Real life cheat code? Or perpetual lack of sleep mode?
I’m about to convert to a controversial sleeping algorithm. Here’s a little background, some observations, a few bad jokes and a pie chart.
I’m a shameless whore for the latest personal improvement innovation. If it promises to revolutionize my life with minimal effort, I’ve already hyped it, tried it, tossed it aside with a growing sense of disillusionment and taken to Facebook to complain about it in the span of a week or two. That’s not to say I regret tirelessly throwing myself at every trending lifehack—there’s a fine line between gimmick and ingenuity, at least it’s there in my Thesaurus, and many things that entered my world on a bandwagon have catalyzed lasting, positive changes in my life. My point is that good and bad, be they juice cleanses, functional fitness home workout DVDs (I don’t care what anyone says, Tony Horton is the man), standing desks built out of random Ikea bookshelves drilled and cobbled together with Gorilla Glue—the get-rich-quick schemes of this century’s personal development world—I know them well. And they all provide the same insight—that they’re tools, blueprints into which you install your contribution—effort. The application of hard and consistent work turns the easy promise of the lifehack into real, earned growth, the potential into the actual. They just don’t market that part.
Because let’s be honest—hard work doesn’t sell. Self-motivation and grinding every day doesn’t come easy to some people, and it certainly didn’t come on my installation DVD, but with enough desire and perseverance, it’s a practice that can be learned.
And yet…as I’ve begun upgrading my output engine, I keep running up against one particularly problematic obstacle—an obstacle I can’t defeat with about.com self-help articles, or defeat literally/emphatically/existentially at all. And I’m talking about that cosmic Scrooge McDuck, Father Time. Time is our most finite, most precious resource. And even when you’re consistently working as hard as you can, as well as you can, there just never seems to be enough. Some people turn to Adderall. I don’t have a prescription. So despite having days where I’m on my game (despite a few Pixel Dungeon breaks) from start to finish, things just…take longer than I want them to. And then I have to go to bed, and then I wake up with more on my agenda than I had the previous day, and the cycle repeats until I’m back to desperately looking for a shortcut.
Enter the titular productivity device du jour. Polyphasic Sleeping to the rescue.
Polyphasic sleeping, for the uninitiated, is the practice of sleeping for multiple sessions of shorter duration over the course of one day. This is in contrast to Monophasic sleeping, or what most of us refer to as Regular Sleeping, also known in certain informal settings as “I’m going to bed,” where you sleep all at once, in one big chunk during the night. Recent studies on people exposed to a reduced photophase have made a strong case that the body’s natural tendency is actually more towards a Biphasic sleeping pattern, and that Monophasic sleeping is actually an artificial by product of living in a magical electric world, where the sun never has to go away. In pre-industrial times, people would hit the sack upon sundown, rouse at some point in the middle of the night, putz about, invent the midnight snack, and then go back to sleep for a short period until the sun came up.
It’s also instructive to note that in many parts of the world, biphasic sleeping has long been the social norm. In Europe, where they also do everything else better, as well as Latin America people observe the mid-day siesta, where shops close and people go home to nap and chill, which enables them to stay up later at the discoteca and still wake up rested enough to engage the next day. Which sounds a lot more efficient than what we do, which is to sit at our desk for two hours after lunch having a mid-day slump instead. When I lived in Colombia for six months I saw this firsthand—there were two hours in the middle of the day where you literally couldn’t do anything, because everyone was at home and nothing was open. This also worked out well because during these two hours it was also monsooning every day. Sleep scientists/sleepentists have also argued that monophasic sleeping is not only not our natural inclination, it’s also less efficient, as the body only spends the first few hours in deep sleep (SWS), with the remainder spent in the lighter, less effective stages of sleep.
TAKE THAT, EUROPE.
This would all be interesting enough and worthy of exploration in its own right, but our vigilant friends the lifehackers, in their eternal quest for a real-life Game Genie, have taken up the noble cause of seeing how many more chunks we can break sleep into and still function. The answer is…a lot of chunks. First developed by blogger Puredoxyk, and later brought to the broader public eye by Timothy Ferris in The Four Hour Body, it’s these deliciously unorthodox polyphasic sleeping routines to which we now turn our attention. The basic idea is that by depriving ourselves of extended periods of deep sleep, the body will adjust to take maximum advantage of much shorter naps - allowing the individual to effectively sleep less hours of the day. Of these, there are many popular variations, but the most widely practiced are called the Uberman and the Everyman, coined by Puredoxyk.
