Introduction: Polyphasic Sleep

About: I run Neal's CNC in Hayward, CA, an expert CNC cutting and fabrication service, easily findable by Google search. I'm a founding member of Noisebridge, a hackerspace in San Francisco, and Ace Makerspace (forme…

Most people over the age of ten or so sleep monophasically; that is, they have one sleep phase per day (younger children often nap and of course babies sleep at all the wrong times). Other animals do not necessarily get 8 solid hours, and in fact the idea that people need 8 hours of sleep is only a couple hundred years old - prior to cheap artificial light, all you could really do when the sun was down is sleep so people mostly slept according to the length of the nighttime.

Polyphasic sleep refers to any pattern where your sleep is taken in more than one chunk. Spanish siestas are an example of this, and Spain has the only culture I know of that is not generally monophasic. Other, more unusual polyphasic patterns are those involving multiple naps per day, and sometimes no large chunk of sleep at all.

I became interested in polyphasic sleep some years back but only recently did I realize that here at Instructables, I had an organization that might allow me to experiment with different sleep patterns. Instructables is ALL ABOUT weird shit like this. So I and my boyfriend are making the attempt.

The pattern we are using is to nap for 20 to 30 minutes every four hours, throughout the day. (This is sometimes referred to as the Uberman pattern, although personally I dislike this term.) This comes out to about 2 - 3 hours of sleep per day, broken up into bits. The theory behind it is that after a week or so of sleep deprivation and general bleariness, your body adjusts to the short but regular naps and goes directly into REM sleep. Thus after a while you are getting enough sleep and feel fully rested - but you have an extra 5 or 6 hours every day to do Stuff in.

In this Instructable I'll document my experiences with polyphasic sleep. I'll write one step a day for a while, and once I settle into the pattern - if I settle into the pattern - I will add a step occasionally as something interesting occurs to me.

Google Search in case you want more Internet-style information.

Step 1: The Details

My schedule will be to sleep for 20 minutes (or thereabouts, I will work out the exact timing as I go along) at 1, 5, and 9 (AM and PM). This means two or three naps at work, and I have brought in a bean-bag chair to sleep in. Doesn't it look comfy?

For the first week or two, I expect to be rather unhappy. According to The Internet, world's greatest authority on everything, the reason most people who try this fail is that they do not keep a strict schedule, and their body gets confused and doesn't adapt. They mostly fall asleep during non-nap times. To mitigate this risk for myself, I have made a list:

Things to do instead of sleeping

  • Study Chinese
  • Write javascript iPhone drawing site
  • Projects (see
  • Organize under stage
  • Practice cello or er-hu or guitar
  • Paint or draw
  • Exercise/stretch
  • Play Q*bert
  • Mess around on the Internet (OK to call it research)
  • Write javascript games
  • Email / call people I don't talk to enough
  • Sew things
  • Cook
  • Shop for groceries
  • Read all those books I haven't had time for yet
  • Organize money
  • Play chess or go (or other games)
  • Dye bondo
  • Weld surface from washers
  • Weld grating for upstairs
and of course,
(Some of those aren't going to be clear to people who don't know my house, but you'll survive not knowing about my upstairs grating or the conditions underneath the stage.)

Step 2: 2007-08-24

A good day to start the experiment. One of the hopes I have for it is that I won't get so jet-lagged in my various travels. Tonight I'm going to New York for my new small nephew's first birthday party. Luckily (for this purpose) I don't easily sleep on planes.

I slept 7 hours last night and I'll start my naps today at 1, try to get a little extra backlog of sleep going up front. More later tonight.

Later tomorrow night:
Well that wasn't quite the tidy start I'd hoped for. I took my first nap at almost 2, due to mistiming my lunch responsibilities. I didn't quite actually sleep, but I Rested and arose refreshed. My second nap I pushed back half an hour to 5:30, and did sleep for a short time - or at least, I dreamed. The 9:00 nap was quite late because our flight left at 10 and at 9 I was on transit to the airport. I didn't take that one until I was on the plane settled in my seat, and I didn't sleep at all. I suspect, though, that this was mostly due to being on an airplane. I never sleep well when I'm upright.

