My Polyphasic Sleep Experiment
April 22, 2020
It is 3:30am as I write this, I have just woken up from my core sleep of 4h 30mins, and I feel fantastic. It will be 5 hours before I need to start work at my day job, and I feel like I have unlocked an extra day’s worth of productive free time, accessed through my practice of Polyphasic sleep. But how did I get here?
In 2007 I learned about Polyphasic sleep, which is the largely-untested hypothesis that if you sleep more often during a 24-hour cycle, you need less overall sleep than if you just slept once. We observe that cultures who have a midday sleepSuch as the Spanish siesta. This is called biphasic, two phases of sleep, one at night, one during the day. tend to require less overall sleep than cultures with one block of nighttime sleep.Monophasic sleep.
The cited examples in support of the polyphasic hypothesis include cross-Atlantic sailors sleeping in short bursts, military personnel on watch, parents of newborn babies, and Buckminster Fuller’s famous “twenty-two thinking hours a day”.The Dymaxion schedule: 30 minutes nap every 6 hours.
The method I tried in 2007 is the Uberman schedule. This method is simple: Take a 20-minute nap every 4 hours. No other sleep.
The Uberman Schedule.
This is the most talked-about schedule in Polyphasic circles because of the tantalising potential to achieve Fuller-levels of waking time. In Uberman, you take a 20-minute nap at 12, 4 and 8 - both AM and PM. This (and Dymaxion) is the most extreme polyphasic sleep schedule, and the one that requires the least actual sleep - 2 hours in every 24!
Where does this 2 hours come from? It comes from the observation that we only have about two hours of REM, of dreaming, in every night of sleep. The polyphasers hypothesise that it’s only the REM phase that is useful for the brainThe trick with Uberman is to get the brain to drop into REM, to dream, for the whole of the 20 minute nap. That is a hell of a trick. , the rest of the time is spend in deep sleep. Deep sleep is restful for the body, but no more so than waking forms of rest.
Back to Uberman: My brother and I tried it for a week, it was MISERABLE and I crashed out HARD.He stuck with it for about another week. The problem with Uberman is its brutal adaptation period: You basically don’t nap the first few days, because you’re not used to sleeping during the day, and this means you’re immediately sleep deprived. It takes two weeks for your brain to start squeezing in REM into your naps, to avoid permanent damage.Record-breaking sleepers seldom can stay awake for longer than a week. The second problem, which also caused Buckminster Fuller to fall back to monophasic sleeping, is how society is rigidly built around sleeping at nighttime.In Fuller’s words, “[my] business associates […] insisted on sleeping like other men”. Thus disillusioned with Polyphasic sleep, I forgot about it for a decade.
My History With Sleep
I’ve had fairly standard sleep experience in life: Though a 3am bedtime was perfectly normal at university, that’s unthinkable now that I’ve had a decade of 7am alarms for work. I have always needed lots of sleep: My friends joke that once the clock gets past 11pm, I’m at risk of turning into a pumpkin.You know, like Cinderella’s carriage.
I’d always been a light sleeper, but in 2017 I developed mild insomnia, adding the inability to fall asleep to my already-impressive inability to stay asleep. Ugh! Despite being in bed before 11pm, I’d only fall asleep between 1-2am. This then put pressure on my wake-up time in the morning, making me groggy, late for work, and feeling like I was wasting the day.
Many times during the past decade, I’ve thought about trying Polyphasic sleeping againEspecially as a way to overhaul my dysfunctional sleep schedule , but my plans were always tempered by Fuller’s experience that you have to live in a society of offices, trains, evening get-togethers, and constant interruptions.
Perhaps you can see where this is going. As I write this, I am 44 days into the Covid lockdown here in London. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work from home, and because much of my socialising is digital anyway, things are going as well as can be hoped for.
On the 10th of April, 2 weeks ago, we had a long weekend of two national holidaysGood Friday and Easter Monday. and I realised that the stars had aligned for a polyphasic experiment: Not only did I no longer live in a world of offices and the forced exodus of commuting, I had 4 days where I wasn’t even expected to be webcam-present at my work.
That day, I had come across polyphasic.net. I was going to try Uberman again, indeed that search led me to the site, but they categorise it as “VERY HARD” and “NOT RECOMMENDED” and go as far as saying that only people with a genetic predisposition can do it!
My Everyman 2 Schedule. Also, they found 0% success rate, based on trawling reddit data. They couldn’t find a single account of someone sticking with it. They recommended a much more successful schedule: Everyman.
Reading the excellent guide on the Everyman sleep schedule (at polyphasic.net/schedules/everyman/), I realised this was much more approachable. There are three variants of Everyman, E1, E2, E3. They are numbered based on how many naps you have during the day. They represent a gradient between efficiency and easy-of-adaptation. E1 is effectively a siesta schedule, and E3 requires only double Uberman’s sleep total. I resolved to try Everyman 2 (E2):
|Schedule||Total Sleep||Core Sleep|
|Everyman 1||6h 20m||6h 0m|
|Everyman 2||5h 10m||4h 30m|
|Everyman 3||4h 0m||3h 0m|
After a late-night explanation to my partnerShe has the patience of a saint. , I set a silent alarm on my watch to 3am, and began the experiment!
What a dream the adaptation has been! The first 24h of any polyphasic experiment are always best: Even if you can’t hack it, your sleep debt won’t catch up to you on the first day, and you’ll feel like you’re breaking out of a stupid societal default. It’s very profound to be pulling an all-nighter with the knowledge that this isn’t a one-off, and these are hours that will be permanently available to you, rather than being borrowed from the next day.
Compared to my memory of the constant-sleepiness of Uberman, Everyman 2 was so much easier, even right at the start. I certainly felt tired, and during the first few days I had to keep busyLuckily, a big update to Fallout 76 made that easy! and be aware that to lie down was to risk sleeping (which would have ruined adaptation). But by the 4th day, back at work, I had basically transitioned. I was astonished how easy it was. I have been on a stable E2 schedule for 12 days today, and I will keep it up at least through the lockdown period.