Over the past several weeks, I’ve tried several tweaks to my polyphasic sleeping routine. I felt my habit of sleeping this way was established enough that I could afford to experiment a little. I figured that since this was now my default pattern, I wasn’t going to screw the whole thing up if I tried something different for a day or two. That turned out to be an accurate assumption.
Ultimately, none of the tweaks I tried really worked… well, except maybe one (sort of), but I’m glad to have tried them because this has helped me map out the edges (i.e. my limitations) of this sleeping pattern. I’ve no idea whether my results will generalize to other people though.
Just as a reminder (and for my newest readers), my default polyphasic sleeping pattern involves napping for 20 minutes roughly every 4 hours for a total of 6 naps every 24 hours. I started this sleep schedule on October 20, 2005, so I’ve been going for over 4 months now. It feels like it’s been much longer though.
Here are some of the tweaks I tried:
Skipping Naps. I expect to encounter occasional situations where napping would be very inconvenient. So I wanted to know what would happen if I tried to skip a daytime nap (I wouldn’t likely ever need to skip one at night). That didn’t work at all. Staying awake 8 hours at a stretch was virtually impossible for me. I can go about 6-7 hours max before I begin to crash hard, where I feel I absolutely must go to sleep. After 6+ hours awake, I can barely think straight. Trying to drive a car in this state would be very dangerous. It must sound pretty pathetic not to be able to stay awake for 8 hours straight anymore, but that’s the basic sacrifice required to sleep polyphasically. It appears I’ve conditioned my body not only to survive on this nap schedule but also to depend on it. If I go too long without a nap, I feel an intense physical need to take a nap. It’s akin to dying of thirst and being desperate for a drink of water. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of self-discipline — my body just starts to shut down.
Delaying individual naps, however, does work. I’ve been doing that for months with no serious problems. I can stretch the time between two naps to 6-7 hours, but when I do that, I need more frequent naps later to make up for it. So I still end up getting 6 naps in a 24-hour period. I just have the freedom to slide them around a bit, as long as I don’t overdo it (i.e. I can’t have two back-to-back 6-7 hours waking periods). Most of the time, once I go beyond 5 hours of waking time, I start feeling a bit loopy, and this feeling increases in intensity the longer I stay awake. It’s not the same feeling of sleepiness I used to get when I slept monophasically and stayed up past my usual bedtime. That’s drowsiness — with polyphasic sleep the sensation is different. Probably the best way to describe it would be how Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine must feel when he’s prevented from regenerating. I feel a sense of increasing pressure to go nap. But unlike drowsiness this sensation doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my brain. It doesn’t feel hormonal. It feels more like a cellular pressure, like the cells of my body are demanding that I shutdown and reboot. It’s a difficult sensation to describe, since I never really felt anything like this when I slept monophasically. With polyphasic sleep it’s like my whole body tells me when to sleep instead of just my brain.
Taking a nap feels like I’m shutting down for a reboot. Even if I’m really out of it when I lie down (i.e. if I’ve stayed up too long), after just 20 minutes I almost always awaken feeling terrific. Sometimes for the first few minutes, I feel a bit disoriented. Not sleepy… just confused. My dreams are so rich and vivid now that when I wake up, I’m often uncertain about where I am and need to reorient myself to my environment. Now that I have up to six dreams every day that I wake up remembering, the dream world has become a more significant part of my daily existence than it used to be.
I’m still experiencing time dilation when I nap. So even though I’m out for only 20 minutes, I might accumulate what feels like two hours worth of memories. It feels like I’m sleeping around 10 hours a day sometimes. Pretty neat, eh? I’m actually sleeping much less, but it feels like I’m getting more sleep than I ever did. It sure makes the days seem long though. It took many weeks for me to get used to that.
Skipping Naps With Caffeine. I knew from earlier experiments that as a general rule, caffeine and polyphasic sleep don’t mesh. Even one cup of caffeinated tea will throw me off, either causing me to need more frequent naps later or to oversleep. But I wanted to see if caffeine could be used infrequently to effectively skip a nap, even if there might be a recovery consequence later. So as an experiment, about an hour before I was due for a nap, I had a small coffee and skipped the nap. This did effectively allow me to skip the nap. I could stay awake for 8-9 hours straight without difficulty. However, my next nap after that was usually not as deep, and during the nighttime naps later that day, I would invariably oversleep. I could get up when my alarm went off, but I felt so tired I just had to go back to bed. The naps just didn’t restore me like they usually did. The duration of oversleeping was typically 3-4 hours. But the upside is that after that I was fine again and could return to my previous pattern. So if I absolutely need to stay up for 8+ hours at a stretch, a cup of coffee shortly before the skipped nap will do it. But then later I’ll have to pay the piper with a 3-4 hour make-up. In some situations I think that would be a fair trade. But unless I have a compelling reason to do this, I simply avoid caffeine.
Napping Without an Alarm. When I began this experiment, I used a countdown timer alarm on my digital watch to wake me up. But after a couple months of the alarm going off 6x per day, I drained the watch battery. Unfortunately, in the process of replacing the battery, a very tiny spring shot across the room, and I couldn’t get the alarm to work without it (although the other functions of the watch still did). I combed the carpet with a magnet, but either the spring wasn’t magnetic, or I just couldn’t find it. So I switched to a kitchen timer instead. I’ve been using that for a couple months now, and the battery is still good.
