Polyphasic Sleep/

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2006-12-20

Read about Steve Pavlina's experiment with polyphasic sleep for background before reading this article. He's a good writer who documented a successful attempt.

Specifically, I'm interested in Uberman's Sleep Schedule. The basic idea is I'll sleep 20 minutes every 4 hours, completely eliminating the normal nightly block of sleep. This is possible because the REM cycle is the critical component of sleep; the rest is just fluff. To my knowledge, this theory has not been studied rigorously by doctors at all, either to prove or disprove it, although many seem to just assume something this extreme is simply impossible. Steve made it work though, so the only real question of feasibility is: Does this work for everyone or just a lucky few? Beyond that, some questions are: How does this affect short-term and long-term health? We can't assume it's bad because it's unusual; it may be beneficial. How does it affect mental acuity? Can it help people with sleep disorders? I believe that if I feel good doing it, long-term health risks are highly unlikely to be worse than issues related to bad sleeping habits, and nowhere near as bad as issues related to obesity, bad diet, smoking, or physical inactivity.

I think I have a sleeping disorder of sorts. It's undiagnosed and it's not intolerable, and I have hacked out a functional sleep routine. However, it affects my daily life. My symptoms persist even with a well-tuned sleeping schedule, although a traditional disciplined schedule lessens them. My whole life, I've had trouble getting up in the morning. Each morning, I'm unmanageably groggy and likely to fall asleep again accidentally, even an hour or two after rising. Sometimes I fall asleep at work. At any time of day, I can go to sleep in under five minutes, unless I'm involved in something very exciting. However, I never have trouble sleeping, so it's not related to insomnia, and I usually hold a disciplined sleep schedule by getting up at 9 every morning including weekends and holidays. I wonder whether this sort of problem could make it harder to switch to Uberman's Sleep Schedule. In any case, switching sleep schedules could also mean bigger payoffs if it can eliminate this problem.

I'm hoping polyphasic sleep will help me is several ways.

  • I may get more time each day. I'll be awake longer, and hopefully this means I'll have more "interesting" time each day, for school, work, projects, goofing off, etc.
  • By preventing myself from dropping off into deep sleep for eight hours a day, I hope I'll eliminate that groggy time in the mornings where I'm mostly useless. Briefly going to REM sleep every four hours will hopefully leave me less groggy than a huge transition to a long period of deep sleep.
  • Sometimes, the polyphasic sleep schedule itself would be exceptionally advantageous:
    • Imagine going on a road trip; I could probably drive 20 hours a day, meaning I could spend more time at my destination and/or take less time off of work.
    • I'm on call for computer problems at my job. Polyphasic sleep will make it much easier for me to respond to problems at nighttime. Also, responding to those problems won't make me too tired to function the following day.
    • My wife works 8-12 hours a day starting no earlier than 4 PM. This will allow me to be awake when we're both home.

The Great Experiment

The week before, I took frequent 20-minute naps. I don't know if it helped, but it was intended to ease the transition. Also, it helped me develop a habit of waking up from a nap when my cell phone's alarm sounds while it was still easy to rouse myself.

Training, Failed Attempts

Training, Success

Stabilization

Conclusions

Success

2007-01-10 The experiment failed, but I'll probably try again sometime because I'm not convinced it can't be done. I seemed to be doing okay, and I seemed to have reached a turning point, but I couldn't sustain it. I thought the first three or four days up to what I call the turning point would be the kicker, and I had a couple friends helping me stay active during that time, but I wasn't ready for the next stage. Before the turning point, I was solely concerned with staying awake during time between naps and waking up 20 minutes into each nap. The turning point was when this became abruptly easier; I started having vivid dreams and waking up refreshed. The problem, I think, was I didn't have a plan for what to do next. There isn't much I can do at night that gets me active enough to avoid falling asleep when my body doesn't want to stay awake. Anything computer-related is asking for trouble; watching TV puts anyone to sleep; exercise can only be sustained so long. In hind-sight, catching up on my TiVo was an obvious mistake. Perhaps playing video games would work, but I didn't have any interesting ones in hand. This is definitely the area to plan for next time.

