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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In January 2nd of this year, I once again began the transition to polyphasic sleeping. 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 day, to the Uberman schedule, which consists of six twenty minute naps spaced four hours apart.

I had previously lived on the Uberman schedule for eight months in 2009: you can read about those experiences, as well as more about the sleeping schedule itself, here. It has been an interesting learning experience going through transitioning to polyphasic sleeping a second time, and I feel that I have learnt many new things this time round.

Below is my diary from January 8th-January 24th. The first part can be read here. I stopped keeping a diary at this point because after a month your body has fully transitioned to the sleeping schedule and, while the psychological problems with being constantly awake continue, you do find that your body naturally starts wanting to fall asleep every four hours. It become harder to oversleep and when you do it happens for shorter periods of time than you would naturally sleep monophasically. That’s not so interesting to write about. :)

January 8th:

12:31am: 4pm and 8pm naps went fine. Looked at clock twice during midnight nap and feel fine. I’m guessing that’s the sleeping tablet-induced eight hours sleep then…

8:44am: Took 4am with some trepidation but got up fine, with some difficulty. For the 8am I made myself sleep with an arm outside the covers and slightly propped up on the pillow. I woke up by reaching out my arm and picking up my clock exactly as it began to go off, which was quite interesting. Just eaten, feel slightly sick and trembly. Stumbled down stairs, so sleep deprivation has kicked in.

8:24pm: 12pm went fine, 4pm I woke up from but have a vague memory of voluntarily going back to sleep and dozing in and out until half five. Got up to deal with guest polyphasic sleeper but decided to take another nap to try to clear the aching tiredness. Up ended turning off the alarm without realising and slept through until someone called me at half 7. 8pm nap, however, went as usual.

January 9th:

12am: Feared I would not wake up again, so I made sure to prop myself up with pillow and sleep with an arm above the duvet. Got up with some tiredness but felt quite well within fifteen minutes. Had drunk some irn bru and Jack Daniels beforehand, so particularly proud.

12pm: I woke up from my 4am feeling tired. I took a short acting-stimulant at one but not after, so the fact that I was able to sleep does suggest that it is possible to take them and stay on schedule. However, after the nap I was the only person in the house, so after I got up from my 4am and checked my email I went back to bed without setting an alarm. I woke up at 9am. Consequently do not feel fatigued but do feel tired – oversleeping seems good at the time…

January 10th:

12:40 am: One observation a flatmate just made is that a part of being asleep is the comfiness of the duvet, and that when you take it away, you become tempted to stay in bed and oversleep, not because you feel too tired to get up, but because of the comfiness of the duvet.

3:55pm: 4am nap overslept by 45 minutes. 8am I woke up fine, but due to absolute boredom I slept until 12:30pm. Was woken up twice and felt awake, so polyphasic has worked physically, but my lack of a laptop is taking its toll on my ability to motivate myself to stay awake. Buying a new one tomorrow.

10:12pm: Everyone was tired for the 8pm, so it would seem that we all overslept. I was out til 10 exactly. Ah dear.

January 11th:

12pm: Woke up from 4am nap fine, but due to my guest having fallen asleep in my bed next to me and not having a laptop to work on, I decided it would be easier to just sleep monophasically. Woke up several times but reached the same conclusion every time. Eventually got up at half ten. The thing about monophasic sleeping is that when you engage in it while polyphasic, it does feel just like a light switching off – you’re out and then you wake up ten hours later feeling as if no time has passed at all.

5:49pm: Took 4pm late as was out in town. Took it at about 4:45 instead. Noticing a definite increase in the desire to roll onto my front as opposed to lying on my side – this suggests I have now fully adapted physically to polyphasic sleeping. Mentally I have some way to go.

January 12th:

Woke up at 11am after taking the 8am nap. This was particularly interesting because neither me nor my guest at the time had felt particularly tired. We lay down fully expecting to get up again and just didn’t. I have experienced this before which suggests something of a secondary phase of adaptation, where your body has physically adjusted but there’s still something going on to make you oversleep. Because I have no memory of switching the alarm off, I cannot say what this is. Naps have otherwise gone fine today, and have felt myself relax into REM sleep at will, which is good. I am going to stop monitoring every nap now.

January 13th

Had coursework to do. Procrastinated by sleeping from 1 til 9. I am a bad person. And it’s still there… Also took every nap today late because I was working too hard on other stuff. I can feel my body rebelling as a consequence. 8pm nap was highly restful, not sure why. Boredom is definitely a major part of the battle to avoid sleeping – if someone wants to go polyphasic they really need to think up a variety of tasks that don’t involve computers, tvs or reading, cos you eyes just hurt after a while and your brains turn to mush.

January 14:

Out from 1 til 5. My bad. Boredom again. Otherwise naps kept absolutely fine, do not feel tired. Amazing.

