Do you ever crawl into bed at the end of a long day wishing you just had one more hour to do…anything? Whether it’s reading a book, learning something new, taking a walk or calling a friend —have you felt like there just aren’t enough hours in the day for it all?
Yeah, same here. And I’ve felt this way for years.
So I’m starting a crazy little experiment to increase the amount of time I have each day to accomplish the things I really want to do.
The Polyphasic Sleep Cycle
Before I begin the story of my experiment, it’s worth understanding a bit of the history and meaning of sleep as it relates to humans.
A monophasic sleep cycle is what people in most developed societies are familiar with. This is when you group all of your daily sleep into one solid chunk — usually an 8–9 hour period.
Polyphasic sleep occurs when you break up your daily sleep requirements into multiple (usually more than three) chunks of sleep.
Research suggests that mammals are, evolutionarily, polyphasic sleepers due to changing energy requirements at different times of the day (1). It is even suggested that before the industrial revolution a biphasic or segmented sleep cycle was common among humans (2).
“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.”
It turns out that just a couple hundred years ago people would wake up naturally after just 4–5 hours of sleep and enjoy a 1–2 hour period of activity. They would fill this time with reading, smoking, praying, meditating, socializing and, of course, sex.
For most Americans, myself included, anything but a monophasic sleep cycle sounds alien. In Europe, a biphasic cycle is more common with the siesta sleep cycle which requires a 1.5 hour nap in the early afternoon (3).
So let’s circle back to polyphasic sleep cycles.
I spent the last week digging into the personal stories of polyphasic sleepers trying to learn as much as I could about the benefits and drawbacks of polyphasic.
Here are a few of the key insights I found which motivated me to give polyphasic sleeping a try:
- Monophasic sleep is incredibly inefficient in terms of hours spent in bed vs. energy replenishment.
- Our brains go through natural cycles of varying sleep depth where non-REM sleep is considered less-important/less-efficient (and often accounts for the most time in a monophasic cycle).
- Polyphasic sleep is designed to optimize the hours spent in REM sleep cycles in order to maximize energy replenishment.
My Polyphasic Sleep Schedule
Before last week I was averaging 7.5 hours of sleep every night. This was the minimum I needed to feel like a human during the day. Any less than 7 hours meant I’d need a nap later in the afternoon.
Last Monday night I began easing into a variation of the Everyman Sleep Cycle. Throughout the week I worked towards less and less sleep. Today I’m on my 7th day and am nearing my goal of 4 hours of sleep per day.
Here’s this week’s breakdown:
- Tuesday: 5.6 hours sleep (1.9 hours saved)
- Wednesday: 5.5 hours sleep (2 hours saved)
- Thursday: 6.1 hours sleep (1.4 hours saved)
- Friday: 4.5 hours sleep (3 hours saved)
- Saturday: 6.1 hours sleep (1.4 hours saved)
- Sunday: 5.1hours sleep (2.4 hours saved)
- Today: in progress, 3.6 hours so far
- Total time saved: 12.1 hours
Quick note: I have a dumb optimism for this polyphasic schedule without having truly been stuck into it. You’ll notice I often miss my mark by 1–1.5 hours. Week 2 will be about correcting this and reevaluating how everything feels.
This past week I stole back 12.1 hours of sleep from my old monophasic sleep cycle. I can’t quite believe how fast it all added up — what would you do if you had 12 hours of uninterrupted free time right now?
So what’s my cycle?
I’ve had to adjust my routine almost every day this week, but it’s starting to settle into place with the following hours:
- Sleep 11pm to 2am (3 hours)
- Nap 6:30am to 6:50am (0.3 hours)
- Nap 11:30am to 11:50am (0.3 hours)
- Nap 5:30pm to 5:50pm (0.3 hours)
- Total: 4 hours (this is my goal, almost there!)
As a fun hypothetical, let’s say I’m able to get into a natural rhythm of four hours of sleep per night starting March 1st. Assuming I was able to keep this up consistently through 2015 (306 days total), I would save approximately 1,071 hours (306 * 3.5 hours saved per night). That’s more than 44 days of recovered time. Suddenly a year would feel more like 13.5 months!