The first of these, Uberman, which is either named with lofty intentions or makes you uncomfortable to read, depending on how much you like Nietzsche, is the more hardcore of the two. It consists of six evenly-spaced 20 minute naps, for a grand total of two (2) hours of sleep per day. This is Tim Ferris’ flavor, and depending on who you talk to, the biggest and baddest polyphasic sleeping has to offer. In addition to having 22 waking hours at your disposal, which would seem to be worth the price of admission alone, proponents of the Uberman also claim a number of other benefits, including Velociraptor-like mental clarity, heightened focus, and the increased propensity to experience a state of present-moment mindfulness. In short, you barely sleep and transcend to the next plane of consciousness. Sounds great? Well, there are drawbacks. The initial transition period, while you’re waiting for your body to get with the program and figure out that naps are srs business, is notoriously difficult to make it through. Imagine a Romero movie where the zombies are moaning about sleep instead of brains, and you’ll have some idea of what an army of people doing their first week of Uberman would look like, as well as how bad his last film was. And once you’re in it, the schedule is extremely strict. You will need to be taking those naps at precisely four hour intervals or you’re going to have a bad time. This can be a source of scheduling conflicts for people, as there aren’t too many lifestyles that accommodate dropping everything and taking a nap every four hours.
The Everyman, on the other hand (and by design), is a little more suited to people who want to keep their day job, have a little more flexibility and still get to enjoy that “going to bed at night” ritual (like the bourgeois scamps that they are). The Everyman in most manifestations takes the form of three evenly spaced 20 minute naps during the waking period, and then a longer “core sleep” at night (usually 3 hours, but can also vary in 90 minute increments). As opposed to the Uberman you’ve only got the logistics of three naps to deal with, and perhaps more critically, you’ve got a great deal of flexibility on when they occur, or in special circumstances, if they occur at all. Essentially you’re not screaming at people to find you a pillow at 8pm while sitting at a dinner, but are still getting most of the benefits and increased productivity of polyphasic sleeping and getting by on just 4 hours of sleep a day. It’s what you’d call a happy medium. Steve Pavlina describes his experience with the Everyman here. Here’s how everything I’ve said so far looks in pie chart form, because pie charts.
What’s interesting is that the Everyman is actually more difficult to adjust to, since the body doesn’t immediately take advantage of any of your naps, as it mistakes the core sleep as its regular monophasic block. According to the good people at PolyphasicSleepingSociety.com, the Everyman takes about a month to fully adapt to, while the Uberman only takes a week. This leads many in the polyphasic community to recommend that even if your goal is to adopt the Everyman 3 schedule (as it is mine), it’s still best to start with the Uberman and hold out until you’re taking effective naps. The transition period will be much shorter, and your body will be much more expedient at realizing that those precious naps are for sweet, sweet REM. Once you’ve trained it in this way, then it’s possible to introduce a core nap. It makes sense, and I’ve got the anecdotal evidence to prove it.
You see, I’ve tried to get on a polyphasic sleeping schedule twice before—once last spring, and again earlier this year—and failed both times. The first time, I went straight for the Everyman 3 cold turkey. It was going well for about four days, and then I snoozed one of my nap alarms and woke up almost an entire day later, with a starving cat and no recollection of my first name. So I put it out of mind for a time, until this spring, when I realized that my sabbatical made for the perfect conditions to try the experiment again. This time, I eased into it, adding naps first, then gradually shaving time off of my nighttime sleep period. The incremental method seemed destined for success, but I only lasted just a couple days longer. As explained above, it’s hard for your body to get the memo about naps when you’re still giving it a nice big chunk of bedtime that doesn’t look much different from what it’s used to. I never properly fell asleep during those naps, just lied there waiting for my alarm to go off (so sort of like meditating, except I was allowed to think thoughts about things).
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM.
This time, I’m going to listen to the experts and go hard from the start. I found an extremely well-reasoned introductory process at less wrong, and this is the plan I’ll be following starting today:
- No Caffeine. There’s some disagreement about this, but it seems a valid conclusion that a caffeine dependency is going to make altering your sleep patterns extremely difficult. So for about two weeks, I’ve been ratcheting down my coffee intake and won’t be drinking any while I’m doing this.