Tips For New Ubermen

  • Above all, do not underestimate the difficulty of the training period.
  • Make sure you have plenty of time off of work, school, etc so that if you don't make it the first time, you can try again. I found that it took about four days, which jives with what other casual experimenters have reported. The first day can start with monophasic sleep and be your last day of work. I'm not sure when to go back to work, but allocating a week seems like a safe bet.
  • Making sure you don't oversleep is absolutely essential. Establish a habit of standing up right away when your alarm sounds.
  • Find a friend or two who are also interested in switching to polyphasic sleep. Stagger when you begin by a day so you don't both hit the worst of it at the same time. If you can't find a friend who wants to switch or has already switched, find several friends that are willing to take shifts hanging out with you to keep you awake. Make sure they know that you really do want them to wake you up if you fall asleep or get grumpy.
  • If you use alarms, use classic tricks from getting up in the morning. Put your alarm out of reach so you have to stand up to turn it off. Use two alarms. As soon as you hear an alarm, stand up without thinking.
  • Don't get discouraged. Remember, there's a hump you have to get over. You'll know when you're past it because you'll have a vivid dream. The worst of it only lasts about 24 hours.
  • Plan activities you can do between naps in advance. Write them down.
  • If you have time, shift your monophasic sleep schedule 8 hours before starting. I hit the hardest part in the early morning, probably because that's the time I was always asleep previously, no matter how early or late I went to bed. The difficulty I had was there's nothing to do early in the morning. Later, friends are around, there are evening activities to go to, etc. These activities will help you stay awake, and shifting your sleep schedule before you begin could take advantage of that.
  • Exercise a little immediately after waking up from each nap during training. Do five to ten minutes on a treadmill or a brisk walk around the block. (The point is to wake you up fully, not to work out.) Doing this immediately will help you stay awake for the cycle.
  • You will get so tired that you can hardly stand up. What is your plan of action for this? (Hint: Updating your blog is the wrong answer.) You need something active, like exercising, playing frolf, etc. Something that stimulates both your mind and body is best. I found that walking my dogs was not enough; because there was no mental stimulation, I would get drowsy again within minutes of returning. This is where having a friend transition with you helps a lot. He can make sure you wake up and apply a cattle-prod if you doze off.
  • Consider trying this during the summer months. There's more sunlight, so it won't seem so discouraging to be awake during so many dark hours. Also, it is easier to do things like walk around the block immediately after waking up, or play frolf to stay awake during the worst part of training.
  • Find a portable alarm. I use the alarm on my cell phone to wake up since I always have it with me. After training, it doesn't take as much to wake up.
  • Starting a week or so before training, take at least one or two 20-minute naps daily (even if you don't actually fall asleep). This will get you accustomed to not oversleeping.
  • When you take a nap, never ever look at a clock after setting your alarm. Try not to move around after getting comfortable. Clocks and moving around are easy distractions. If you aren't falling asleep, be content with patient meditation until your alarm sounds. If you don't fall asleep, it's okay; next time you'll be more tired and fall asleep quickly. This is to be expected during training.
  • Caffeine may do more harm than good. When I'm already tired, it can put me to sleep. I avoided it entirely. However, next time I might try it sparingly.
  • Remember, it didn't work for me, so nothing I say here is credible. It's just ideas.

Future Work

  • I'd like to try different napping schedules. I used the simplest schedule, midnight, 4 AM, 8 AM, noon, 4 PM, 8 PM.
    • Try napping 40 minutes every 8 hours. I doubt you can switch to this without switching to the Uberman schedule first, but having switched, can you gradually shorten the interval between naps until you're sleeping a continuous 40 minutes?
    • Maybe I can nap every 3 hours at night and every 5 hours during the day. This would be a better use of daytime hours and mitigate the social awkwardness of needing to nap at odd times. For example, I could nap at midnight, 3 AM, 6 AM, 9 AM, 2 PM, 7 PM, midnight, etc.
    • Try a gradual adjustment to fewer naps and see how far I can push it. For example, start by napping every 5 hours instead of every 4. Steve reported bad results with this, but mentioned it may work with a difficult transition period. I wonder it would work with a more gradual transition.
  • How does alcohol affect this? I like to enjoy a few beers on occasion, and while it may be worth giving that up for the benefits of polyphasic sleep, it'd be kind of a bummer.
  • There must be easier ways to switch. Some things to try:
    • Begin by napping 20 minutes every 4 hours, except add a 3-hour nap near the time you would normally wake up as a monophasic sleeper. After becoming accustomed to this, shorten the nap to 1.5 hours. Then eliminate the extra nap. This may actually be a nice schedule to try long-term too.
    • Nap when you're tired, not on an interval. Stay awake for a minimum of an hour between naps so you don't accidentally let your body continue a sleep cycle it began during the last nap. Do this until the first vivid dream, then gradually (but quickly) lengthen the time between naps to 4 hours. This could help or hurt. It could help by making it easier not to doze off between naps. On the other hand, waking up is the hardest part, and this means you have to rouse yourself more often.
    • Caffeine is supposed to be bad for this schedule. However, it could help the transition. When you hit the intolerably difficult part where it's nearly impossible to stay awake, take a small amount of caffeine immediately after waking up. It needs to be a small enough amount that it wears off before your next nap, though. This suggestion could also make things much more difficult.


See Also