After that it got all messed up. I missed my alarm for the 1:00AM nap and didn't take it until maybe 3, or 6AM EST, when the flight was about to land. And now I'm into the next day, so click Next and follow me...

Step 3: 2007-08-25

Today, what with airports and going to my nephew's party and being polite, I really didn't keep the nap schedule very well at all. I was definitely very tired, enough that I never pushed myself to figure out if my nap alarms, set for 1, 5, 9, 1, 5, 9, were going off at PST or EST times once my iPhone clock had switched to east coast time. I believe I napped five times today, at intervals of 3 to 6 hours or so. After the party I was able to pay more attention to the alarms, and took my most recent nap at 8:30 EST, only half an hour later than my 5:00 PST scheduled nap. So I am back on schedule for the night, although it may be messed up again tomorrow.

I feel OK. Not particularly great, but not awful. The half hour naps definitely push off the effects of sleep deprivation for a while although I can feel it hovering in the background, as it were. It was difficult to notice when yesterday became today; I did expect this effect having read Steve Pavlina's experiences (a commenter linked to him earlier and in fact his blog was one of the ones that helped influence me to try this myself). It will probably be more pronounced tonight as I won't be on a plane.

Thanks to all the commenters who have expressed concern about my health. I appreciate it. Sleep deprivation's effects are both temporary and reversible, so I am not highly concerned that I'm going to be permanently damaged. From what I have read, little research has been done on polyphasic sleep patterns - in fact my boyfriend contacted a sleep research institute to see if they are interested in tracking our progress, but they have not yet responded (I expect they decided we are Nutcases and are blowing us off!) If this is sustainable, I do hope to take some naps in a sleep center to determine what sleep phases we are actually having, as I have also read that a full sleep cycle is supposed to be happening in the 20 minute naps, only much shortened. We shall see.

More tomorrow!

Step 4: 2007-08-26

I believe I mentioned that I am not doing this experiment alone, my boyfriend Matt is also attempting this sleep pattern. We had originally planned to nap at half-hour offsets, so that he can wake me and I can wake him. Last night, however, we ignored that, with the result that we accidentally combined two naps into one, skipping the waking hours in between. So we've had our first major Fall. Since then, however, we have been able to keep reasonably close to our intended schedule.

We returned from New York several hours ago. I have entirely changed my mind on the suitability of a trip for beginning a polyphasic sleep schedule, after having spent a night in a hotel with nothing but a book and the Internet to keep awake with, and a worse night on an airplane, without either the Internet or much ability to move around. I am finding that it's very valuable to take 10 minutes to stretch, after getting unwillingly up after a nap, and/or to shower. I've taken a lot of showers. But not on the plane!

Step 5: 2007-08-27

I'm going to start noting more detail, for recordkeeping purposes. This will probably be more boring for the reader, but of course you aren't required to read it all.

1AM nap: slept, awoke, showered, went to the grocery store and bought lots of ingredients, came home and made blueberry pancakes. Did a bit of tidying up, read a short novel (Sophy Cassmajor by Margery Sharp. don't bother). Matt is asleep now and I will nap again in half an hour. I'm really looking forward to it. I'm noticing in myself normal sleep deprivation symptoms, like difficulty concentrating, slight clumsiness, less balance, chilliness. It's hard to wake up but once I have done so I feel about the same as if I'd stayed up very late and gotten only 2 or 3 hours of sleep the previous night.

At some point in this trip we watched part of a Scientific American video about a sleep researcher's study of one man sleeping on this basic pattern for, I think, four months (the video had other things in it too). He slept on that pattern just for the study (I don't know how he was chosen for it). It claimed that there are three sleep phases: light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, and that a normal night consists of segments of each of those phases in that order but it didn't say how long each normally took. It claimed that the subject's half hour naps consisted of different types of sleep, each; that the normal proportion of sleep phases was being maintained, only spread out over several naps. It introduced us to the phrase, 'sleep pressure'. I am absolutely feeling sleep pressure.

5AM nap: Hard, hard to get up. Stayed in bed about 10 extra min eyes open just unwilling to rise. Finally managed it. No stretching, no shower. Moved bed to better napping location & changed the sheets. Ate half a grapefruit. Wrote some email. By this time the sky was getting light & I felt more awake. Biked to the ferry, the one earlier than I usually take, and was so hungry on board that I ate a really nasty bagel & cream cheese at the snack bar. I could easily have napped on the ferry (it's a 40 minute trip), but didn't. This was easy at first but unsurprisingly as I sat longer the sleep pressure mounted. Got to work an hour earlier than usual feeling reasonably peppy after the bike ride from ferry to tower. Biking wakes you up!