- Practice Naps. Naps are hard, so for the past week I’ve been taking one 20-minute nap per day, just to get into the habit. I’m glad I’ve been practicing this, because it wasn’t until the last two that I was able to successfully avoid hitting the snooze button and going for another half hour.
- Launch Day. Today, I’m going to start fasting after lunch. Because it says so in the list, and it’s extreme.
- Sleep Deprivation. Tonight—an all-nighter. By introducing sleep deprivation, the naps are more likely to take.
- I’ll eat breakfast tomorrow morning, the first time I’ve eaten anything since Monday’s lunch.
- Starting immediately after breakfast, I’ll begin taking a 20 minute nap every 2 hours. This is double the amount of napping in Uberman.
- Every following day I’ll drop a nap until next Monday.
- Once I’m down to 6 naps, one every 4 hours, I’m on the Uberman schedule. This should happen next Monday, the 8th.
- That night I’ll go straight to Everyman, so I’ll sleep for three hours, and then be taking 3 20-minute naps the following day.
- REPEAT. Done.
So with this new and improved introduction method, I’m a bit more confident in my chances for pulling this off, and in a few weeks I’ll be experiencing the dubious victory of twenty waking hours. However, if you’re anything like my parents at the dinner table when I announced I was attempting to “do that crazy sleeping thing again,” you’re not wondering if there are any potentially serious negative side effects, but what they are. Pass the asparagus.
And yes. All this winning at life, it seems, does come with a potential cost. Out of the many who have successfully entered and sustained a polyphasic sleep schedule, feedback has not been entirely positive. A few key issues resurface over and over again:
Fluctuations in weight.
People have reported both increases and decreases in weight. Of the two, it seems like a 10-15 lb weight gain seems to occur with the most frequency. This might be accounted for by the need for extra fuel to keep the body functioning during a longer wake time. I could probably stand to gain a couple pounds, so this certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. But I’ll be monitoring my weight every week to see if anything weird’s going on.
Once again the Everyman schedule seems designed to mitigate the more egregious effects of reduced sleep, but as you might expect with giving the body less time to repair, some people have found that it becomes more difficult to maintain a demanding workout regimen. I was actually planning on using the extra time to up the intensity and frequency of mine…so we’ll see how that goes. Again, not quite a dealbreaker, but I’ll be keeping track of my numbers and see if this becomes an issue.
More Quantity Less Quality
So you’ve got four extra hours a day. What do you do with it? Finish your magnum opus, or spend four hours watching tweets trickle down your screen in a zombie-like state? If you find your performance starting to suffer, then you might be experiencing the quality v. quantity issue many people have while running a polyphasic experiment. This one I’m a little dubious about—it directly conflicts with the heighted consciousness polyphasic sleep adopters claim as one of its key benefits. I suspect this may be more of a personal thing. Regardless, if I’m not crossing more things off my to-do list every day than I was before I started, I’ll definitely bail.
It goes without saying that if you’re not on the same sleeping schedule as 99% of the rest of the planet, you’re going to spend many, many hours awake while everyone else is sleeping, and taking naps while they’re available to you. You might find after a while that your only friend is the surly Armenian old man who runs the 7-11 graveyard shift. In fact, it is this last facet of the polyphasic schedule that most people cite as their reason for pulling out after 3-4 otherwise glorious months — they just wanted to be on the same timetables as their friends and family again. Since right now I spend most of my time sitting in a sunless room with cats and Illustrator tutorials as my only companions, I’ll mostly dodge this bullet; but I’m sure in time this will come into play and I’ll be yearning for normalcy again.
Because like the Master Cleanse, a similar lifestyle overhaul that occasionally doubles as a blog post framing device, it’s not something you’re committed to for life. You jump in, reap the benefits, have an amazing experience, and then come back to the world a better, more interesting human being. And as Mr. Bean would say, I think that’s marvelous.
So, I guess I’ll (hopefully) find out the answers to these questions, sustain this for at least a few months, receive superhuman insights, get lots done, and make Puredoxyk and Mr. Bean proud.
I’m really excited (again). If any of you guys are feeling inspired and ambitious and want to go on this journey with me, I’d be honored (and we’d have someone to talk to at 4:45am), so leave a comment and/or send me an email and let me know! To everyone else, I’ll be sure to continually update the blog on how everything is going. Also maybe prepare yourself to start waking up to some bizarre, rambling texts from me. Thanks for reading everyone.