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The Polyphasic Experiment

After reading about polyphasic sleep schedules over a decade ago, I finally had the opportunity to try it out for myself. For those of you that are new to this word, polyphasic sleep involves giving up the 6 to 8 hour nighttime “sleep” (called mono-phasic sleep) for a series of short naps spread out over the 24 hour cycle.

I considered making the switch many, many times, but my work schedule just wouldn’t permit it (or so I told myself). Recently though, I began rebuilding programs and courses for the colleges I work for. This was a shift out of the classroom and more time working from home.

Aside: Honestly, the time I save in commute time just means I work more, so working from home isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, especially for workaholics. But i’ll save those details for another post.

When you love working as much as I do, you frequently wish you could clone yourself. Polyphasic sleeping is about as close as I can get to a clone. The lure of being awake and functional for 20+ hours a day sounded to me like double the time to get things done. I had also read that my perception of time itself would change and I’m always up for a shift in my perspectives.

The easiest schedule to get into (apparently) is commonly called the” “uberman” schedule. Where you nap for 20 to 30 minutes every 4 hours or so around the clock. This amounts to 2.5 to 3 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

There are lots of people who have attempted this, a quick google search of polyphasic sleep will yield ALL kinds of results. None of them very consistent, most of them stressing the difficulty in getting into the rhythm and staying in the pattern needed to get to REM sleep. Steve Pavlina was the first successful one that I read about, his whole experience is documented on his blog.

Yes, I’m aware this sounds a little crazy. However, I like to challenge the assumptions and discover things for myself, especially when there is an abundance of conflicting information. The only way to know the truth is to experience it. I also tend to march to beat of my own drummer.

I started looking for a good time to implement the schedule change, everything I read said that I was going to be mostly useless for the first 4 to 6 days as I went through extreme sleep deprivation. The premise here is that it takes a few days for your body to realize that you’re not getting any REM. Once it does realize this, you start falling asleep immediately when you lay down and hit REM within 5 minutes of closing your eyes.

I discussed my plan with my amazing partner (she was incredibly skeptical and is used to my less than traditional ideas) we agreed that if I went offside or started to “crack” the experiment would end. I read her Steve Pavlina’s blog posts and promised I would leverage the evenings for more time together. Knowing I would have overnight time to make up any lost traction on various projects.

Since we had agreed to both take a short week off work to get some non-working time together, I targeted the Thursday before as my cut-over date. My last mono-phasic sleep would be May 15th 2019 and I would do a 30 day trial (assuming nothing went sideways).

Last point I want to make before I get to the data, I’ve been using sleep cycle on my phone as my alarm clock for the past eight years or so. It shows me in a graph what my sleep is like. This was an invaluable tool during this experiment. (No, i’m not affiliated with the developer in anyway). I also opted to keep a written log of my “naps” so I could look back over the experiment and see if I could spot any trends that weren’t apparent to me during the 30 day trial.

Day 01 – May 16 (Thursday)

I woke up at 5:10am, actually 10 min later than usual. My planned schedule is 2 6 and 10, both AM and PM. This will let me synchronize with K. She usually goes to bed around 10pm and is up around 6am, so the thought is that I can take my 10pm nap with her. Allowing her to fall asleep with me in the bed and then in the am, wake up with me still there (although I will have been up all night and will take my 2am nap on a couch or in a spare room to not disrupt her sleep).

This is what most nights look like in my sleep cycle app … I imagine yours would look similar. Moving from awake (or mostly awake) to sleep or deep sleep in cycles throughout the night.

My first few naps were terrible, I just laid there mostly awake and finally dozed off a few minutes before the alarm went off. I opted for a 30 minute window as this fits perfectly with my pomodoros (another post I clearly need to write up).

By the time I hit my third nap, I clued in that I was going to end up cutting off time on one side of the nap or the other, so I decided to aim for 15 minutes to the hour until 15 minutes after the hour (bridging the hour) that I was napping. This way equal parts of the waking time are only off by 15 minutes.

