by Niall Doherty

On December 21st I decided to start a little sleep experiment. I had read the Perfecting Sleep chapter in The 4-Hour Body and was curious to try the whole polyphasic thing. So I gave it go. Instead of sleeping for 8 continuous hours each night, I cut back to 6 hours and took a 20-minute nap each afternoon.

All was going well until Monday night, when I caved and slept for ten solid hours. In total, the experiment lasted 20 days.

About polyphasic sleep

(Skip this part if you’re already familiar with the concept.)

Most people get all their sleep in one big chunk at night. This is called monophasic sleep. With polyphasic sleep, you sleep multiple times per day. Why? So you can spend more time awake. Studies show that you need less sleep overall when you take a few naps during the day. Here are a several different levels of polyphasic sleep, as per The 4-Hour Body:

  • The Siesta — 6.3 total hours — One 20-minute nap, 6 hours core sleep
  • The Everyman 2-Nap — 5.2 total hours — Two 20-minute naps, 4.5 hours core sleep
  • The Everyman 3-Nap — 4 total hours — Three 20-minute naps, 3 hours core sleep
  • The Everyman 4-Nap — 2.8 total hours — Four 20-minute naps, 1.5 hours core sleep
  • The Uberman — 2 total hours — Six 20-minute naps

The further you go down the list, the more strict your sleep schedule needs to be. For the Uberman, you need to be taking a 20-minute nap every 4 hours or you feel exhausted and it all falls apart.

Does it work?

I tried only the Siesta version of polyphasic sleep, and it seemed to be working well up until last weekend. I sometimes found it a struggle to get out of bed in the morning, and I’d become quite tired in the afternoons before my nap, but overall I felt energetic and productive despite sleeping 1.5 hours less per day.

I believe I cracked in the end because I was too strict with my sleep schedule. Last Sunday I went for a long workout with some friends, which involved a bunch of aerobic exercises, lots of weights and an introduction to powerlifting. In hindsight, I should have allowed myself more sleep that night, rather than sticking to an exact six hours. When you use up a lot of energy in a day, it makes sense that your body will require more sleep that night.

So on Monday I felt exhausted and decided to break my strict adherence to the schedule. Ten continuous hours of sleep got me feeling right again.

Going forward, I plan to continue my experiments with polyphasic sleep. People like Steve Pavlina and Matt Mullenweg have reported happy times while using the Uberman schedule for five months or more, so there’s no question that it can work.

I love early mornings but I also like staying out late occasionally, so I’m going to try figure out a more flexible version of the Siesta. I’ll aim for 6 hours per night and a 20-minute nap in the afternoon, but I’ll allow for some extra core sleep every now and then, as needed.

Getting to sleep faster

The main benefit I’ve gotten from my three-week experiment is the ability to fall asleep faster. I would often lay in bed at night with my mind racing and toss and turn for hours before falling asleep. Not so much these days. I can’t recall one time in the past few weeks when it’s taken more than 20 minutes to get to sleep. Just yesterday afternoon I set a countdown timer for 30 minutes (10 to nod off, 20 for sleep), and was woken up by a phone call halfway through. I spoke for a minute, then fell right back asleep again.

Testing assumptions

One of my main purposes with this blog is to get people questioning norms and testing assumptions. Who says you need to have a job to make money? Why do we eat highly-processed food-like substances that bear no resemblance to real food? Do you really need to watch the news? Would you be happier with less stuff instead of more?

Sleep is no exception. For a long time, I thought I needed eight hours of shut-eye each night to be at my best. But having learned about polyphasic sleep and running my own little experiment, I’m no longer so sure that that’s the case.

How much sleep do you need?

Are you sure?