How to Start Polyphasic Sleep

What is Polyphasic Sleep and How can it Work?

Polyphasic sleep is the practice of sleeping multiple times per 24 hr day rather than a single nights’ sleep, usually resulting in significantly less overall daily sleep. A simple version could involve a core nap of 4.5 hours with two 20 minute naps during the day, where the ultimate version requires six 20 minute naps spaced out evenly in a 24 hr period (for a total of 2 hrs a day!)

The method uses natural human sleep mechanisms to maximize alertness when sleep time needs to be minimized. However, it requires a rigid schedule which makes it unfeasible for most people. It can work well for people who cannot afford sleep (e.g. sailors).

The theory is that ordinary monophasic sleep consists of many phases, only a few of which are needed for survival. REM sleep, occurring quite late in the sequence, is commonly believed to be one such necessary phase. It is believed that after being deprived of sleep during an adjustment period, the brain will start to enter the required stages much quicker – with the result that each short nap consists almost solely of REM sleep.

Some theories of sleep suggest that REM is largely responsible for the mental rejuvenation effects of sleep, but the role of REM sleep has in recent years been disputed. It has been documented that depriving rats of REM sleep specifically leads to death in 3 to 8 weeks (which doesn’t happen with depriving test animals of other specific sleep phases), but it has also been documented that humans survive without REM sleep.

Since polyphasic sleepers get a lot of Stage 4 NREM and REM sleep, they may achieve higher alertness levels than those who do not know the art of catnapping.

Some critics of the theory have expressed concern about the possible long-term effects of suppressing the other sleep stages, although such effects have been undocumented as of yet.

Some negative effects may be unrelated to this particular schedule, but more related to the general lack of sleep this method entails. It has been shown that a lack of sleep weakens the immune system, decreases the amount of growth hormone produced, and decreases the ability of the body to metabolize sugar. However, polyphasic sleep is different from unmanaged sleep deprivation, so it’s unclear whether these side effects would still be present.

Several famous people applied catnapping to a large extent. These include Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison and Buckminster Fuller. Other figures said to be associated with polyphasic sleep experimentation include Nikola Tesla, Napoleon, and Winston Churchill. This method was also popularized on Seinfeld, where the character Cosmo Kramer attempted to adapt to a polyphasic sleeping pattern.

Boat racers use this technique to avoid dangers at sea. Astronauts use this technique during extended crises, and military personnel, especially marines, use this technique in training.

One of the leading advocates of polyphasic sleep research is Dr. Claudio Stampi (Founder and Director of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Boston, Massachusetts).

There are a number of differing views on why polyphasic sleep cycles can work. One of the more recognized theories explains that in order for a person to feel rested and alert the important factor is not necessarily the amount of time slept, but rather the amount of sleep cycles experienced.

A sleep cycle is on average 90 minutes and consists of stages transitioning from light sleep, to deep sleep, to REM sleep. Most people need at least 5, sometimes 6 cycles to feel rested the next day.

Sleep Discipline and polyphasic sleeping take advantage of the fact that after practice, you can train your body and mind to condense a 90 minute sleep cycle into a mere 20 minute nap. This is why short “power naps” leave you feeling alert, awake and refreshed, while after longer naps (40 min to an hr) you wake up groggy and tired. In the latter case, you have begun to transition into a second cycle and your body hates to wake up mid cycle.

For purposes of discussion here, being on a polyphasic sleep schedule means

  • distributing sleep over a 24-hour cycle
  • in at least two (but usually more) regularly scheduled blocks,
  • with one or more of the blocks being naps, and
  • staying on this schedule for long enough that sleep deprivation (if any) seems negligible.

In the ultra-short polyphasic sleep schedules, all of the sleep periods are naps. Some research (and quite a few anecdotal reports) suggest that, after adaptation, the sum of all parts can be less than that of the night sleep (or, in polyphaser parlance, “core sleep”) previously needed. Unsurprisingly, gaining more free time is the motivation most often mentioned by those who attempt polyphasic schedules as a lifestyle choice.

According to the above definition, a sleep schedule comprising of a night sleep and one nap would also be called polyphasic. However, the main focus here is on schedules with considerably shortened core sleep (if any) and three or more naps.

Becoming polyphasic:

  • starts with a self assessment
  • usually requires a preparation phase
  • includes an adaptation phase

It also:

  • does not imply you feel tired or even sleep deprived
  • usually needs quite strict sleeping times
  • generally gives you more wake hours a day (up to 22h)

Better-known sleep schedules:

  • Everyman (3h + 3x 20min)
  • Uberman (6x 20min)
  • Dymaxion (4x 30min)

These schedules are increasingly gainful but also increasingly hard to adapt to and increasingly strict, regarding the sleeping times. In particular, it’s not clear that anyone (even Fuller) has ever succeeded with Dymaxion, at least not without first fully adjusting to a very stringent polyphasic schedule like Uberman.

