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, of which the most notable are the Everyman, which is a block of three hours followed by three thirty minute naps during the day, and the Uberman schedule, which consists of six twenty minute naps spaced four hours apart.
Why can polyphasic sleepers apparently cope with as little as two hours of sleep a day? The central theory behind it is that the only part of sleep that matters is Rapid Eye Movement, or REM. This is the part that cleans up your brain cells after a hard day’s thinking and balances the books, as it were. Any anomalies that it finds results in dreams. No-one knows what the rest of sleep is actually for, but it appears to be optional. Without REM sleep, however, people first go insane, and then they die.
Most people’s sleeping patterns go round in cycles of ninety minutes, of which REM only plays a small part. The goal of polyphasic sleeping is to cut out that unnecessary part of sleep and send the brain straight into REM and stay there for the duration of the nap. That way one gets refreshing sleep but in much less time, giving you more awake time throughout the day (and night).
I came across polyphasic sleeping while reading personal development guru Steve Pavlina‘s blog in 2009. The Uberman schedule is so called because you have to be pretty hardcore to be able to keep on schedule with the naps, make it through the week of utter hell it requires to adjust to it, and then bear the psychological burder of actually living an extra six hours a day. It was named this by its creator who said that she had lived on it for two years while a student, but her evidence for this was purely anecdotal. Steve took up polyphasic sleeping for over five months back in 2005 and, at the time, was the most influential internet character to have both tried polyphasic sleeping and meaningfully documented his progress.
With Steve’s example that it really is possible, and keen to have more time in my life, I commenced the Uberman schedule on January 1, 2009. This lasted until approximately April 2009, when increasing pressure on my schedule made it more and more difficult to keep. Consequently, I moved to the Everyman schedule and maintained this until July 2009, when I had to finally give up on polyphasic sleeping due to the unforgiving demands of summer school. I then switched to polyphasic sleeping twice a year for exam periods during my university studies for the increased memory and discipline.
I finally gave up my experiments with polyphasic sleeping in the early 2010s, but for several years after that, I fielded questions from curious researchers who were conducting experiments into whether this internet-driven phenomenon was genuine. I contributed to a couple of studies and there was a few bits of press. Since then, polyphasic sleeping has been taken up by considerably more famous and influential people, and several big name youtubers, so generally I don’t hear about it any more other than occasionally meeting old uni friends and being asked, “hey, do you still do that nap thing?”
I do still recommend it to people as a strategy, not for giving yourself more time, but as a cure for disrupted sleeping patterns. Transitioning from a monophasic to a polyphasic sleeping schedule basically breaks your brain by forcing yourself to be so tired your brain takes sleep anywhere it can get it. This also has the side effect of resetting any poor sleeping habits. Prior to adopting polyphasic sleeping, I used to have periods of chronic insomnia where I would just stare that the ceiling all night for months at a time. After sleeping polyphasically for that first period, I have never experienced this again. It’s a point of some resentment amongst my neurodivergent networks that I have no elaborate bedtime routine and can and do just put away the devices, lie down, and be asleep within minutes. I attribute that to whatever neurological changes I unknowingly wrought upon myself at university and I think polyphasic sleeping would benefit from more research into this long-term effect.
My polyphasic writing:
- Sleeping diary for the first fourteen days of January 2009.
- Polyphasic Sleeping Diary 2010: Week 1
- Going Polyphasic: 15 hints and tips
- Polyphasic Sleeping Diary 2010: Part 2
- It’s better than red bull: Polyphasic sleeping and exams
Frequently Asked Questions (published 2009)
There have been all kind of trials and tribulations, and I can answer some of the questions that people have asked Steve and others on the web that they couldn’t reply to. For some reason, a lot of the polyphasic sleepers out there live very routine, stable lives, which makes it easy to maintain a polyphasic schedule, but renders them unable to give people answers to questions like “what if you get drunk?” Fortunately, I lived a messy, chaotic student life and had answers to such questions. This FAQ mainly applies to the Uberman schedule, which being much harder to do I had to pay a lot of attention to, but the general principles apply to Everyman as well.
Do you not get tired?
Not when I’m on the schedule properly, no. When I’ve messed it up and am trying to get back into the swing of things, say after I’ve overslept for six hours or something, I will feel fatigued approximately twelve hours after I last overslept. If you can, however, push past that, it goes back to being fine.
How often do you oversleep?