Hypothetically, of course...
What do you do with all that time?
One of the key things about switching to polyphasic sleep is that all of a sudden you have way more time than you know what to do with. Just having 2–3 extra hours per day was a shock to my system.
In fact, a large portion of polyphasic experimenters (like myself) quit after just a few months due to a lack of structure that monophasic sleep cycles offer.
Because of this sudden change it’s incredibly important to go into the new cycle with a game plan for how you’re going to fill those extra hours. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to save yourself 3 hours per day and fill that time with TV or social media, right?
Here are some of my game plan activities:
That’s right, leisure: The things that I’ve always wanted to do during the day but always found an excuse not to. No more saying “I’m too busy to do that.”
This week I’ve been reading for an hour or two in the early morning hours (~3am-5am). This weekend I spent a few hours just writing and exploring my own thoughts (~7am-11am). Throughout the week I’ve taken pause to just get outside for an hour-long stroll with my dog.
I no longer feel rushed to fit creative pursuits into my schedule, they just happen naturally. I’ve found that early morning reading sessions are incredibly relaxing and enjoyable. If I’m ever feeling bored or tired between naps in the afternoon, a long walk does the trick.
As I continue adjusting to this schedule, I’m hoping to increase my blogging frequency and create some more content for the Design Details series.
This week that’s all starting to change. I can finally slow down and dig into some more challenging subjects like React, native JS and Node.
What about productivity?
Here’s a common question from people who know about my new schedule: “Are you reaching the same level of productivity with all the new time created?”
My answer is (not trying to cop out here) sort of. In many ways this past week was one of my most productive ever. I’ve had a wonderful week at Buffer shipping code, learning some PHP to build new internal tools and doing design work for new features. I remember on Tuesday I had already worked a full 8-hour day by mid-morning. Insane.
In my off-hours, as I noted above, I’ve been learning to code (React and Node at the moment) and have been reading more than I normally would. I will readily admit, however, that there have been several times where I am simply too tired to do either of these mentally-engaging activities. In these situations, I’ve supplemented the time with a long walk outside, catching up on news or watching a bit of TV (Better Call Saul, ya’ll).
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on how this feels, personally, as someone who desires productivity and focus. Since I’m only a week into this experiment I lack long-term perspective.
For now, I’ll say this: the schedule is getting easier and easier every day. Sunday (yesterday) was my best day yet. And I think it will continue to improve. And if I continue to maintain a game plan for how to fill these newly-freed hours, I don’t anticipate falling off the boat in terms of work, side projects, learning new things or productivity in general.
You’re crazy, man.
I’ve told a few people about my little experiment and the reactions almost universally traverse from shock to disbelief to curiosity. How is it possible to run on that little sleep per day and still function?
The ultimate form of polyphasic sleeping that I’ve heard of right now only requires 2 hours of sleep per day. I’m getting ~2.5x that right now, and even if I get down to 4hrs/night, that’s still double. So yes, this is totally possible.
So how does it all work? Aren’t you exhausted?
Well, yeah. I am. It turns out that most polyphasic sleeping plans have a 1–2 week adjustment phase where you do experience some level of sleep deprivation. As I write this I’m an hour away from my next nap and have already started yawning and feeling a slight fog come over my mind.
This is natural.
My brain is learning and adjusting to a changing environment. In the last few days I have literally supercharged my time from laying down to falling asleep. Without having an accurate timer for this sort of thing, I’d estimate that I’m falling asleep within 30 to 45 seconds of getting in bed. At worst, 1–2 minutes. It’s wonderful.
Because my brain is operating on a sleep deficit, it knows that it needs to squeeze every last minute of REM sleep out possible. This means that when I take a 20 minute nap I’m getting nearly 20 solid minutes of REM sleep. Yes, I’m dreaming during these naps — some dreams are incredibly vivid.
