I ended the Great Polyphasic Sleeping Experiment a few weeks ago, around the end of June. Unlike the other attempts, this time I came out of the other side willfully and with no regrets.
So was it a success? It was, in so many ways. Why did I stop the polyphasic sleeping schedule? Quite a few reasons, some I anticipated, and some I didn’t. I’ll explain in detail shortly, but first I want to talk about the positive things I experienced.
First and foremost, the level of willpower required to exercise making these crazy sleeping adjustments and sticking to it was, in hindsight, a tremendous achievement and one that I hope I can translate into other forms of diligence if and when the occasion calls. I also learned how to power nap like a boss; gone are the days where I feel a bit sluggish and try to nap it out, only to wake up several hours later feeling more tired than I was before. Now I can power down for twenty minutes, and pop up when the alarm goes off invigorated, excited, and ready to check my email for the 50th time with a renewed sense of purpose.
From what I’ve researched around polyphasic adaption around the internet, this is a skill that mysteriously sticks with you long after you return to monophasic sleeping. So cheers to that. I never did get around to vivid or lucid dreaming typical of polyphasic sleep, which was a slight disappointment, but I did enter into some interesting, mindful states, especially when I was doing the preliminary Uberman-style schedule—the clarity I had during those times was something I’d like to explore further, so I’ll be looking to see if they can be induced with a different approach (I already know the answer to this, and it’s that they can - more on this below).
So what, then, brought my foray into unorthodox slumber to an untimely (kind of timely?) end? To put it simply, the negatives outweighed the positives, and after a month, which by all accounts is plenty of time to adapt, I couldn’t forsee that balance shifting favorably.
We’ll start with the predicted problems. An egregiously long-winded disclaimer here: I don’t have a degree in any of the medical disciplines, but apparently, among those who do, there’s a celebrated joke about med school and psychology students becoming convinced they’ve got whatever ailment/neurosis they’re currently studying. I can kind of relate to this because I become convinced that I’m exhibiting every side effect of any new medication I start (just FYI, currently I’m gaining weight, having difficulty with coordination, suffering double vision and in a coma). What I’m getting at here is that all the research I was doing on the common problems people experienced during polyphasic sleeping schedule may have caused me to inadvertently manifest these issues during my own experiment, or at least subconsciously pay unwarranted attention to expected issues. This is how the internet can be dangerous.
Either way, one common grievance that I personally encountered was the trade-off between quantity of time and quality of time. Yes, I was awake more of the time, but it’s hard to explain — I never quite felt fully operational. Days lost all meaning and I existed on some ethereal plane, able to communicate with real life but not able to fully participate in it. I imagine that this might have been the “heightened zen-like awareness” that many proponents of polyphasic sleep claim as one of the chief benefits, but for anxious old Brad, it was more disconcerting than enjoyable.
Related and equally expected was the disconnect between my schedule and everyone else’s. It was a little bit alienating, and I certainly don’t need any more of that. You can only sit on your porch at 4am, looking at the stars and thinking about how you’re the only person awake right now before you start to have second thoughts about whether or not that’s actually a good thing. In short, it was lonely.
Then there was the slightly inconvenient fact that I metamorphosed into a haggard, paunchy, dumpy version of myself. I didn’t gain or lose a pound, and I didn’t notice any loss of performance or energy when it came to exercising or lifting, in fact, I think I was probably more excited to work out because I missed endorphins so much. No, I just looked like hell. It’s no secret that the body repairs itself during sleep, and apparently some people need more repairing than others. My much lamented eye-bags virtually tripled in size, which was acceptable; more disconcertingly, however, I also looked like someone had skinned me and was wearing my skin around, like the cockroach alien wearing Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black, which was…not acceptable. I guess they call it beauty sleep for a reason. Vanity: 1, Polyphasic Sleeping: 0.
Probably most damning was that for all the extra time I was making, I wasn’t actually getting anything extra done. In fact, I’d venture to say that my net productivity decreased, perhaps as a result of the foggy brain states described above, and also, I suspect due to the fact that my procrastination tendencies were exacerbated by the increased amount of time I could tell myself I’d get around to actually doing things—i.e., “Oh, it’s NBD that I’m not working on that EDX coursework due tomorrow, I can totally just do it at 5am, you know, because I’ll be awake then.” This was essentially the dealbreaker. After all, having more time to get more things done was the entire point. So, after a month of giving it my solid best, I was ready for things to go back to normal.
Around the time I was running out of enthusiasm for running Uber/Everyman, I was reintroduced to the practices of mindfulness both by an online course I was taking and by a therapist’s suggestion. In a lot of ways, practicing mindfulness (and some people will definitely disagree) is an enrichment strategy about as far away from polyphasic sleeping as you can get. Cultivating mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, in order to fully experience things as they occur, and to adopt an open, curious and non-judgement attitude towards them. The idea is to free yourself of the racing thoughts and agonizing about past and future and exist solely in the present moment, which for all intents and purposes is the only moment that really matters, because it’s the only moment that you’re interfacing with at any given time.
Mindfulness is essentially about actually living your life, not burning through it with your brain checked out, running on autopilot. Polyphasic sleeping, at least the way I was employing it, is very much mired in the high-stakes future focus game. Having more time to get more things done so that when I get wherever I’m going, I’ll have done more things. Mindfulness wonders if you’re really going to experience a higher quality of life at that future time having done those more things, if you’ve not really cultivated the ability to be conscious of your experience when you get there.
So that was a nice sort of check, I guess, to the idea that what anyone should strive more is to accomplish stuff. If you can learn to enjoy the process of doing what you can, when you can, as you do it, then it’s possible to worry less, enjoy yourself more, and sleep like a normal human being. Quality over quantity, again. I think there’s definitely a happy medium between vigorously applying yourself and striving to keep your attention primarily on being present; polyphasic sleeping as a lifehacking strategy probably swings too far in that direction; while sitting around meditating for 12 hours a day, as if I could do that, maybe swings a bit too far in the other. But moving forward that balance is definitely something I’m going to invest some effort in maintaining. I have a feeling it’s going to be harder than taking 6 20-minute naps a day.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying out a polyphasic sleeping schedule at all. I think some people are more suited to it than others, and maybe even the same person may be differently suited for it depending on their existing circumstances. Even if it doesn’t work out, I think just the process of engaging it is a personal growth experience that everyone would benefit from. At some point in the future, I may see if things go differently for me, but for now, I’m more excited about exploring other areas of self-improvement, ones I have a little more control over. Time, after all, isn’t something you can conquer, even if you do squeeze more hours out of the day. If anyone is interested in getting more of my thoughts regarding the experience, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.
It was a blast doing this and blogging about it, and hopefully for you guys, hearing about it. Finally, this time, I’m making a proud exit from polyphasic mode, with no regrets. On to the next adventure.