Polyphasic Sleeping

I was interviewed some weeks ago by the Evening Standard for my views on polyphasic sleeping. It was something of a blast from the past for me but as one of the few people on the internet to have done it and written about it, I get surprisingly regular, if infrequent, press inquiries on the topic. The journo who interviewed me said they would let me know when it would be published and forgot, so I only just remembered to look it up. It’s short but sweet:

 

Getting a good night’s rest once meant spending eight hours in a comfy bed, but now a growing number of people are applying a blend of science, technology and psychology to optimise their time asleep, and so make the most of their waking hours. From the hackers gadgetising their bedtime routine to the ‘lucid dreamers’ taking control of their nightmares, Londoners are transforming the land of zzzzzz.

Polyphasic sleeping

Can you survive on two hours’ kip? Polyphasic sleepers believe so. They sleep in short bursts every few hours to cut down the overall time needed. A normal night’s sleep is divided into four or five cycles of three main phases: light sleep, deep sleep (the most restful) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The reasoning behind polyphasic sleeping is that you’re so tired you fall straight into the final two cycles. The most challenging regime is the ‘Uberman’ — six 20-minute naps at four-hour intervals. Sarah McCulloch, a student at London South Bank University, used Uberman while preparing for exams, for periods of up to four months at a time. Instead of her usual eight-and-a-half hours, she’d sleep at 4pm, 8pm, midnight, 4am, 8am and midday. ‘You have a few days of feeling terrible, but you adjust and it becomes like regular sleeping.’ The hardest thing, she says, is fitting it around a social life — she once had to nap at a restaurant. ‘It’s not that practical, but if you have a deadline to meet, you’ll meet it.’ Dr Guy Leschziner, consultant neurologist and lead clinician at the sleep disorders centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, cautions that it’s not for everyone: ‘Whether you sleep half an hour every two hours or a full night in one go, our sleep requirements are genetically conditioned. Some people need more, some people need less.’

 

You can read the rest of the article (on general sleep-hacking) here.

 

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Here’s a fact: I’ve never taken an exam at the University of Manchester while sleeping through the night. Here’s another: I’ve never slept more than an hour in the night before my exams and I’m averaging a 2:1. And another: I took only twenty minute naps every four hours for three consecutive days while writing a piece of coursework. My mark? 73. If you’re a student, polyphasic sleeping, or taking a series of naps over a period of time instead of sleeping for nine hour blocks at night, is pretty useful when you have assessments on.

There are several different styles of polyphasic sleeping, of which the two main ones are the Uberman and the Everyman. Uberman, where you sleep for twenty minutes every four hours round the clock, is the hardest schedule to maintain but with the greatest benefits. Everyman, where you take a “core sleep” from 2-5am and naps at 9am, 2pm and 9pm is easier to maintain but far less useful. All references to polyphasic sleeping in this article are to Uberman.

I first went polyphasic in January 2009, just in time for my first year January exams. I stayed largely polyphasic until July, switching to Everyman from June, but the pressures of an intensive summer school made it impossible. I then went back to polyphasic sleeping this January in order to support friends through the process, and have been doing it on and off ever since: I’m terrible at sticking to the schedule but I muddle through- but that’s another article. When it comes to exam-time though, I am as orthodox an polyphasic sleeper as there ever was. Why? Polyphasic sleeping lets you get your work done without having to deprive yourself of sleep (which may sound insane to people who don’t know what I mean: see here for how it works).

I did take some exams in Ireland while sleeping monophasically and scored 84, 80, and 48 (that last one due to severe burnout) – after allowing for the ability to score much higher in a language-based test as opposed to classic essay-style assessments, it seems there’s very little difference between using a monophasic or a polyphasic sleeping pattern as long as you use the time you have to do proper revision. I had a lot of time in Ireland, as I was doing nothing but studying one subject up to eight hours a day; when I have several exams and pieces of coursework due in the same week, being able to go down to my 24 hour library and literally work around the clock has been a massive asset.

Another advantage is that if you really can’t fit it all in, as I couldn’t in the June 2009 when one exam took up far more revision time than I was expecting, you can do what I call “crashvision”, or what other people call “learning everything the night before”. The major beneficial difference when you’re on a polyphasic sleeping schedule though, is that you can study throughout the night without feeling exhausted or as if you are fighting your own body for every second. I managed to achieve a 65 in my Ancient Israelites exam having begun my revision at 11pm the night before: I took my naps at 12am, 4am, 8am and 12pm and took the exam feeling shattered from concentration but remarkably awake for someone who’d been up all night buried in Megiddo and the Enuma Elis.

One thing that a lot of polyphasic sleepers and anti-polyphasic writers like to mention is that going polyphasic damages your memory recall for a month or two after you first adapt to it. What they mention much more rarely, however, is that although it takes longer to recall things, it is a lot easier to memorise them in the first place. Because of the amount of time I had to spend on my coursework, this semester’s exam revision had to be crammed into the day and night beforehand. I sat down and spent 12 solid hours looking up facts, writing down dates and quotations, and then memorised them all. I used 23 different quotations in my essay; some were indeed difficult to recall and took half a minute or so to come back to me, and I had to give up trying to remember one, but I got them all down: I scored a 75. Polyphasic for the win.

So if you want to take up polyphasic sleeping and fail miserably over longer periods of time than a few days, just before your exam period is the best time to try switching again. You have to break through the adaptation period beforehand, which usually lasts a week, to ensure you don’t fall asleep in the exams or during your revision, or ache so much you can’t face the thought of uni, but once you’re through it the thought of failing your exams should (one hopes) make it much easier to keep yourself going until you settle into a pattern.

Polyphasic sleeping can’t help you if you don’t revise at all, but it’s a pretty useful tool if you find lying comatose for nine hours just before your exams somewhat unappealing. Enjoy. :)

For more resources on polyphasic sleeping, check out the category at the bottom of this article or my collected writings on the subject here.

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I learnt about polyphasic sleeping from a friend who is a devotee of Steve Pavlina, a personal growth guru. Steve Pavlina spent five months living on a polyphasic schedule and reported no problems except those that come of living in a monophasic society. As a student I don’t really live on a “normal” 9-5 schedule […]

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Polyphasic Sleeping

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Polyphasic sleeping is a sleeping pattern where you don’t sleep through the night in a block (monophasic sleeping) but take a series of naps throughout the day or night. There are a variety of polyphasic sleeping styles, from the Everyman, which is a block of three hours followed by three thirty minute naps during the […]

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