I’ve also begun feeling time dilation during these naps (which other polyphasic sleepers have reported as well) where a twenty-minute nap actually feels like hours of sleep. It’s one of the strangest feelings in the world to take a nap at 6:30am and wake up before 7am feeling rested and rejuvenated.
Are there drawbacks to polyphasic sleep?
Yes, absolutely. I’m not trying to sugar-coat this process at all: this has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
But it’s getting easier and easier every day. That being said, I still have a list of drawbacks to this schedule that may or may not have an impact on my ability to do it long-term (months to years):
No caffeine — this one is rough, not going to lie. I’m no coffee connoisseur, but I certainly do enjoy a nice cup of brew as a morning or early-afternoon pick-up.
The problem is that with the polyphasic napping cycle, caffeine will totally ruin your schedule and your ability to get restorative daytime naps. I’ve been cheating a bit and supplementing myself with one tea in the mornings and a 7.5oz Mountain Dew after the 11:30am nap —sometimes a bit of sugar gets my wheels in motion again.
I realized late in the week that a large part of the reason I enjoy coffee so much is not just for the taste and the caffeine side-effects, but also for the experience itself. With this in mind, I’ve started to try a cup of decaf in the mornings just to trick myself. Whatever works, right?
No alcohol — in the same way stimulants will mess up your sleep cycles, so too will depressants. On Wednesday evening I had a beer with couple friends and it seriously threw me off. This, of course, raises some questions of social/night life activities…
Social and night life — what happens if I want to go to a party at 10pm? What if there’s a good movie playing but it starts at 9:30pm? Right now I’m consciously sacrificing those things because this new schedule requires that core chunk of 3 hours at 11pm. I suspect this is likely one of the key reasons most people don’t ever try polyphasic sleeping: it truly requires a disciplined schedule which might often come at the expense of certain social activities.
If you’re reading now and feel like this is a deal-breaker, there are options for you. One schedule I’m considering is to simply shift all sleep cycles back by 2 hours. This would mean the core sleep is from 1–4am and the latest nap in the evening is from 7:30–7:50. This schedule might open up a lot more possibilities in terms of evening activities and social life.
Exercise and fitness—this one is actually still a big unknown for me. The question: can you still exercise or train and still operate normally on reduced hours of sleep? My hunch says no, but then again two weeks ago my “hunch” would have said that polyphasic sleep was near-impossible. If you’re an athlete of any sort, I’d recommend researching the impact of sleep deprivation on your performance.
In my case, I’m not a competing athlete so it still feels quite comfortable to keep my routine. If I choose to start doing long-distance running again I imagine I’ll need to adjust some pieces of this routine.
Boredom—I suppose this one is worth mentioning, although it might mean vastly different things to different people. As I mentioned above, one common thread I found among people who have tried polyphasic sleep is that it’s easy to get bored. It makes sense, really — if you’re getting just four hours of sleep per day, that means there are four new hours of unstructured time where the rest of the world is likely asleep. For me that’s between 2:30 and 6:30am.
If you’re not the kind of person to enjoy long periods of quiet and solitude, it might be worth thinking about when you schedule your sleep.
The second component to boredom is simply not having enough things to do. Imagine after a few weeks or months of having 25% more free time than you normally have — it’s quite possible that you’ll start to accomplish all the things that you’ve wanted to accomplish and you might simply run out of things to do.
In my mind, it seems like there should always be something new to do or learn, but of course: easier said than done. We’ll see in a few weeks.
What is sleep? Why do we sleep? — I know these sound like silly questions, but this week has triggered lots of reflection on what sleep really means. Right now most of western society is completely structured around a monophasic sleep cycle. Breakfast in the mornings, dinner in the evenings, work in between. But what if I’m up and working at 2:30am and going to the movies at 1pm?
When the core components of your sleep schedule are three 20-minute naps, your whole perspective on what sleeping even means starts to change.
I’m listing this under potential drawbacks to polyphasic sleep because you’re essentially removing yourself from the entire social structure of days and time. It can be perplexing at times, and I think it’s up to each individual to decide if they want to fall outside of this normal societal pattern.