I read another polyphasic sleeper’s log which said he didn’t need the alarm to wake him up after a few weeks. So of course I wanted to try that. I found it worked inconsistently. Most of the time I’d wake up after less than 20 minutes, but sometimes I’d sleep 30 minutes or longer and then wake up groggy. By default I still use the alarm for every nap. My dependence on the alarm could be a result of having gotten up at 5am with an alarm every morning before I ever attempted polyphasic sleep. I was already conditioned to wake up this way, so perhaps the pattern just carried over. My body was already trained to sleep until the alarm goes off.
I don’t mind this too much because it’s easy enough to set the alarm. But being dependent on technology to maintain my sleep cycles does feel a bit unnatural… as if I’m half-cyborg. But then, blogs don’t exactly grow on berry bushes either, so I’m already pretty far gone as far as tech dependency goes.
30-minute naps. I’ve been very happy with my 20-minute naps, measured from the time I first lie down to the time my alarm goes off and I get up. But I wanted to see if longer naps would make a difference, so I started setting my alarm for 30 minutes instead. That didn’t work very well. Usually I woke up naturally before 30 minutes had elapsed (no problem there), but if I slept the full 30 minutes, I woke up feeling groggy and less energetic during the following waking period. I also wouldn’t usually remember my dreams if I woke up at 30 minutes, which meant I’d already passed beyond REM sleep. So even if my alarm sometimes interrupted my dreams, I found it better to wake up while I was dreaming than to sleep too long beyond that point. More sleep apparently doesn’t equate with feeling more rested. In this case I’ve found that sleeping too long is just as bad as not sleeping enough. It took some trial and error to zero in on the right amount of sleep for me.
30-minute naps every 6 hours. I had read that this is how Buckminster Fuller slept for a couple years (I can’t verify the veracity of this though), so I thought it might be interesting to attempt. Even though the 30-minute nap experiment had already failed, I wondered what would happen if I pushed my waking periods to 6 hours and did 30 minute naps. Maybe then my body would find a way to get more REM sleep, and 30 minutes would turn out to be just right.
This experiment was a total flop. One day I had my usual nap at 5am and then tried to take the next one at 11am instead of my usual 9am. It was hard, but I did it. Then I pushed my next nap to 5pm. This was even harder, but with some effort I managed, although I definitely felt sleep deprived. After getting up from my 5pm nap, I didn’t feel rested enough, and as time went on I became increasingly agitated and uncomfortable. Eventually I felt I just had to go to sleep. My family went to bed, and then I went downstairs to nap on the couch. I set the alarm for 30 minutes and went to bed at 10pm, so my cycles were 6 hours, 6 hours, and 5 hours.
Some time later I woke up in the dark, but it wasn’t from hearing my alarm. I could tell I’d slept a long time, and I wondered what happened to the alarm. I went to turn the light on and laughed when I saw the clock. 4:15am. I’d slept a full 6:15. I went to check my alarm to see what happened. This particular kitchen timer has a feature such that after the countdown alarm begins to sound, it immediately begins counting up from 0:00. Also, this alarm doesn’t shut off by itself — it will keep blaring until I manually shut it off. It’s very easy to turn off though; just press any button. Normally when I turn it off, the counter reads 0:03 or 0:04… as much as 0:07 if I have to fumble around in the dark for it. Well, this time when I looked back at the timer, it read 0:18. 18 seconds! So apparently I did turn it off, but it took me an insanely long time to do it, especially since it was within arm’s reach of the couch where I slept. I had absolutely no memory of the alarm sounding and certainly none of me turning it off. So either it took an unusually long time for the alarm to wake me up, or I was so disoriented that I fumbled around half-conscious for 18 seconds trying to shut it off.
So that was a pretty funny result. I don’t think I’ll be trying that again any time soon. I’m not saying the 30×4 pattern can’t work, but it seems it would require another difficult adaptation to adjust to it.
After each of these experiments, I was able to quickly return to my default polyphasic pattern. It’s good to know that I can try some tweaks without having to go through that hellish adaptation period again.
At least for now, I don’t seem to be able to beat the 20×6 pattern. I can stretch it a little as needed, but when I try to break it, it just breaks me instead.
Psychologically, I feel well adjusted to the polyphasic pattern. As I’ve said previously, I believe the social and psychological adjustment was an even greater challenge than the physical adaptation. If I ever do go back to monophasic sleep again, it would likely be because I experience a change in circumstances that renders polyphasic sleep impractical. For example, if I start doing all-day public seminars at some point, how well would a polyphasic pattern adapt? The best answer I can give right now is that it depends on the details. Would there be enough breaks at the right times and convenient access to a good place to sleep?
At least it’s nice to know some of the boundaries, such as how I can shuffle naps around, so I can exhibit some flexibility when the situation calls for it. In fact, if you review the experiments above, you’ll see they’re very similar to their monophasic cousins. Skipping a full night of sleep doesn’t degrade performance. Caffeine interferes with restful sleep. Sleeping without an alarm will sometimes lead to oversleeping. Sleeping longer isn’t always better. And screwing too much with your default sleep pattern will likely require a multi-day adaptation period during which you suffer some deprivation effects.