January 15:

I’m pretty sure the willpower required to get through the night is never going to be there when the alternative is coursework. On the other hand, planning to take my naps in the library tonight. Oversleeping impossible.

January 16:

Stopped keeping diary. Polyphasic now.

January 18th: Woke up at 11am. Had an essay due. Electricity went out in my house so I decamped to the library with caffeine, clock and dinner. Now 12pm and I have not overslept. Yay!

9:33pm: Woke up disoriented as fuck for the 8pm – but on time. 8 naps. Excellent. Feeling slightly fatigued though, but will be heading to the library in a bit.

January 19th:

One other thing I’ve been doing when I get tired is to just sit myself comfortably and not move for a while to allow myself to physically relax. One of the consequences of being awake 22 hours a day is that you end up feeling really quite creaky. It also provides a useful demarcation between activities so you don’t feel like you’re just experiencing endless time and everything is bleeding into each other.

January 20th:

Well, that was an adventure. Discovered that sleeping in chairs produced same quality of sleep but made it impossible to oversleep. Successfully spent 3 days and I think 17 naps consecutively awake, feeling mostly fine (though powered on caffeine for the very early hours of the morning so I could get my coursework done). Took a trip to London to attended a training day on the 19th, the first all day thing since I went polyphasic. Took 8am on the train no problem, the 12pm was delayed until after lunch and was taken sitting on a sofa in a hallway at the venue: good quality sleep. The 4pm had to be crammed into an access break and consequently only lasted ten minutes, which left me feeling a bit rough. As a result, I was typing up notes that eveing at about 7pm on the train, and my body just started to start down. No kidding, my vision started to darken and my muscles started relaxing. I realised something was wrong when I looked at what I had just typed and I’d written “”powder enflamed mad guy com then I counted how many hapennies did we eah on has i’ sure but it all happens at 58 this week, :)” Put myself down for a twenty minute nap at 7:30pm and then when I woke up reset the clock for another twenty minutes for my 8pm. However, woke up three minutes before the alarm was due to go off in utter confusion unable to work out what I was doing. Took a few minutes to clear.

Streak ended when I ate a very heavy meaty meal just before the midnight nap yesterday and, although I made it through it fine, felt sufficiently ill and disinclined to stay awake with the looming prospect of coursework that I went to sleep in my bed at 1am with the intention of getting up at 7am. I actually got up at 1pm today. I have no memory whatsoever of the alarm at 7am, but I was awake at 9am. Set alarm to take a monophasic nap and get up several times, but each time either fell asleep or felt so warm and cosy I couldn’t up.

Lessons learned:

1. I do not want to consume meat anymore because of the way it makes me feel.
2. After 3 days wake, trying to set an alarm when sleeping monophasically is pointless. Just leave a day.
3. Beds have never, ever felt quite so comfortable once you’ve given up sleep. I was lying on a particularly squishy sofa at the training day and felt almost joyful sitting on it, it was that nice.
4. You do not feel rested even when naturally waking from monophasic sleep. I felt tired, drowsy and like I just wanted to go straight back to sleep again. It would be interesting to see just how long I could sleep for if I were to just stay in bed as long as I felt like it.

I now have so much stuff that has piled up while I fucked around this month that I can’t afford to sleep until about the 31st of January. That will be a challenge.

January 21st:

Room in which I was sitting got very cold, and suggested it would be difficult to sleep (hard to sleep when your body’s shaking). Ended up sitting up in bed wrapped in my duvet. Fell asleep polyphasically, if deeply, but could see the risk of having a nice warm bed to snuggle down in.

January 22nd:

It’s 12:29am and I have drunk only a few mouthfuls of energy drink, and feel mostly fine. Have an incident at the 8pm nap where I was woken early by feeling too hot and felt constantly confused until I sat down to go to sleep again. That nap was interrupted by a flatmate but otherwise passed peacefully and I felt much better.

6am: Aha! Oversleeping happened. Took an extra two hours that I didn’t know took while sitting in my chair. Discovered that Firefox’s sounds had cut out again and my alarm had never gone off. Desperately tired.

An interesting thing I have noticed recently is that because all my muscles relax when entering REM sleep, my jaw does so as well and I end up sleeping with an extremely slack jaw, which is a very odd feeling.

January 23:

Chose to oversleep last night, as coursework was in and I felt like relaxing. Didn’t set the alarm and slept from 3am until 11am. Stayed in bed until 3pm. Interestingly, no fatigue at any point. I went to sleep feeling wide awake, and woke up feeling wide awake. I just stayed cos of the comfy – sleeping in a bed tends to make one want to go back to sleeping in a bed. Highly addictive would probably be the best way to describe it.

January 24:

Took my nap half an hour later than usual. Seems to be okay up to half an hour. Thirty five minutes off and then you get progressively more and more tired after that.

More on my experiences of polyphasic sleeping here.

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