9AM nap: easier to wake up from this, as it was full daylight. In fact when I lay down it was foggy on Alameda, and when I woke up it was sunny, a strange effect. I was kind of slow for a while. I think I ate a granola bar, and I drank a couple glasses of water.

1PM nap: Took a bit longer than I expected to get to sleep, and it was unpleasant but not difficult to get up. Of course, this was partly b/c we all were going out to lunch in honor of billy's last day at Instructables. I ate a bento box of tempura and beef teriyaki. Later this afternoon I had a mildly upset stomach which I attributed to lunch as the same thing happened last time I ate at that restaurant. But I also had half a coke when we returned to the office and that could surely have had a similar effect.

I have not been a very effective worker today, prone to being distracted and indecisive about what to do next. However I am very cheerful and unusually sociable. Lunch was fun.

5PM nap: Set alarm for only 20 minutes in order to run an errand before 6. Woke up relatively easily feeling bleary but this passed off quickly, even before I started bicycling. On BART train with little to do I am not highly sleep pressured. Ate rice and a veggie stir-fry at 8 or so. Not feeling any sleep pressure at all - in fact I'm wondering if I will be able to get to sleep for my 9PM in half an hour!

9PM nap: Brushed my teeth, turned out all the lights, and fell asleep with no difficulty. Woke up in 20 min and it's mostly dark, and it was hard to get up again. I am sensing a pattern here. Throughout this cycle I've done various home tasks plus played around on the Internet, and I'm getting sleepier, and chillier despite my jacket. (Forgot to mention earlier that I've been cold pretty consistently during this experiment. Except for the last cycle prior to this nap.) I'll have to do something more active now.

Ha, I made a Thing which I'll post as an Instructable later tonight (here it is). Also have done some reading up on (you guessed it) polyphasic sleep.

Step 6: 2007-08-28

1AM nap: Tricky, tricky, the daytime naps, making me think I am starting to adjust! The nighttime naps know better. I kept lights on through this nap, unlike for my last one, in case it made it easier to get up. I can't tell if it did. I woke at the alarm with a nasty jerk, confused out of a dream I could no longer remember. Decided I was hungry so ate a couple scrambled eggs and half a grapefruit. Breakfast is easier to cook ;) I'm starting to feel OK again now and we're going to go out and try to see the lunar eclipse. Time passes more slowly than I expect.

5AM nap: I think this was the worst yet. I took 3 sets of extra 5 minute snoozes. Then I showered, stretched, ate some cantaloupe, at a granola bar, and was able to at least pretend to be alive. But I'm not, really... Was planning to take the earlier ferry again but I sort of vaguely didn't notice the time for a while and missed my window. I'd like to bring in a blanket to sleep in at the office if I can work out how to carry it on the bike, as I've been consistently cold, except for the few times I've been slightly too warm. It's hard to stand up, or open my eyes. I'll have to nap on the ferry at 9 and I'll definitely have to ask the crew to make sure I don't miss Alameda!

I think I ate a granola bar somewhere in here.

9AM nap: Took this nap on the ferry and nearly missed my stop, a fellow passenger had to wake me up. The seats are not comfortable to sleep in and the engine throbs. I won't be sleeping on the ferry regularly although I originally planned to. Ate a granola bar. I'm less groggy but more so than yesterday. Read that day 5 is the first day I can expect to start feeling better, but often it could be day 6 or 7. Today is day 4. I am grumpy.

1PM nap: I am falling asleep for my naps very easily at this point, but waking up is still a considerable shock. I snoozed twice, once for 3 minutes and once for 2 but without closing my eyes. Ate for lunch a couple chicken tacos that Ed thoughtfully offered to pick up for me. Had another half coke afterwards but no actual stomach upset has resulted. My eyes feel very heavy and I feel some sleep pressure although not a large amount. I keep drifting off course from whatever I try to do, and several times felt my eyes closing and had to jerk them back open.