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Why would you want to suffer like that ? – I like my sleep! 

This is a misconception you need to understand clearly. Once you have adapted to a polyphasic life, you are not missing out on rest. You feel perfectly alert, if not more alert than you used to be. You are not tired, fatigued, moody, etc. In fact you feel great.

The only down side that I have noticed is a lessened response to healing and building your body, but not critically so.

You like your sleep eh? Do you enjoy being unconscious for 6 hours? Do you remember that time? I thought not.
What you’re enjoying is (1) cuddling into bed before sleep and (2) feeling that you got enough sleep.

You need to understand first that you feel just FINE on polyphasic sleep. People look at me when I explain all this to them and they say ‘but you don’t look tired’. That’s the point. Get the point. Please.

As for that comfortable feeling of sleep, I just happen to do it 6 times a day. It’s great. I get a timeout 6 times as opposed to one.

If you’re interested in lucid dreaming and/or dreams in general, then I have good news for you too. Once adapted to polyphasic sleep, the lessened delta sleep greatly increases your ability to lucid dream. And most of the nap time consists of dreaming, it seems.

Quality over quantity, I reckon.

So what does it feel like?

Well I’m still in the process of adapting, so my feelings may change over the long term. But essentially I feel great – when I’m careful and stick to it.

  1. The biggest change it has on my life is my nutrition. I cannot eat McD’s or KFC or spare ribs or a huge box of heavily salted popcorn. I say ‘cannot’ instead of ‘will not’, because some junk foods give me nausea while others result in huge problems in keeping my sleep patterns the way I need them. Usually because of oversleeping by a number of hours, undoing some of the hard work of teaching your body this new way of life.
  2. I’m more patience. I used to be a very impatient person. But when you have a whole new life to live at night, a minute or two here or there is inconsequential.
  3. Clarity. I feel more aware and clear than 95% of the time I experienced living monophasically. It has forced me to reevaluate my life, and begun to turn me into a better person.
  4. Free. I have a whole new life during the night, to do all the things I’ve been yearning to do. You can break free of your secular employment in this time, or do all those things you said ‘I don’t have the time’ to. Live your life to the maximum. If you find yourself bored, then you need to live bigger. Personally, I’m NEVER bored as long as I have an unrestricted life.
  5. It’s forced me into a healthier lifestyle. I eat healthier, I exercise often, I’m losing weight and gaining muscle at a rapid, but healthy pace.

Now, I’m going to be objective and post my negative experiences:

  • The first 5 days or so is a nightmare. Want to test you self-discipline? You’ve come to the right place
  • Having to sleep every 4 hours can be a bit embarrassing at times. But usually this isn’t a huge issue as people are understanding and find it fascinating. You might just be…
  • Viewed as eccentric. I wasn’t sure to put this on the pros or cons, to be honest. I’ve never wanted to be normal anyway.
  • Diet – it’s difficult to figure out what you can and cannot eat. Perhaps I can try to map out this terrain for others to follow.

So should I do it?

No. If you’re going to ask me for permission, then you won’t get through it. You need to be self disciplined, and able to take responsibility for your own actions.

There is so little research that we have no idea of any unheard of negative effects over the long term, in particular for growth. For this reason I suggest that youngsters think carefully about the risks before taking on this challenge.

If you’re a disciplined, open minded, a bit reckless and possibly insane person, then it may just be for you. But I warn you, the transition is hard. Do your research and decide what you want before starting. Or you will fail.

Getting Started

1. Self-Assessment

Adaptation to polyphasic sleep schedules can require significant – if not monumental – motivation. PureDoxyk, the coiner of the term “Uberman”, started it with a friend apparently on a dare; in her case, one might speculate that peer pressure, friendly rivalry, or both, were significant motivators.

Although gaining more free time is probably the most frequently given reason for an interest in polyphasic sleep, how that time will be spent probably matters more. In PureDoxyK’s (somewhat unusual) case, the initial duo reportedly nucleated a group of seven more uberman practitioners (at its peak), and much of what PureDoxyK described as “blissful”might have been the 24×7 social experience.

I did it for six blissful months without a problem, and about seven friends ended up doing it with me by the middle. (*heh* We used to crash all at once in the Library. People called us the ‘Sleeping Herd’.)

Business success was a motivator for the most famous (non-anonymous) polyphasic practitioner to date, Steve Pavlina, who said,

“[M]onths after starting my personal development business, I made the attempt to become an early riser again. [….] [T]he main difference was that my motivation to get up early was now much higher. And that extra motivation boost was just what I needed to get past the hump and establish the habit once and for all. [….] Interestingly, I not only mastered the habit of early rising, but later that same year, I blew that accomplishment out of the water by adapting to polyphasic sleep.”[3]

Pavlina, who adapted to Uberman, mentioned elsewhere that he was so excited about his business prospects, he just couldn’t stay in bed.

