Two weeks ago I embarked on a new adventure to hack my sleep and extend the waking hours of each day. The following post will make more sense if you’ve read the first week’s recap.
You can follow along on my Twitter as well at @brian_lovin— don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or just want to chat about this crazy sleep schedule!
Prologue: A Criticism of Polyphasic Sleep
I found this article during week 2: http://www.supermemo.com/help/faq/polyphasic.htm
In this piece the author dispels almost every myth around polyphasic sleep and its potential benefits on life and productivity. The article explains, in-depth, all the reasons to not try polyphasic sleeping. Definitely check this out if you’re considering a polyphasic experiment of your own.
I think it’s important to recognize that the rest of my blog post here is based on personal experience and is not indicative of the health impacts that polyphasic sleep might have. The truth is that I’m not a sleep expert, and as a result I’m sure many people would look at this experiment as an aimless exercise in stupidity.
Rationality aside, these past two weeks have been highly transformative for me both physically and mentally. I do not know the long-term impacts of going polyphasic, so please don’t take any good experiences I outline below as gospel.
Most experts seem to agree that the average person can not and should not attempt polyphasic sleeping, so there’s that.
But I’m having too much fun experimenting…so let’s forge ahead!
This Week’s Schedule:
My adjusted sleep schedule during week 2 was as follows:
- Core Sleep: 11pm–2am
- Nap: 6:30–6:50am
- Nap: 11:30–11:50am
- Nap: 5:30–5:50pm
- Goal time to sleep per day: 4 hours
Early in the week I had to adjust my hours because I was truly exhausted. I supplemented in an extra 20-minute nap during the morning hours (around 9:30am) just to push through the tiredness.
On Wednesday and Thursday I overslept during my core period by 1h 20m (11pm to 3:20am on both those days). Other than these small hiccups, the rest of the week went according to schedule!
Time “Saved” This Week:
Before going monophasic I estimate I was getting 52.5 hours of sleep per week (7.5hrs per night). This week, in total, I’ve had 32 hours of sleep, which means I’ve “saved” more than 20 hours of waking time.
What would you do if you had 20 free, uninterrupted hours to work on anything you wanted?
I’m putting “saved” in quotes for a specific reasons— more on this below…
The Adjustment Period
I think the adjustment phase is nearly over. Thank goodness.
The first few days of week 2 were insanely challenging, harder than any period of time during week 1. Some days I didn’t accomplish anything during my morning block (2am-6:30am) except browsing aimlessly around the web and coding small bits here and there.
By mid-week, things were getting better.
On Friday I had my first “normal” day. Normal in the sense that I was operating at my usual (self-perceived) level of focus and clarity during all waking hours. This was incredibly exciting and energizing —I had successful completed one full day on just half the amount of sleep I used to need!
Learnings: Everyone’s adjustment phase will be different. I seem to have started getting over the hump by day 11.
I feel great, physically, although I don’t have an established workout routine during this adjustment phase. Over the course of weeks 3 and 4 I plan to re-introduce weight-lifting and light cardio to my daily schedule.
Every day this last week I’ve been taking longer (40min-1hr) walks with my dog to get outside and stretch the legs. These have served as a much-needed break in the longer days and help me to not feel so bad about working on a computer for the most of the day.
Early this week I was getting very dark circles under my eyes. At one point I didn’t even want to look in the mirror in the morning because I was scared of how bad they’d be. This was honestly one of the points where I considered quitting: looking exhausted all the time made me lose self-confidence and, exposing my vanity here, made me look plain awful.
But — I pushed forward, promising myself that if the circles weren’t getting better by day 14 I would allow myself to quit this polyphasic experiment. By Friday the circles started to lighten a bit. I don’t feel like I’m fully back to my normal appearance (solely in terms of dark circles under the eyes), but this weekend has shown huge improvements compared to the front-half of the week. At this point I’m going to keep going but will reevaluate these circles next Monday.
Learning 1: I’m still exploring the impacts of having a structured workout routine on energy and recovery. I hope to have an update by next Monday!
Learning 2: Dealing with dark circles under the eyes was very impactful on my state of mind and motivation to continue this experiment. They began to slowly recover by day 12.
Mental Clarity & Focus
I mentioned earlier that I “saved” 20 hours this week by cutting out 3.5 hours of sleep per day. Unfortunately, not all 20 of those hours were productive. Not by a long shot.
For most of the week I felt a very present “fog” clouding my mind. I was still able to work, read, code and live my life, but there was a noticeable reduction in clarity and my ability to focus for long periods at a time. I basically made up for this by working longer — I think on Wednesday/Thursday I was working solidly on Buffer for 12 hours per day.
The key trend to point out this week is that by Friday/Saturday, my life across the board was returning to normal. On both of these days I had no problem operating at a regular state of focus and clarity and I was able to get back into a much more reasonable work balance.
