I would feel great, the internet promised.
Image: Thailand Travel and Stock/Shutterstock
By 5:15 AM, I was bored again.
It was winter 2011, and I'd just managed—after a month without coffee, alcohol or cigarettes (more or less)—to prise my internal sleep clock into two chunks. No longer would I fall into bed around one and crawl out again in time for three quick coffees and a glazed afternoon in the lecture theatre. Instead, after fastidious internet research, I had decided I would switch to what the online sleep community refers to as a "biphasic schedule": sleeping from midnight to 4:30 AM, then napping from noon 'til half one.
I would feel great, the internet promised. Perpetually refreshed and productive, with the added benefit of an extra three hours to commit to worthy, studious pursuits. I'd probably write a novel, or compose an epic poem, just to fill the time.
It was that morning I realised I'd hoodwinked myself. Cheating my sleep sounded like such an obviously useful piece of lifehacker-y that I hadn't really given any thought to what I'd use my extra time for beyond nebulous "worthy stuff." And so I sat alone in a silent student flat, staring glumly out at a pitch black November, bored and already worrying how I could get back from uni in time for my compulsory 90-minute kip at midday and how many cigarettes I could feasibly have between now and then without over-stimulating myself and throwing away all the progress I'd made so far.
But after I ditched my biphasic sleep cycle (less than a month later, after realising I'd basically become a well-rested urban hermit), I kept guiltily browsing the success stories of others online. I felt like a failure. Who were these people, giving up millennia of evolved behaviour for extra work-time? What were they doing with it? What made them so much better at this than me?
"I always hated the idea of being asleep because I thought it was a huge waste of time."
My niggling inferiority complex was not helped by talking to Reddit's /r/polyphasic subscriber Juanito Taveras about his sleep schedule. Known as "Dual-Core 1," it's a sleep pattern made up of one three-and-a-half-hour sleep at night, another 90-minute to two-hour sleep about four hours later, and finally, for Juanito, a 20-minute nap around lunchtime. Totted up, that gives Juanito a total sleep time of between five and five-and-a-half hours per day—a substantial saving on the eight hours he used to sleep "monophasically."
But really, the main difference between our two experiences is that Juanito actually found something to do with all the extra time, other than look out the window and grumble.
"I've always been a very efficient person," he told me, with more modesty than comes across in print. "I always loved reading a lot, I play a lot of instruments, I'm a programmer, I make movies. I always hated the idea of being asleep because I thought it was a huge waste of time."
"[Before polyphasic sleep], everybody knew me as the guy who was always sleep-deprived," he continued. "I was always staying up late watching things or building things. I would fall asleep in class; my teachers would slam their books on my desk to wake me up. So one day I came across this YouTube video that talked about this thing called polyphasic sleep... I was like, 'I need to try this and see if it works!'"
Listen to the Radio Motherboard episode about sleep hacking your room. The podcast is available on iTunes and on your favorite podcast app.
Juanito didn't mess about, either. Now a 20-year-old student, he started experimenting with more extreme patterns of sleeping when he was still in high school, including the infamous "Uberman Schedule"—the grail of timesaving sleep evangelists that demands adherents nap for just 20 minutes, six times a day. Depending on your constitution, the schedule will (or at least claims it will) leave you with a whopping 22 hours of free time per day. Or a shambling, zombified wreck.
"We ended up sleeping two hours per day. It was great having all that time to read, to study, to watch movies."
Happily for Juanito, his time with Uberman was, as he tells it, an explosion of energised productivity.
"Some of my experiences were quite amazing," said Juanito of the schedule, which he tested for three weeks with help from an "adaptation buddy"—sort of like an alcoholic's sponsor, only for off-schedule napping. "We ended up sleeping two hours per day. It was great having all that time to read, to study, to watch movies. It was a lot of fun."
While Juanito went polyphasic to give himself more time for creative pursuits, Brandon Parker's needs were more pressing, and his sleep habits more pragmatic.