If business success can be a significant motivator for gaining the extra hours in a day that polyphasic makes available, fear of failure might be the other side of the same coin. Kirk Kahn reports that someone he knew who was living in Australia

“… maintained uberman for quite some time while he traded the US stock markets throughout the night. He said that the excitement, risk, and fear of losing his money in the market was a primary motivator for him to get up. Another woman here in New York City … maintained the sleep schedule for a very long time, and she traded currencies.”

Motivation to adapt can be very high. But will you also be motivated to continue? Perhaps some people muster the high motivation required to adapt to polyphasic schedules mostly for the challenge of achieving something many would consider superhuman. Some of them give up on the schedule because they don’t have much to do with the extra time. Tynan, explaining why he ended his experiment, said,

“I don’t really need the extra time right now. I thought I would make good use of it, but I honestly don’t. If I was super busy, then I would be more motivated to stay on polyphasic sleep.”

The problem of maintaining motivation to stay on a polyphasic sleep schedule is hardly new. Claudio Stampi said that the Italian actor Giancarlo Sbragia tried a 6-naps-every-4-hours schedule back in the 1950s (?), but quit after six months, because he didn’t know what to do with all the time freed up, among other reasons.

2. Preparation Phase

Building a Sleep Discipline schedule can be easy and fun. It involves balancing many factors including the amount of extra time you would like to have, how many naps you can fit in per day, how strict you expect to be with the schedule, and how much sleep deprivation you’re willing to deal with in the beginning.

Below you will find a chart of these factors and a step-by-step guide to developing a Sleep Discipline schedule that is right for you.

Review this chart to help you determine the best Sleep Discipline for you. Notice that the more naps you take during the day, the less sleep you will need at night. Conversely, the shorter your core sleep, the more strictly you will need to follow your schedule.

The less Total Sleep you get, the more severe the sleep deprivation in the adjustment phase will be, however the more sever the sleep dep., the quicker your body will adjust to the Discipline.

# 20 min Naps Core Sleep (hrs) Total Sleep (hrs) Net Benefit (vs 8 hrs) Nap Sched. Flexibility Nickname
0 8 8 0 n/a Monophasic
1 6 6.3 1.7 +/-3 hr Siesta
2 4.5 5.2 2.8 +/-2 hr Everyman
3 3 4 4 +/-1 hr Everyman
4 or 5 1.5 2.8 5.2 +/-30 min Everyman
6 0 2 6 +/-30 min Uberman

How to make a Sleep Discipline schedule:

  1. Find 30 minute time blocks where you can quietly slip away and take a 20 minute nap every day. Ideally space the naps 3-6 hrs apart.
    • (What worked for me: My job allows for a flexible schedule so I can take naps at work whenever I’m not too busy to do so. I target – 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.)
  2. Find a location you can go to lie down uninterrupted during that time. Sleeping pads/bags, pillows, and earplugs make this task much easier – you will become a nap expert in short order, so you can get creative.
    • (What worked for me: I use a sleeping bag to take naps on our office lounge couch, or on a backpacking sleeping pad in our conference room. If I’m at home I’ll crash on my bed. Otherwise I nap wherever I happen to be (i.e. cars, airports/airplanes, floors, other peoples’ couches/beds, etc.)
  3. Using your step 1 results and the chart above, determine the number of naps you want in your schedule and find the appropriate core sleep length. Then pick a time slot for your core sleep and choose the best nap times that will space out your rest throughout the day.
    • (What worked for me: I wanted to be in to work by 7:00 a.m. every day so I set my core to 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. My best times for naps are: 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and 11:00 p.m)
  4. Pick a series of days (at least three) to commit to the adjustment phase knowing there’s a possibility of sleep deprivation. Try to avoid long drives, important business meetings, performing surgery, or any extremely important events. If something comes up, at any time you can switch back to monophasic, get a good night’s sleep and be right back to normal.
    • (Ideally (assuming a M-F work week) start the schedule on Thursday by lying down for the scheduled naps. Get your core sleep in Thursday night so that way even if you get 0 benefit from your naps, you will have still had some sleep the night before. Then you have Saturday and Sunday allocated for potentially the most tiring days of the adjustment period – if attempting the Uberman Schedule, expect this “most difficult” period to last a week. The tiredness and fatigue from sleep deprivation will hopefully be reduced to only early-morning / late-night tiredness by day 4, and will disappear after full adjustment (1 month or more).
    • Recommendation: If possible, choose a starting date that will give you 4 weeks to stick closely to the schedule (no vacations, trips, or prolonged times where you will not be able to get your naps). This is not absolutely necessary – especially as many of us are too busy to ever have a lull in activity for that long – however the closer you stick to the schedule for this time period, the more adapted you will be and the more you will get out of your time. As long as you make your Sleep Discipline a priority, you will adjust right quick.

