I've always been one to try new things, and screwing with my sleep patterns to attempt to cram more into my day seemed like a fun thing to try :) I had a go at it a few weeks back, and wanted to share my experience.

Polyphasic sleep is something that caught my eye a year ago, when I heard about the idea from Nathaniel Talbott at Bizconf last year. The idea is that you take a much shorter night’s sleep (perhaps 3-5 hours) and make up for it with 20 minute naps spaced out during the day. There are some fixed schedules that have been shown to work, but the basic rule is that the shorter your nightly (or “core”) sleep, the more naps you need and the more fixed your nap schedule has to be during the day.

The idea of getting loads more time in my day really appealed, so I finally decided to give it a go after I saw Micah Martin was trying it too.

My experience

I went for a 3 hour core sleep from 10:30pm to 1:00am, with 3 naps spaced out during the day: one at 6 - 6:20am, one at 12:10pm - 12:30pm, and one at 5:10pm - 5:30pm. The idea was that I could get my first nap in before my kids awoke at 7am, and then nap once at lunchtime, and once just before I came home.

Full of anticipation of hours of extra time, I went to bed on Sunday night at 10:30pm, setting my alarm for 1am.

Sure enough, the alarm went off and I dragged myself out of bed. I felt euphoric at the thought of having all this time, and my 750 words for the day proudly exclaimed the virtues of this sort of living. (I’m afraid I’m a serial kool-aid drinker. I took my naps at normal times, and it all worked wonderfully. My naps weren’t wonderful: we have a very open office and I couldn’t easily find a good place to sleep for 20 minutes. I felt a little tired, but not too bad to be honest. That is, until 10:30pm where I promptly crashed. The fact that my baby daughter was asleep by then was great (later I found that this was a happy coincidence :). I slept very deeply until 1am the following day.

Tuesday to Friday I felt much more tired, and found that I really needed my naps at the appointed time. It was like my body began to shut down at around midday and I knew I needed to go and sleep. The nights were much worse though. It was a real struggle to keep my eyes open between 1:00am and 6:00am after only three hours core sleep. I managed it though, and only had one short oversleep.

Why I stopped

The real problem, the one that ultimately caused me to abort after a week, was not the tiredness. I think that I could have gone on and persevered throught that. The problem was scheduling the naps, the life adjustment and the flexibility.

Whilst you’re adapting, it’s really important not to deviate from your set nap schedule, yet I have three kids and a busy work schedule. Often this causes me to be out on trips at the weekend, and in London meeting clients midweek. I was looking at my diary a week ahead and thinking: “How on earth am I going to survive Wednesday? And Saturday? Oh, and Sunday?”

If I skipped a nap whilst adjusting, it would effectively had set me back several days in the adaptation process, and with my schedule I couldn’t guarantee that I’d ever finish adapting. Some sleep deprivation is acceptable during adaptation, but go on for too long and it begins to affect your health.

Another difficulty: it was great to be awake in the middle of the night, the same time as my three-week old girl, and my wife got a good deal more sleep than she would have done normally. However it was difficult at 10:30pm: I simply had to be asleep at that time for it to work, and often the baby still needed settling around them. My wife was pretty good about this, but she was tired too, and it felt like I wasn’t doing her any favours. I was basically getting more time for me, at the expense of being flexible for the family during the day/evening. As long as it didn’t affect them much it was fine, but after a certain point I’m just being selfish.

So, for multiple different reasons, I decided to call time on the experiment after about five days.

It’s important to stress that people who successfully implement a polyphasic sleep schedule persevere longer than I did, and have more success scheduling their naps. If I worked from home, with less commitments and meetings during the day, I can see how I might have been able to make it work. Ultimately, my life just isn’t fundamentally set up for this sleep pattern, and to a certain extent that’s reflected in society. It would have been difficult to find a place to crash for 20 minutes in central London, and it’s not something I could easily have explained to people.

What did I learn?

I got much better at napping. I’m able to fall asleep more easily now, for short periods, when I need to.

I learnt that our society isn’t set up for daytime naps. This might improve in the future if it catches on, who knows?

Your cognitive performance is super impaired when your brain thinks you should be sleeping. This sounds obvious :) but I didn’t think of it before starting: I was expecting to have lots of tasks done, but looking through my list at 3am when I was super tired only elicted perhaps one or two things I could manage. A lot of my work requires a fair amount of concentration, and I just couldn’t manage it.

This would hopefully have ceased to be a problem after a couple of weeks when I’d have stopped feeling so tired, but it also threw up another problem, and the biggest lesson I learnt: many of the old tasks on your list aren’t incomplete through lack of time, but through lack of motivation. If you remove lack of time from the equation, you start to see what you’ve been procrastinating about because you really just don’t want to do it. That was a challenge, and led me to think deeper about some of the things on my list that I’ve been putting on.

Would I try it again?

Perhaps. I think the life circumstances would need to be right, and the need for that extra time would need to be extreme. I don’t regret the experience though, and I’m grateful for the lessons learnt.

That was my story: what’s yours? Have you tried and succeeded, or failed? Any tips to share?