"I used to have sleep problems and periods of insomnia," Brandon, a 19-year-old /r/polyphasic member, told me. "I also have a job right now, and I'm also studying. I could [do both with regular sleep], but it would be a lot harder… I found a polyphasic site and started reading posts on there, and thought, 'I have to try it.'"
Brandon's sleep cycle, which he's been using for a year, is known as "Everyman-4," in which he sleeps for a four-and-a-half hour stretch at night, with two twenty minute naps during the day. Since making the switch, he's fixed his sleeping problems ("It used to take me an hour to go to bed; now I can fall asleep in five minutes,") but also found extra time for hobbies like drawing, guitar, and video games.
"I'm way more productive with it," he said. "It just feels more natural to me… Even if I weren't studying or didn't have a job, I'd still stick with the schedule."
"If you want to stay up or go out and party, you have to limit that. That's the big downside."
The promises of polyphasic sleeping are seductive. Stories like Brandon's and Juanito's are typical of communities like /r/polyphasic—message boards filled with perpetually energetic and enthusiastic converts to the restless church. But for all the earnest stories of polyphasic sleeping as a lifestyle panacea, I couldn't find much discussion of the compromises. I thought back to all the times I had to break off plans or stay in because my rigid new sleep pattern was too brittle to fiddle with, and couldn't help but look at the glowing reports a bit like the unsolicited pharmaceutical offers in my spam folder. If polyphasic sleep works as well as they claim, why isn't everyone doing it? And why couldn't I?
"It may very well be that some people can sleep a certain number of hours, wake up, and work and feel creative," said Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology and director of the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey. "And then after four or five hours of work they feel somewhat tired and less creative so they take a nap, and wake up feeling better than before the nap. That could very well be. But I'm certainly not suggesting that we should all go to a polyphasic pattern."
As Dijk explained, there's a fundamental difference, from a scientific perspective, between sleeping in several chunks for eight hours total (he gives the examples of siesta cultures, and the habits of the writer Franz Kafka) and the sort of timesaving polyphasic sleep advocated by Juanito and Brandon. The new breed of polyphasic sleepers are effectively guinea pigs, and Dijk is inclined to be cautious.
"From a sleep regulation perspective, [sleepers like Juanito and Brandon] live under an overall higher sleep pressure," he said. "The epidemiology suggests that short sleep durations—sleeping less than five or six hours—are associated with negative health outcomes; for example, cardiovascular disease and problems with immune function. Whether in the long-term this [kind of] sleep restriction will have negative consequences is unclear. There is certainly no data to the contrary. I would never recommend [these kinds of sleep patterns]."
Dijk's expertise jarred with the stories I'd heard from Brandon, Juanito and others. But it also didn't explain why they continued to succeed where I'd long since given up. The list of famous people recognised as at least part-time polyphasic sleepers is long: Kafka, as mentioned; Ellen MacArthur; Churchill… But they had, respectively, books to write, boats to sail, and beaches to fight on. Without such pressing demands on your time, surely there have to be some costs to stepping so far out of line with friends, family and the rest of the monophasic world?
"Polyphasic sleep can hurt your social life," Juanito admitted. "It is recommended that you go to sleep early—around 10pm to 2am, [most] people want to have fun, they want to party. I don't do that. I don't drink much alcohol, so I can stick to my schedule. So it hurt my social life somewhat, but it allowed me to achieve high grades, play a lot of music, read a lot, improve myself, and exercise."
"In regard to social situations, you have to make it work," Brandon agreed. "When you're adapting, especially, you have to be right on time with your sleep otherwise it just won't work. Once you've adapted you can be a little bit more flexible, depending on the schedule. You kind of have to compromise, though: if you want to stay up or go out and party, you have to limit that. That's the big downside."
Suddenly, I feel much better. I realise now that my decision to abandon biphasic sleeping wasn't a failure: it was a lifestyle choice. I didn't write a novel or a poetry compendium, not because I couldn't, but because I chose instead to spend my time with friends instead. Bros before prose. It's really a good thing, this bleary life of unrestricted socialising and modest achievement I've selected.
Yes. A good decision.
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.