3. Adaptation Phase

Changing your sleep schedule usually requires an adaption phase. During this phase the various rhythms in your body (hormones, temperature, mood) change and try to fit into the new schedule. This very often implies a time when one is sleep deprived, since sleep is only efficient enough if it occurs at a time when the body is most recipient to sleep. If it isn’t, you may be unable to go to sleep at all, or the sleep may not be deep enough or of good enough quality. If no countermeasures are taken, this often leads to unintended sleeps that occur at times deviating from the schedule such as oversleep, an extra nap, or changing nap times. If this happens, it disturbs, if not destroys, the adaption process.

How hard the adaption is, depends on your general napping ability, and the strictness with which you stick to a regular schedule. The sooner you start getting restful naps, the easier the adaptation will be, and restful naps will come from strictly following a balanced schedule.

During this time, your body will become accustomed to scheduled nap-times making it much easier to wind down and eventually get quality naps. Equally important is limiting the amount of snoozing and oversleeping – inconsistent amounts of sleep make it more difficult for your body to learn to nap optimally (further making it difficult to stick to the schedule).

How to Fall Asleep Easily

I hate wasting time, and I hate not falling asleep when I want to. I’d like to believe I’m in control of my body. I can generally move the muscles I intend to, I can usually silence my belches, and I never rarely soil myself anymore, but every so often when I desperately need to fall asleep, as if just to spite my achievements, my body will say in revolt “‘F’ you, you’re not the boss of me!” and I’ll wind up lying in bed for 4 hours and not sleep a wink.

Because of this, I’ve read up on and employed some tactics which have allowed me to consistently fall asleep quickly, regardless of how tired I am. Here are the some of the best ones for your viewing pleasure:

  1. Create the right environment. If there are noise distractions, use earplugs. If it’s not dark, use an eye blind. Make sure you will not be interrupted by passers-by, phone calls, or other inquiries. Have a nice surface to sleep on. I like to use my sleeping bag for warmth when its cool, or just because it’s a soft clean surface to lie.
  2. Clear your mind. Clearing your mind of any stressful or exciting thoughts is key to falling asleep quickly. If there is something especially interesting going on in your life you will need to make a conscious effort to do this. I like to go over everything I’m thinking of, acknowledge each one individually, and then move on to the next thing. If I need to, I write things down so I don’t worry that I’ll forget about them afterwards.
  3. Deep breaths. I like to take 3 or 4 deep breaths after I’ve gotten settled to reduce my heart rate, relax my body, and help clear my mind in preparation for sleep.
  4. Tense and relax muscles. Another relaxation exercise involves tensing and relaxing your muscles either all at once, or one at a time.
  5. Head rocking. I’ve found that slightly rocking my head (while lying on my back) can help by distracting my mind (especially useful when my other mind clearing techniques haven’t worked) and also create a disorienting feeling that helps my mind drift off to sleep. It sounds strange, however it can be comforting if done subtly akin to the feeling of swaying in a hammock.
  6. Use a white noise sound track. I’ve been using Placebo’s sleep track to provide white noise to mask sounds of the office and nearby street in place of my trusty earplugs. It was strange to get used to, but I have been very surprised at it’s effectiveness. It is a steady “fuzzy” noise that slowly fades away as you drift off to sleep. The end of the track provides some sounds to wake you up gently as opposed to the jarring and sometimes violent sound explosions from alarm clocks. If you do need that kind of effect to wake you, the longer you sleep through the track, the less gentle the sounds get. Additionally, you can download different lengths to let you pick the nap length. Learn more here.
  7. Be clean. There’s nothing better than crawling into bed right after a shower feeling fresh and clean. If I can’t shower, I try to towel off or at least wash my hands and face in a bathroom. For me, being physically dirty is distracting. The less distractions I have, the quicker I can fall asleep.
  8. Explore a place in your mind. To do this simply visualize a place that is familiar to you, and walk through it (or do something more interesting in it) in your mind’s eye. This can especially help you clear your mind by providing something to focus your attention on while not needing your mind to be especially active or incite worry. Additionally, for me this “pretending” kick-starts my mind into the semi-lucid “day-dream mode” right before falling asleep.
  9. Daydream. An alternative to exploring a place in your mind is to “day-dream” about an interesting place or activity. The better you convince yourself you are in some made up place, the easier it is for your mind to wind down and let go of the active thoughts about current events and let you drop off into sleep.
  10. Practice. Practice is paramount. As with anything, you get better the more times you do it, and this is no different. The more you practice the quicker you’ll be able to clear your mind of distracting thoughts and relax your body into a sleep ready state.

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