What needs to happen to be successful with polyphasic sleep?
I think this is the part of the post where I’ll lose many people. Polyphasic sleep requires a certain flexibility with work hours and schedules. At this point in my life I’m young, single and am afforded the opportunity to work from home. I recognize that many people reading this won’t have those flexibilities or freedoms, and in some cases polyphasic sleep just might not make sense.
That being said, here are some tips I’ve picked up on my own and from reading different people’s stories:
Don’t miss a nap. One lapse in your schedule has the potential of resetting your entire adaptation phase.
No caffeine. I’m cheating a bit on this, but seriously: if you’re an avid coffee drinker or energy-drink junkie, those drinks will make it incredibly hard to get REM sleep during the 20-minute naps.
Failure is part of the process. If you see my notes at the end of this post you’ll quickly notice that I’ve failed several times already this week. That’s okay. If you oversleep on a nap by an hour or two, don’t panic — just reset and get back to your schedule at the next sleep cycle.
Listen to your body. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but the first week is a huge challenge. You’re breaking sleeping conventions that you’ve been adapting to for years. You have to push through some of these bouts of tiredness or exhaustion and make it to the next nap. Your body will adapt and adjust.
That being said: don’t hurt yourself. Do not drive if you’re feeling even a little bit tired. Don’t sign up for a taxing physical or mental activity during your first week. Plan for the adaption phase to be a challenging period where you’ll have to learn what your body needs and what processes don’t work.
Tell people you’re trying it. Yeah, I was that annoying guy this week telling anyone who would listen about this new schedule. It wasn’t because I was trying to be annoying (admittedly it often spawned several intriguing conversations about sleep, time and productivity!), but instead was trying to create my own form of social accountability.
My goal is to do at least two weeks of polyphasic sleep before deciding whether or not to revert or forge ahead. Having people rooting you on can be just the right amount of motivation to not hit snooze on that 2:30am alarm clock.
Notes from Week One
In the spirit of transparency, I thought I’d share my (mostly) un-edited notes that I took throughout the week. These are the things I’d scribble down or type immediately after a nap, when I was feeling poorly or when things felt great.
Upon re-reading these, I recognize that I must sound miserable. I’ll just say that my body is adjusting very fast and every day is getting easier.
Feel super good, slept 5.6 total hours. 3.5 at night, 1.6 nap in the morning, .5 hr nap in the afternoon. Caffeine/coffee fucked up evening routine.
Couldn’t fall asleep at night (went to bed at 9:30, fell asleep at 11:30)
Total: 5.6 hrs (saved 1.9 hrs)
Morning was insanely hard — didn’t feel good at all. Slept from 11:30 to 2:30 — early morning hours went okay, shipped features on Pablo, Product Hunt launch excitement.
Morning nap overslept to 2 hours (5:30–7:30am). Had a coffee + breakfast, nothing else. Lunch at noon, no coffee in the afternoon. Mountain dew in the late afternoon (3–5pm) to get sugar and caffeine. Probably not ideal to do this, will see how it goes.
30 min nap at 2:30pm, felt much better and energized after this. Super tired by 10pm, in bed by 11
Total: 5.5 hrs (saved 2 hrs)
Woke up at 2:30am, laid in bed on phone until 3am — wish i hadn’t wasted that much time. Standing breakfast at 3am.
2 hour nap at 6am, overslept and went until 8am. Really, really exhausted. Forced myself out of bed after a near-relapse into sleepy zone.
20 min nap at 10:10. 20 min nap at 4:40.
Realized I’ve been doing it all wrong and the morning 1.5 hour nap was supposed to be 20 mins — will have to adjust this for tomorrow
Have a tiredness headache — I guess this is part of the adjustment period. Feeling very very tired, but somehow still functioning and getting work done. looking forward to each nap like it’s god’s green gift.
Looking forward to sleeping tonight — trying to force myself to stay up and make it to the next core sleep session.
Total: 6.1 hrs (saved 1.4 hrs)
Hard time waking up this morning at 2:30am — once I was up things got a lot better.