I also made the quick discovery that sweets before naps are a dumb idea, I had read that I should quit caffeine but coffee hasn’t had a hold on me or my ability to sleep for a long time (almost two decades). However, sugar sweet treats (like a bunch of twizzlers) totally made sleeping a non option and brought about a hard sugar crash by the middle of the night. Less than ideal.

Naps 1 through 4 (10am, 2pm, 6pm, 10pm)

Day 02

My first 2am nap (nap 5) was difficult to say the least … oh, napping was easy, forcing myself up at 2:15am following a sugar crash took determination, I was groggy and could have fallen back asleep easily for about 25 minutes after waking up. To this point there has been no actual “sleep” or REM, only dozing in and out. Ahhh Sleep deprivation.

Nap 6 was my first “success” I fell asleep almost immediately and had very vivid dreams, apparently I was snoring like a bear. When I got up my groggy feeling left within about 5 minutes and I felt strangely refreshed. Morning routine with K commenced as usual.

Nap 7 looked like this, really good sleeps have me in a deep sleep and flatlined there, it’s like I stepped off a cliff from awake to deep sleep.

Nap 7 (10am) was equally successful, I know I was dreaming but the details faded immediately on waking. Fully recharged, almost no grogginess at all. In retrospect, I believe this was my second wind. I worked and was very focused, to the point that I completely blanked on napping until half past 2 (over shot by 45 min), nap 8 (2:30pm) was refreshing, but there was about 5 min of grogginess and I was feeling like I was about 8/10 compared to my “normal” self.

Nap 9 (6pm) was interrupted by some rogue cats fighting outside my window but even with the disruption I was feeling 9/10 when I woke up and very surprised at how well I was adapting, I was starting to feel fatigue about 30 minutes before taking this nap and noticed I was yawning more.

Nap 10 (10pm day 2) was forced, I wasn’t tired at all, I was yawning more but there was no fatigue. I went for the nap anyway to ensure I was keeping my planned schedule but was a little beside myself that I wasn’t having any of the difficulties I was expecting. Woke with no issue, a little bit of that groggy feeling (maybe for 3 to 5 minutes) and then feeling 9/10. I suspect that my years of crunch and game jams and sleep deprivation have given me an advantage over all of the other documented studies I read about before taking this on.

Day 03

At 2am I went down for nap 11, I convinced myself in my sleepy state that it was ok to hit snooze (twice!) and ended up extending my sleep by an additional 30 minutes. I was feeling dumb when I got up at 3am for hitting snooze at all, clearly, sleeping me cannot be trusted. Snooze disabled. Not a huge deal. The extra time made me feel groggier (is that a word?) for about 20 minutes.

My 6am nap was a little better, but there was a lingering groggy feeling. Clearly the days and nights are not created equally. At least psychologically. I find some humour in this considering I was the die hardest of night people for the first 30 years of my life. It’s only been the last 15 years that I’ve discovered the benefits of being an early riser and with all the late nights I worked it was seldom even possible to be up early.

I opted to take an early 10am (about an hour early) because I wasn’t quite right from the extra snooze time still. It managed to get me back into the right flow, pointing out that on short cycles like this, little screw-ups can have rippling effects. Interesting discoveries and i’m only on my third day.

Completely forgetting I took an early nap, I laid down at 10:20 to take what I thought was my 10am nap. This is where the cognitive “dumb” exists. Almost like I was on auto pilot. Of corse, I’m logging every sleep so when I get up after having a hard time napping and log nap 14 I see the “extra” one I managed to have at 9am. Clearly, I’m not as clear as I think I am.

Being May 24 weekend, we always have fresh triple mix and/or top soil delivered for the gardens. That means a lot of back breaking work between 10:45am and 2pm. It took me a few min longer to fall asleep (due to a warmer body temperature) but I slept solid and was up and feeling 100% by 2:30.

Nap 16 (6:15pm) I actually woke up 2 minutes before the alarm. I’m taking this as a good sign, considering the snooze sleeps and forgetting I took a nap and the grogginess. Having my body wake before the alarm seems like a great sign. Mostly rested, some BBQ and beers to celebrate the gardens being all ready (3 cubic yards of triple mix moved around – our awesome buddy A helped / did more than his share of the work)

Nap 17 10pm – Just when I think it’s all coming together … K woke me up at 2am (OOps!) Apparently I set the alarm for 10:15 AM not PM and with the mix of sun, work, beers and BBQ was down for the count. Ok, another lesson learned. On the plus side, I feel totally recharged and 100% (like I slept for a week).