Learnings: It has taken me ~12 days to return to my baseline (pre-polyphasic) level of mental focus and clarity. This is a long time to feel “slightly off” — I think I could have planned better for this by structuring my early morning hours for low-energy projects.
Caveat: I have not taken any mental cognition or aptitude tests to confirm, scientifically, that I’m operating on my same pre-polyphasic level. Take my findings here with a mountain of salt.
Thinking about productivity this week has been a whole other adventure that required a lot of reflection. I don’t feel like this week was as productive as it could have been because I didn’t adequately plan for the extra 3.5 hours of waking time per day.
Some mornings I would work on Buffer. Some mornings I would work on a blog post. Some mornings I would read or just chill. This lack of consistency only increased my decision-making fatigue which made it harder to stay productive throughout the day.
By Friday I began to realize that in order to keep my momentum up I’d need to integrate some sort of structure to my new waking hours. This structure doesn’t necessarily have to be productive in the traditional sense (i.e. getting things done), but it does need to eliminate wasted time that comes from attempting mentally-rigorous tasks (like reading or coding) during my lowest periods of energy.
Learnings: Having 3.5 extra hours of time per day means adjusting my own expectations about what to achieve and work on. It means coming up with a plan and routine that will keep me on track to feel like I’ve not wasted those extra hours.
Time and Social Implications
Because each of my naps and sleep sessions are so short, I’m starting to feel as though I’m awake full-time. This has changed my perspective on everything from when to eat meals to what hours I should work on my job. The last week has been remarkably different in that I can’t quite distinguish between what I accomplish from one day to the next. Events have become more like one long timeline that weaves through day and night without a noticeable break in-between.
At the end of two weeks I’ve begun to feel the first noticeable implications of being on a different time schedule than the rest of society. To wake up, shower and eat breakfast at 2am is a dramatic adjustment to the morning schedule that I’ve had for the past 22 years of my life. I joked the other day with some friends that we’ll have to hang out sometime at 2:30am — when they’re getting in from a night out and I’m just waking up.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that I’ve found the correct way to sleep or structure a day. Probably the opposite. There are several levels of sacrifice that come with a polyphasic sleep cycle — going out and drinking with friends on a Friday night is something I won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future.
The most common reason I’ve uncovered for people quitting polyphasic sleep rests somewhere along this vein: distancing oneself from social norms and schedules can feel isolating and alienating.
Learnings: Polyphasic sleep often requires sacrifice in the social sphere of life. For me, I think it will be important to maintain a clear perspective on my goals, to double down on increasing the number of social hours I have in each day (i.e. not sitting at home 24/7), and to accept that changing conditions in my future can potentially end this experiment as suddenly as it began.
Diet, Caffeine and Magic Powder
I am now 10-days caffeine- and alcohol-free, substances which I’ve used in the past to strategically raise or elevate my energy levels. Not having these drugs has had a significant change on my normal daily cycles of energy.
I remember that during my monophasic cycle I would hit periods of drowsiness after lunch and mid-morning after breakfast. I could counteract these periods with coffee or energy drinks.
This week I had essentially compounded that natural daily dip in energy with not only a lack of sleep, but also by the inability to use caffeine as an energy band-aid. It became clear that in order to keep progressing in a polyphasic world would require a deeper understanding of diet and nutrition.
My typical meal includes lots of animal products (eggs, chicken, or steak in almost every meal) and heavy carbs (oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast every morning). I wouldn’t say my diet was bad in any sense — in some ways most of my meals were close to Tim Ferriss’ famous “Slow-Carb Diet,” where a typical dinner would be beef, steamed veggies and black beans. But they certainly weren’t balanced throughout the day, there’s no doubt in my mind.
So I kept digging into some of the science of digestion and diet and, through the rabbit-hole that is the internet, I came across a product called Soylent. Soylent, for those that haven’t heard, is an artificially constructed powder that is formulated to meet 100% of your dietary needs every single day. One bag of Soylent costs ~$9 and will replace a full-day’s worth of food.
Demand for Soylent is so high right now that new customers can expect a 4–5 month shipping backlog. Luckily a Buffer team member had about four bags (four days worth) of Soylent left over from when he tried it in 2014.
So from Wednesday night through Friday night I didn’t eat any solid foods and only drank Soylent.
I’ve seen the light.
The change in my energy, mood and focus was so stark, sudden and undeniably clear. I felt full, whole and energized for the entire 48-hour period in a way that restored my confidence in this entire polyphasic sleep experiment.
My non-scientific, non-tested takeaway: diet is highly correlated to the body’s ability to adopt a polyphasic sleep cycle. Drinking Soylent made me more effective during the 48 hours of taking it than I can remember being in recent months.