5PM nap: I was so very ready for this by the time it came around, but for some reason it took me a bit to get to sleep and then I woke up again after 10 minutes. So I just stayed down and napped again until the alarm went off. Have been drinking a fair amount of water today in addition to the coke (but coke tastes better for a while). I do hope I can start waking up by myself without waiting for the alarm, as the alarm consistently startles me awake so badly that I wake up shaky for a bit.

9PM nap: Had half a hamburger half an hour before this as I was feeling the need for more protein. Nap went off fine. It is too soon to be drawing any conclusions about anything, but I seem to be noticing an effect of a lower ability to tolerate badness. Take the cokes, which are known to be bad for me. For quite a long time I drank one coke a day, or sometimes two. Since I started this schedule I have drunk no more than half a coke a day, I just don't want it. Similarly I would usually eat a whole hamburger, not just half one. Although it feels like I am eating less per meal in general so the half hamburger may be an artifact of that. I am probably eating more meals to make up for the size of them but I haven't counted that up yet.

Had another grapefruit and some nuts around 11. I do love grapefruit.

Step 7: 2007-08-29

1AM nap: Napped and woke up, not much more to say about it. Not nearly as difficult as last night, but let's see about the 5AM one. Stretched a little on waking but more because I thought to do so than because I needed help getting up. Feeling relatively consistently fuzzy, but perfectly functional. Sleep pressure, but not heavy.

Cooked and ate pasta with a veggie white sauce that I made up. Tasty. Still feeling like I'm eating smaller portions.

Heavier sleep pressure around 3, 3:30. I find myself counting the time until 5. Took a walk which helped only while I was on it.

5AM nap: Again this is the bad one, although I think not quite as bad as yesterday. Dragged myself up after snoozing twice, stretched, showered, and cooked some scrambled eggs. Am going to stand and look at the eastern horizon for a bit, which is fairly light now, in hopes that it will wake me up some. Will leave in an hour to catch the earlier ferry.

I am noticing more than ever how tiredness and hunger are related. Always throughout my life I've been able to mitigate the effects of hunger by taking a nap, and of lack of sleep by eating something. It's only now occurring to me that both food and sleeping give you more energy, so the fact that their effects overlap somewhat is no longer so strange to me.

9AM nap: Messed this one up thoroughly. I felt so shaky and out of it that although I woke up at my alarm, I kept setting it for Just Another Ten Minutes until I'd slept for an hour. I do feel a bit better now though, so I guess there is nothing to do but get right back on that horse. And maybe eat some bread and cheese...

1PM nap: Took me some extra time to get up from this too, but mostly just lying there with my eyes open gathering my determination. I'm a lot better than earlier today, but MAN I hope this adjustment starts happening soon. I did eat bread and cheese, and drank water. Have set a reminder to myself tomorrow night to pack a lunch - I have time for these things now.

Despite the feeling awful part of the time, I am definitely getting things done. If I don't acclimatize and feel crappy half the time like now, it is not worth it; but if I could get to feeling mostly OK at night (about like I do now), and perky during the days, that might be a very tough decision as to whether to stick with it or not. I really LIKE staying up all night. Did I mention we watched the eclipse Monday night? And I have been cooking reasonably healthy food and eating it, now that I feel I have time to cook.

5PM nap: Had to get up right away after this or I would have missed the ferry. I'll have to try making more immediate post-nap travel arrangements... Wonky on the ferry, and a bit shaky riding and then BART-ing home. Ate a lot of Thai food, which we ordered in.

9PM nap: At Matt's urging I slept 30 minutes instead of 20 minutes and will continue with 30 minutes for the next day or so at least. I do feel somewhat better than earlier today but who's to say if it was the extra 10 minutes. I have promised myself to allow two full weeks of this to see if I acclimatize, and that is seeming like a Very Long Time at the moment. I'm drinking much more water than I normally do, but my skin is nevertheless dryer, especially my hands - I've had to resort to hand lotion at least once a day for the past several days. Oddly, my hair is different too but I can't work out exactly how. It is crunchier... and never feels quite clean despite LOTS of rinsing. No change in products or styling process.