Day 04

6am (nap 18) was a “regular” nap (at least thats what I;m now calling it) … I’m on day 4 but I feel like I just started this experiment earlier today and like it was over a week ago at the same time, its hard to explain. I woke up refreshed and feel fine, even with the long sleep. No grogginess, know I was dreaming but the details fade almost immediately.

Today, we have things planned … A trip to curve lake with K’s Grandma and Great Aunt. My plan is to nap in the car if I need too, so this is a problematic note about this schedule, planning means I have to book-end everything I want to do with naps.

I’m going to stack up on nap time before hand if possible to ensure I can make it through the day. I feel good / optimistic and have a plan. A slightly early 10am and an extra little nap right before our guests arrive. This worked perfectly, nap 19 was at 8:15 to 8:45 (early) and at 11 to 11:20 I caught a perfect short nap (nap 20) that left me feeling 100%.

That extra nap did the trick because my 2pm nap ended up getting pushed to 4pm. I felt the “need” to nap around 3:30 and was grateful that we were almost home. I had read about how my body would signal me that it was nap time but this was the first time I actually experienced it for myself.

I opted to push nap 22 out an hour 7 – 7:30pm to keep the wake time more consistent and not have a bunch of naps in short succession, 2 hours of awake time just didn’t seem right but I want to not totally screw up the schedule so 7pm was my happy medium. Good rest, feel like I managed to accomplish something interesting today.
I’m feeling pretty happy with this new way to sleep and don’t foresee any troubles doing it for 30 days.

10:15pm – nap 23 back on schedule, actually woke up 5 min before the alarm (only 20ish min of sleep). Feel fantastic. Being that i’m on day 4 and everything I read said it was going to take 6 days to get through sleep deprivation, I now think that most of the people that have documented this have no previous experience with sleep deprivation. Honestly, it hasn’t been that bad and I’m clearly converted to polyphasic. With the exception of day 3, my average time is ~ 3 hours of sleep for each 24 hour cycle.

Day 05

2am nap 24 – The most vivid dreams ever! I would share the details, but they are only relevant to me, I did however recall them!! This is exciting, I honestly only remember a single time my dreams were that vivid and that was at least 8 years ago. Fully awake, 110% feel amazing.

Nap 25 – 10am. I was feeling so awesome, I completely skipped 6am and opted to listen for the nudge to nap, it happened around 8:30am so I just managed the fatigue until my regular scheduled nap time. I have a car appointment at 2pm which will interfere with the 2pm nap time, so I opted for a 12:30 to 1pm nap 26. This worked well and I was good until about 5pm before the feeling of fatigue started to set in. I took a 5:30 to 6pm approach for nap 27.

Nap 28 was a disappointment, another oops, I went and laid down at 10, but slept until 11 – considering how loud my alarm gets, this is quite a feat. Determined to make up for this I go on to skip nap 29.

Day 06

Nap 30 6am. I logged it this way (skipping nap 29) so i’m writing about it this way. A perfect nap, woke up just before the alarm, had vivid dreams and recalled them. I may play around with lucid dreaming if the vividness of my dreams persists.

10am nap 31 was also ideal, I feel like i’m fully transitioned and 110% more calm, cool and collected. I have the time between 2am and 5am (old waking time being 5am) where i’m not interested in cognitive work and have opted to picking up my guitar and / or sketching, both things that I enjoy but haven’t done in a long time because “I didn’t have the time for it”.

2pm nap 32. Just when everything clicks I have a nap thats not quite right and I have some fatigue, its interesting because before this nap I was positive and convinced it would all be smooth sailing, but a single arced nap (what I’m calling the sleep pattern you see here) and I feel that it’s not working as well as i’ve convinced myself it is. Luckily this feeling fades pretty quickly as the fatigue does.