I turned to Twitter on Friday asking if anyone out there has extra Soylent that I can buy (by the way, if you have some in SF, hit me up!). Luckily I found a week’s supply that I’ll be consuming during week 3.
Starting today, and for at least the next week, I’ll be attempting an entirely Soylent diet. Updates on this next Monday!
Learnings: My old, pre-polyphasic diet almost caused me to fail. I discovered and chose Soylent as my remedy, although I think the broader lesson here is to pay very close attention to your diet if you ever embark on a polyphasic cycle. The impact of more well-rounded, nutritionally-balanced meals has been game-changing.
REM Sleep and Lucid Dreaming
When you make the adjustment to polyphasic sleep you go through a natural adaptation period of sleep deprivation and retraining your brain to replenish itself. What typically happens, at least in my case, is that sustained sleep deprivation forces your body to maximize REM sleep cycles during any period of rest (my 3-hour core and 3x 20-minute naps).
In week 1 I was starting to hit REM cycles during the 20-minute naps and even having vivid dreams that I could remember after waking up.
This week has only gotten better, with a wholly-unexpected and added bonus: my first lucid dream!
Lucid dreaming, if you haven’t read about it before, is when you’re dreaming but are simultaneously conscious of the fact that you’re dreaming. As a result, you can theoretically train yourself to control certain aspects of your own dreams. It’s a fascinating field of study and I highly recommend Tim Ferriss’ introduction to lucid dreaming if you’re interested.
A nap on Thursday afternoon was my first experience with lucidity. I laid down on my couch at noon and was asleep within 1–2 minutes. I experienced time dilation where I entered a dream state which felt like several hours. At one point I reached lucidity and was consciously aware of my dream state — totally surreal.
Unfortunately, my lucid dream was…not good. It involved the death of my dog (getting morbid now!), so in my head I said “screw this, I’m waking up.”
And so I did.
I made the entirely-conscious decision to just open my eyes and end the nap. When I stood up and checked the time, I could hardly believe it: 12:15pm.
This blows my mind. To go from being awake to a lucid dream state and back out again in under 15 minutes (without any alarm) was supreme. I felt refreshed and reenergized for the rest of the afternoon.
Learnings: Lucid dreaming is the real deal and is reportedly more-common among polyphasic sleepers. I’d highly recommend taking some time to research more and try to get into a lucid state for yourself!
What about non-REM Sleep?
Science on sleep continues to evolve and we’re always learning more about what impact sleep has on the body. One key question that has come up over and over again asks what the health impacts are of skipping the non-REM cycles of sleep.
The answer is that I don’t know. But I did some digging and came across this great excerpt from another polyphasic sleeper who lived for 6 months on 2 hours of sleep per day:
Since I’m not getting the quantities of non-REM sleep I used to, many people wonder about the long-term effects. Some people told me they’ve heard there are important benefits to those other phases of sleep.
I’m sure there are benefits to those other phases of sleep, but I don’t feel this is significant in the case of my experiment because that doesn’t tell me how my body/mind will adapt to the absence of those sleep phases.
Many foods are beneficial as well, but their absence from one’s diet doesn’t cause problems because the body will do just fine without them. So the real question is how critical those other phases of sleep are. Do they yield any irreplaceable benefits?
It doesn’t help me to know what the body does during those phases of sleep. What I need to know is what the body does in the absence of those phases of sleep. Does it find other ways to produce the same benefits? Are the benefits negligible enough to be abandoned? I don’t know, nor do I think anyone else presently has these answers.
Adjustments For Next Week
- Diet: I’m going full Soylent for a week (maybe with 1–3 cheat meals) to see if this impacts my energy, mental clarity and productivity.
- Nap patterns: I’m no longer taking my naps in the dark or in a bed. They are all in my well-lit living room on the couch. My phone (alarm) is placed walking distance from the couch.
- Sleep patterns: at night, just before bed, I’m physically throwing my phone (alarm) into a corner to avoid accidentally snoozing or oversleeping. I’m also experimenting with warm vs. cold nighttime temperatures.
- Routine: I’m working on a “first-hour” routine that I can trigger immediately upon waking up. Right now it’s looking like this: shower, first breakfast (Soylent) and then writing (either a blog post, like this, or catching up on communications with friends/family/work).
- Hours: sticking in the 4–4.5 hours of total sleep per day range feels really good. Adding an extra nap if I feel like it’s needed is totally cool by me though.
- Exercise: I’m aiming for two weight-lifting sessions mid week to see if I’m able to perform and recover normally under reduced sleep.
- Sleep tracking/alarm tools: this week I’m going to be tracking my sleep with a Jawbone UP. I’ll share some of the data next week!
Hit me up on Twitter if you want to ask questions about polyphasic sleep or just chat about this general craziness!