A lot. This is for a variety of reasons, the major one being that polyphasic sleeping is relatively easy to adjust to physically but rather more difficult mentally. When stressed, my habit has always been to sleep a great deal. For reasons I don’t understand, when monophasic, the most I could nap outside of the major night sleep was approximately two hours, maybe four if I tried to sleep again after I woke up. As a polyphasic, I can sleep for up to twelve with no problem. This was very disconcerting at first when I went to bed after a stressful exam at 4pm and woke up at one in the morning. I thus now use an alarm clock even for when I plan to oversleep, to ensure I don’t go down for quite as long – usually I set the alarm for maybe three or six hours ahead.
Another reason for oversleeping is drunkenness, and missing a nap, both of which are covered below shortly.
What happens when you’re drunk?
I don’t really worry about keeping naps when drunk. Part of the pleasure of drinking for me is the bit at the end where I lie down in my nice comfy bed and enter oblivion. It also has the advantage that you wake up sober. Personally, I tend to give myself six hours or so after drinking to conk out and get back to normal, and if I do this I usually wake up without problems. I tried to get up three hours after a night out and ended up so groggy I fell asleep somewhere else for an hour completely unintentionally. Best sleep it off.
What happens when you delay/miss a nap?
If you delay a nap by more than an hour, you will feel awful for quite a few hours afterwards. It’s not worth it if you can help it. If you miss a nap, you will start to feel extremely fatigued, unable to keep your eyes open, and slowly but surely start to fall asleep wherever you are. You will then oversleep, and still feel like rubbish for quite a few hours afterwards. Again, very much not worth it.
Surely if you oversleep that much you are not polyphasic?
No, it just means I am a rubbish polyphasic sleeper, just as I was a rubbish monophasic sleeper, and indeed most people are. How often do you get nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night? One’s sleeping pattern is an underlying default which is regularly ignored by everyone because life gets in the way. The fact is that although I am oversleeping, my body still considers six daily twenty minute naps spaced every four hours to be the norm, and delaying/missing any of these entails Bad Things. For six months I never slept through the night except once when very drunk – an attempt to sleep through the night with someone who was monophasic resulted in me waking up approximately every hour and a half and staring at the ceiling for a bit before I fell asleep for another ninety minutes. The idea of taking a nine hour night sleep and staying awake throughout the day seems rather alien to my body once I am on the schedule.
Update 2012: Since I posted this FAQ back in 2009, I’ve had several people contact me about polyphasic sleeping, and the thing they get most anxious about is the idea that they’re somehow “failing” at polyphasic if they can’t stay bang on schedule indefinitely. This is not the case. You need to get through the first week without breaking once, but once you’ve done that, you should be as flexible as you need to be to enjoy your life. Sometimes, no matter how well you plan it, you will find yourself unable to take twenty minutes out and take a nap. Sometimes, you’ll be with people that you don’t want to know about your funny sleeping pattern. Sometimes, you’re wide awake, you’ve been up for two days, but you’re bored stiff. In all those circumstances, it is fine to mess up your schedule and oversleep. The important thing about polyphasic sleeping is the benefits it gives you: the extra time, the weird high, improved power of recall – you shouldn’t feel guilty because you haven’t gone a year, or even a few days without sleeping more than twenty minutes.
How on earth do you fit a polyphasic sleeping schedule around a 9-5/monophasic day?
Actually, the days aren’t the problem. The 8am nap can be shifted as early at seven so any 9am appointments or lectures are easily attended, and a noon nap can be simply fitted into a lunch break. The trouble comes with the 4pm and the 8pm naps, when extra curricular activities are regularly scheduled directly after lectures or the early evening. My Thursdays, for example, hade lectures and various meetings of societies I belonged to directly after one another from 3-7pm. Unfortunately I have had no answer to this and the reality is if your day is too full you simply have to sacrifice something to fit in the nap.
What if you have no access to a bed when a nap comes up?
One of the major benefits of polyphasic sleeping is you can sleep literally anywhere. Previous to switching to polyphasic sleeping I could pretty much only sleep on my front in a bed. Since starting polyphasic sleeping, I have slept on sofas, floors, the table of a restaurant while my friends had a meal, more trains than I can count, the toilet of a McDonalds, and even an MRI scanner (though that wasn’t a scheduled nap…). I can sleep pretty much anywhere I can shield my eyes from light. I have entered REM sleep while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a train wrapped around a rucksack. Beds aren’t really an issue.