Step 8: 2007-08-30

1AM nap: Big Mistake. I lay down for this a few minutes late as Matt had started his a few minutes late and was only just getting up. We snuggled for a moment... and Boom! out like lights, both of us. We woke up at 7. I think that I must be missing not REM sleep but deep sleep, as I nearly always remember some kind of dream although almost never any details. But I also always hear the alarm and wake up to it... except this time, when I slept through 3: the 1AM wake-up and the 5AM nap-time and wake-up alarms (I have all my naps pre-programmed on my iPhone).

Well, back-on-horse. I showered, and ate some of last night's Thai. I'm not feeling shaky any more which is a relief. I am feeling dead tired, like I could sleep for a week. Of course, I am planning instead to Not sleep for another week...

9AM nap: Took this, no problem falling asleep. In fact I have rarely had any difficulty falling asleep at the desired times, only in getting up again. Ate some more Thai (we got an awful lot of it), rode the bicycle for a couple miles. Had most of a tuna melt around noon.

1PM nap: Napped. Awoke. Nothing much to say about it.

5PM nap: Ditto. I'm feeling much better than yesterday, but the slight shakiness has returned. I'm not feeling tired as such, just slightly shaky inside, much as I would feel if I'd not eaten for ten hours or so. However, I have eaten (Thai again, and there's enough for at least another solid meal), and I'm not hungry. This is a bit worrisome but we'll see how it goes.

My 9 PM nap will be early as I'm going out to a show tonight, wherein I do not think napping will be possible. I suppose it won't be any more harmful to the acclimatization than last night. I am having some trouble at this point believing that I will ever acclimatize. At the beginning of this experiment I thought it likely I would fail through lack of discipline, but had no doubt that it was a pattern physically possible. Now I am finding myself quite remarkably disciplined, more so than I expected, but feel that my body may simply not be up to this.

In fairness, I haven't got through even as much of this as the most optimistic Internet accounts suggest. 5 days to the start of acclimatization is the earliest I read, with others suggesting it takes a week or even two, and while this is my sixth day, I haven't managed to keep fully on schedule (plus I am rather older than the other people I know of who have tried this, mostly college kids). So I will remain with it a while longer, as I May Be Wrong (tm).

9PM nap: Didn't manage to take this early so I took it late, around 11PM, and was VERY ready for it. Woke up tired and cranky and shaky. Am tired of being tired and cranky and shaky. Ate more Thai food.

Step 9: 2007-08-31 - a Change of Plan

Well I fell off the wagon in a big way today. I was so tired that I'd decided to have a nap at 3AM as well, and Matt also was planning to do this. Last time we slept together we overslept badly so we decided to sleep in different locations... but we still overslept badly. I woke up at 7 and was so pissed off and tired and shaky that I simply went back to sleep again, determined not to wake up until I wasn't shaky any more. And so I slept all day until almost 5. I'm still a little shaky, unfortunately, and I'm not sure how to move forward from here.

Has anyone else of all the people who've done similar sleep schedules and commented here, felt this kind of internal shakiness? Like you haven't eaten in over a day?

More when I figure it out.

Friends, I am not giving up yet. However I'm going to scale back the attempt a bit, as the 'cold turkey' approach clearly isn't working for me. I'm going to aim for an Everyman schedule, which allows for 'core sleep' plus naps, and I'll work up to it.

Core Sleep: 3AM - 6AM
Naps: 4 of 20-30 min each
Nap 1: 10AM
Nap 2: 2PM
Nap 3: 6PM
Nap 4: 10PM

I'll start tonight with a longer core sleep of 2AM - 6AM and make sure I get 30 minutes each nap. This works out to a total of 6 hours per 24, which should not kill me. If I can handle that, then I will drop the core sleep by half an hour for a while, and then by another half hour until I'm down to starting at 3AM. I expect 'a while' to be in the neighborhood of 3 or 4 days, but I'll let how I feel determine the actual times. I'll scale back the naps as I go, or not, again depending on how I feel. For tonight I'll skip the 10PM nap because I slept so much earlier today.

Step 10: 2007-09-01 to 2007-09-03

Core: I had no trouble staying up until 2, when I planned to start the core sleep. This is likely because I had slept so much yesterday. I awoke at the alarm at 6 but did not immediately get up, and of course I fell back asleep again. I awoke naturally at 8:30 and got up & showered. I ate half a grapefruit and some Thai curry around 9:30. I'll skip the 10 AM nap and continue with the rest. Note to self: get up immediately...

