Paul Makepeace ;-)

December 13, 2005

Polyphasic sleep bandwagon

Posted in: Alternative, Sleep, What am I up to

There's been some buzz recently around modifying one's sleeping pattern away from a single chunk at night to multiple "polyphasic" naps throughout the day. The ultimate form of polyphasic sleeping seems to be called the Uberman Schedule and consists of six twenty-minute sleep periods spaced evenly four hours apart. Thus instead of sleeping in my case around 8hr/night there's the alluring promise of getting away with only 2hr/day, in other words nearly 40% extra time awake, or even more persuasively, double1 your free time. (If you're the type of person that's bored a lot, perhaps that's half as persuasive.) No amount of expensive time management courses is going to double your free time.

So clearly I have to try it.

I've read over the years a few accounts of this sort of sleep pattern including various inventor-types (Edison, Da Vinci, ...) who have supposedly lived like this. As far as I can tell though that's pure copy/paste rumour. My interest was piqued again a month or so back in The Game where Neil Strauss and his housemate tried it. But both failed.

A shift into polysleep, a term I have just coined to save me some typing, requires a transition phases of a few days feeling anywhere from tired to utterly shattered. Anyone's who's undergone sleep or food deprivation (students and dieters) knows how hard it is to fight off nature's pull.

In fact I have never heard of anyone polysleeping beyond a month. Even with "lite" versions that have a few hours of "core" sleep (uninterrupted hours, typically 4am to 7am), and/or with occasional "reboots" (indefinite uninterrupted sleeps taken every fortnight of so), the documented successes are of the order of a handful.

Until now. Nik forwarded me a link to Steve Pavlina's description of a shift to a polyphasic lifestyle. A couple of weeks ago he wrote in his final update,

I consider the experiment a huge success, and I intend to continue with polyphasic sleep indefinitely unless I discover a compelling reason not to.

Now that's interesting. And Steve was on the full Uberman 6x20min schedule.

So naturally also being a curiosity junkie Aries I have to try it... I started out Friday daytime and it's been four days and nights so far. My ability to fall asleep any time and anywhere is developing nicely. Places I've fallen asleep in the last few days include a toilet, a café, a bath, a bedroom floor, and a busy Hoxton bar with a dozen mates around. I haven't yet developed the knack of dropping right into REM sleep, except when I'm in meetings...

Sticking to the twenty minute schedules I've managed with mixed success. The first couple of nights I had three and four hour sleeps in the morning. My discipline about getting out of bed for the first 30years of my life has felt to me particularly poor and polysleeping has shone a glaring spotlight on that. If you even shut your eyes again for a moment after waking you'll find yourself transported in a split second hours forward. The upside of this is that the only way to succeed is to develop that discipline - adapt or die. If I sleep for 1.5hrs, i.e. an hour oversleep, I've gained nothing; compounded over the day that'd be the equivalent of 6 * 1.5 = 9hrs, i.e. more than I would've slept otherwise. Or if I manage 5 * 20mins correctly and then lose it sleeping 4hours that's not much of a gain either.

The unforgiving schedules at least occur at a frequency where the adaption and learning is fast. I'm literally practicing sleeping on cue six times a day. As someone who's spent most of his childhood and early adult years thrashing around for hours at night before Morpheus finally arrived this is incredibly gratifying. You'd be surprised the sense of achievement being able to drop off with your head on a cold sink at four in the afternoon. :-)

Socially it is challenging. Even with a bit of leeway around when the naps happen inevitably one of them is going to land in the middle of an evening activity. Dinner, movie, or any kind of one-on-one is ... well, imagine it. It's bizarre. I suspect this is going to be one of the hardest aspects to work around. Made harder by, at least at the moment, my quality of sleep in random places isn't that great yet so tiredness is added to the sensation of oddness. Fortunately I have no shame explaining any odd nonsense I'm trying out and almost everyone's joined in the curiosity (and taken sneaky pictures; hi Emir!)

What's good so far? Actually a lot. First my sense of time is dilating. I started this on Friday and it feels like nearly a week has passed, and I've got nearly a week's worth of stuff done. Started a new project I'd been putting off for lack of time, read several dozen pages of dense online tech manuals, and written an essay. This is all the while hosting and entertaining three people who visited, going to theatre, a couple of social outings including an excellent big one organised by Dean, oh, and doing a couple of full-time jobs.

There've been some subtler effects too. I have in the past thought, imagine if I didn't sleep. What would that be like metaphysically. One day runs into the next without a break, day follows night follows day follows... inductively compelled and drawn into looking into the future. I've found the idea scary and daunting, unpunctuated, segmented, or contained with rest. I think it's daunting because much of life is like a treadmill, and one of the few remaining excuses to step off is sleep at night. Scary because one's led into confrontation with the possibility of endless existence without purpose, before one's subconcious has a chance to shut down that line of thought with some plausibly deniable distraction.

Right coming up to the tricky 5am slot. Wish me luck ;-)

1 The calculation of double I've come up with by assuming a work day of eight hours is smeared with an hour either side of dead time activity like getting into work, switching on the pc/starting up the chainsaw, shuffling papers/picking stones out of its blade, etc. So with 16 waking hours, 10 is "lost" to work, leaving six. With another 8-2=6 hours wrested from sleep's sophorific clutches, that's double. In fact it's probably better than double given that in the original six there's some non-repeating dead time tasks like brushing your teeth, tidying the house, etc.

Posted by Paul Makepeace at December 13, 2005 04:48 | TrackBack

I tried this a couple of years back. It resulted in some VERY strange waking behaviour - not actual tiredness, just a constant background awareness that you're not functioning efficiently.

My guess is the lack of really deep 'delta' sleep gradually eats away at the body's capabilities, much as (for example) drinking a bottle of wine a day does - it falls short of nonfunctioning, but definitely reduces effectiveness, possibly by more than the 40% of time you're saving. If you try it, I recommend cutting down on the whole leaving-houses-by-topfloor-windows thing - I hear it's prone to disaster...

Posted by: chrisworth at December 13, 2005 09:51

Chris - interesting! How long did you do it for? What was your protocol?

Steve P hypothesises that the capacity to adapt to a substantially reduced sleep schedule might be affected by diet. Carnivores have to sleep a whole lot more due to the digestive burden; herbivores get away with much less sleep. He's vegan. Caffeine also seems to be a deal breaker in even small quantities: even a cup of green tea which has much less caffeine than coffee prevented REM during naps.

I've been caffeine-free in drinks since hospital this year and for this polysleep experiment will avoid any source of brain chemistry-altering foods like chocolate etc. Which is a nightmare at this time of year.

I've felt less than 100% over the last few days but it's been getting better; I blew through the two mid-night naps this morning without a problem and feel totally OK right now. Reading Steve P's logs things took a few weeks to get settled.

Posted by: Paul Makepeace at December 13, 2005 11:56

Just so that you're aware, there have been polyphasers who've gone for longer than a month.
One would be Puredoxyk (add a .com for her website) who did Uberman for 6 months during college, and is now on the Everyman variation (3 naps per day with a short 'core' sleep at night). Steve Pavlina also did this for 6 months, but quit due to it causing social inconveniences (again, add a .com for his site). I'm also a member of the Google Group for polyphasers and some of those have been doing it for several months, or have done in the past. Most people seem to choose Everyman for convenience, but a few have the willpower and circumstances which allow them to live 22 hour 'uberman' days.

Posted by: Ashwing13 at June 11, 2009 20:06
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