Had an insanely productive morning — dove into code, started learning some database stuff with Buffer and digging into more advanced php. Really fun. Today was first day switching to a 20 min nap at 6:10am — again, hard to get up, but once I was up I felt fine.
Morning at Philz, black tea with honey to stay low on caffeine.
Nap at 10:10 — didn’t fall asleep as fast as I’d hoped, but still made it through.
A bit groggy in the afternoon — a slight headache and definitely yawning a lot. Not ideal, but I’m assuming this is part of the adjustment phase.
Afternoon nap — falling asleep faster, also having a harder time waking up. eyeing Soylent to optimize energy. Super tired by 6pm — like, dark circles, having trouble staying up.
Went out to a party at 9pm, only stayed for an hour before needing to head back for 11pm sleep.
Total: 4.5 hrs (saved 3 hrs)
Hard time waking up after the core sleep. Alarm at 2:30, out of bed by 3am. Feeling exhausted and groggy, was in a deep sleep. Definitely not ideal, but I am making assumptions that this is still the adjustment phase.
Read a book from 3am to 5:45am — feels good to have extra time to do leisure activities I can normally never slot in. almost 6am and am aching for the next nap. Super tired and foggy-minded.
Morning nap at 6:10am was tough — ended up sleeping until 6:35, laid in bed until 6:55. Had some incredibly vivid dreams though, which tells me that things are adjusting slowly. Not sure if one of them was a nightmare or night terror, but there was a man sitting on top of me and I couldn’t move. Having insanely vivid feelings of waking up, turn off phone and alarm, walking around…then realize I’m still laying down. Rinse and repeat. Feeling very sleep deprived. Need to push through this week.
Well, made my first major mistake in the schedule finally. Bed at 4:40pm for a 20 min nap, woke up at 7pm. honestly feel better, and I know I didn’t sleep that whole time, but I don’t remember getting up at 5. Shit. Well — I’ll report back and see if this changes things at all.
Stayed entertained today by walking Taco for a long time, learning React.js, reading books and cooking dinner.
Total: 6.1 hrs (saved 1.4 hrs)
Trying to get back on schedule after yesterday’s oversleeping. Bed by 11:30, up at 2:30am. Not too hard of a time waking up, which is a good sign. Definitely tired — don’t get me wrong, still exhausted. Just, not as hard. Pretty excited to work on side projects today.
Philz in the morning—getting the stank-eye when I order decaf coffee. Realize I love the ritual almost as much as I used to love the caffeine.
Another routine mistake: nap at 11:30, woke up at 11:50 but hit snooze. Bad idea. Promptly fell back asleep and awake at 1pm. Since this has happened twice now, need to change routine — no napping in bedroom? Further distance to alarm?
Evening nap better — slept on the couch and put phone walking distance away for alarm. Didn’t dream, so not sure I got REM, will see how this impacts evening energy.
Evening felt good. Threw away remaining Mtn. Dew — I think this is impacting ability to get REM.
Woke up smoothly at 2am — best morning yet. Not feeling groggy or exhausted at this point. Shower + standing breakfast at 2:10am.
Still don’t quite have the mental clarity I’d like to see (I would venture a 7 out of 10, with 10 being my mental clarity on a monophasic cycle). Getting this to 10 will be a priority. May experiment with a fourth nap in the morning (4:20 total for day).
Decided to slot in a nap from 4:10–4:30am. Feeling much better afterwards.
Another nap at 6:30am-6:50am. Seems like managing energy in the mornings will be super important. Somehow I’m more tired today than I was yesterday — wondering about dietary impact.
Ending Thoughts from Week One
I’m half-way through my self-prescribed experimentation period. Every day is getting better, but this has without a doubt been one of the harder challenges I’ve tried.
If this sticks, however, the possibilities are truly exciting. Being able to function normally every day but have 3–4 more hours of productive waking time would be game changing.
If you have any thoughts or questions about my routine, or are curious about trying polyphasic sleeping for yourself, free free to hit me up on Twitter at @brian_lovin!