After three days, during which I did lots of Activities, I was able to stay on this core sleep plan without very much difficulty. I'm not sleepy most of the time, and while it's still difficult to get up at 6, it doesn't seem any MORE difficult than getting up at 8 was when I'd gone to bed at 2 and taken no naps. I'll write a couple more steps over the next week, as I don't yet feel I am fully settled into this pattern, and if/when I decide to move the core sleep closer to 3AM, I will write about that.

I have been eating and exercising somewhat better this past week than I normally do. I believe this is partly due to sleep deprivation - it seems that my body can only put up with so much crap from me and then it takes a stand. So the lack of sleep I was forcing upon it made it absolutely refuse to, for example, drink a full can of Coke. I haven't had more than half a can at a time since August 25 or so, and I doubt I've had more than about 4 cans overall since then. I'm eating less meat and more fruit, as well. Another part of this is that I've been going grocery shopping in the middle of the night - I have had time to do this where before I tended to skip grocery shopping. So I have reasonably healthy food Around when I am ready to eat.

The greater amount of exercise I'm doing is, I believe, simply an effort to wake myself up. It's mild: I've gone for a couple of walks and bike rides - I haven't been running marathons or anything! - and Matt & I played tennis this morning. Normally biking to work is all I do, and nothing on weekends. So I can't count this as a direct polyphasic sleep benefit, but perhaps it's an indirect one, like the grocery shopping. We'll see if it lasts.

Step 11: 2007-09-04 to 2007-09-07

I have high hopes for this pattern of core sleep plus periodic half-hour naps. I am still oversleeping on occasion but generally I am able to stick to this schedule. An extra two hours per day is not as much as I'd hoped for, but it is nothing to sneeze at. It makes my day feel like about half of it is taken up with work, and half remains for Everything Else. Previously I felt like nearly all of my day was taken up with work.

The second-level benefit I was seeing last week, of eating a lot more healthily, has dropped some. I'm still drinking less coke and eating better than I was, but not to the same degree. For example I had some very greasy fried chicken for lunch the other day - tasty I must admit but I didn't supplement it with any greens or anything. From just these two weeks' evidence, it looks like a reverse correlation - the less sleep I get, the more healthy food I eat. However, the drop off also might be due to me falling back into more usual habits after a week of extraordinary novelty. It is Too Soon To Tell - a properly scientific attitude prohibits drawing conclusions from so little data.

I've shifted my nap times slightly to fit with my work schedule better. I'm currently sleeping as follows:

core sleep: 2:00AM - 6:00AM
nap: 10:30AM - 11:00 AM
nap: 2:30PM - 3:00PM
nap: 6:45PM - 7:15PM
nap: 10:30PM - 11:00PM

I have two problem areas: the 10:30PM nap is very hard to wake up from, and it's hard to get up at 6. I just started using a second alarm at 6, which I have placed across the room. This morning that alarm was successful in getting me up in time.

Step 12: The End

I have decided to quit this sleep pattern, at least for now. On Monday the 10th I got sick, and I'm quite sure I would not have (at least not nearly so badly) if I hadn't been so physically stressed from sleep deprivation. Anyway I'm not foolish enough to try to stick to Not Sleeping while trying to recuperate, so I have slept as much as I wanted for the past three days. I'm pretty much well again (thanks for asking) but I'm completely off this schedule. And I just don't have the energy to get back on it right now... and finally, I would feel irresponsible to Instructables, and all of you, to let this experiment take any more time away from my work of making this site even better.

My current belief is that polyphasic sleep is a method for handling sleep deprivation as well as possible, but that it likely does not provide Enough sleep for an average person. I suspect, as well, that youth and health, as well as level of discipline, figure largely into one's ability to transition into a polyphasic pattern. I am not particularly young any more, and while I'm perfectly healthy for my age, I'm not particularly Disciplined, so that's 2 of 3 against me...

Anyway if anyone else tries this, I would love to hear about it, whether you succeed or not. In fact I encourage you to blog about it in detail, somewhere - but I can't say I actually encourage you to try it. It's kind of miserable.