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.