all of my polyphasic sleep log entries in order (each link will open in a new window). This is a treasure trove of free information for anyone interested in learning about my trial of polyphasic sleep. To my knowledge these are the most detailed polyphasic sleep logs you’ll be able to find anywhere on the web.

Sleep well!


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