Day 07

7 days into my 30 day trial and the observation of time has changed. Days aren’t really how time flows anymore, it’s more like a series of blocks of time that pass and extend into forever. The blurry, “weeks flying by” sense I’ve been accustomed to is gone. Time is longer and slower again, much like when I was a kid.

My stress levels have lowered, i’ve gotten the hang of napping every 4 hours or so, I feel just as alert and awake as always (even a little more). I’m calmer all around.

Week 2

The majority of the naps were quality, a few tiny bumps along the way where I overslept or even snuck in an extra 30 minutes here or there (honestly, when we’re talking about getting 3.5 hours of sleep in a 24 hour cycle … its not that big a deal).

I spent considerable time this week working with the pomodoro technique, naps taking up a single pom (work and rest). This fits but feels like artificially adding work to my plate (mainly because i’m logging every sleep)

Week 3

Friends and family are all intrigued, no longer as skeptical. They see this sleep pattern working, and have commented in many ways about how much more rested I appear. I attribute this to the reduction in stress.

Naps continue to be on average every 4 hours, once i’m done the 30 days i’ll play around with different models and durations of sleep. I think that if I can do a 50 min to 1 hour nap every 6 hours (increasing my total sleep to 4 hours every 24), scheduling won’t be as big of a pain. Right now having to “bookend” all of my plans around naps is a little daunting and is likely my least favourite part of this.

With the AGM for the college on day 23, I opted to toggle back to mono-phasic sleep on day 22. I had no real difficulty doing this, I simply slept for 3 hours in the early hours (making myself just go back to sleep when waking) and then didn’t nap for the whole day. On the night of day 22 I went to bed around 11pm and was up before 4 am. Drove to Kitchener, spent the day fully alert and “normal”.

When I got home I had a 30 min nap, and then at 2am and 6am I took 1 hour naps. By 10am I was back in the groove of 30 min polyphasic napping. Incredibly surprised how easy that was.

Week 4 (days 22 through 29)

Much of the same, I see no reasons to not continue living this way. The extra time I’m getting to spend on drawing and other personal pursuits like guitar, the slower pace of time, the calm vibe I feel constantly are all huge benefits.

Day 30

On the one hand, the 30 days flew by. Here I am already, mission accomplished. On the other hand, that took a long time to get too. At least it seemed longer (but not in a boring sense) in a relaxed, stretched out, even paced kinda way. It’s difficult to articulate.

The Pro’s: Feel more rested, calmer, clearer, chill. Time isn’t a big blur, this could be due to the sleep pattern or the fact that i’ve been logging every nap and giving attention to the details tends to slow time back down. More time with my partner, she is very happy with the results. Because I see the blocks of time while she’s in hibernation mode, I’m more freely walking away from work (a feat in itself) to get quality time together. I know I can just pick up the slack of a few hours while she is asleep. Win – win.

The Con’s: Bookending all of my plans is a pain, there’s no way to sugar coat this. I have to plan everything I want to do around naps and its annoying. I miss the romanticized idea of a good nights sleep. I don’t actually miss the sleep, just the idea of sleep.

Days 31 and onward

With some travel coming up in a weeks time, I’ll toggle for that so i’m not fatigued. I’m interested is seeing how it effects the time zone change and the typical jet lag feelings, I’ll toggle back the night I return. I’m also interested is seeing how I can better incorporate more physical activity / workouts into all this added time. Two a day ?

Lastly, I want to try getting longer blocks of awake time. If I can make four blocks of 6 hours work with four 1 hour (ish) naps, I think that will remove the burden of all the additional planning and “bookending”.

Another thought i’ve had multiple times during this experiment is to just listen to my body, there have been plenty of times that I missed a nap and just carried on at the next scheduled one with no ill side effects. It was a problem when I first started but once I had fully flipped into polyphasic (about day 6 or 7) it was no longer that big a deal if I missed a nap. My body tells me when I need a nap.

fin.

This post took too long to finish, and post … one of my next 30 day trials will need to be a writing challenge … such as writing in depth around a topic daily for 30 days.

Actual Best Practices for Developers