Polyphasic Sleep

July 10, 2013

EDIT 2015-07-23: I no longer endorse polyphasic sleep schedules, but I think this is an interesting post, so I’m keeping it up.

Part 2 of a 3 part series on time management.

In my last post, we discussed using math to identify potential ways of saving time. Today I want to discuss a very specific way of saving time. In particular, a very specific way of saving a lot of time. Like, 60 days every year worth of saved time. If you had been doing this since you were born, it would effectively boost your expected life span by 14 years.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of having an extra two months every year. That’s a huge comparative advantage to the poor suckers who only get a laughable 12.

If your interest is piqued (as it should be), you’re probably wondering what sorcery is this that allows us to pull two months out of our pants.

Polyphasic Sleep

Warning: this is some weird stuff. Try not to dismiss it off the bat for that reason alone.

How many hours do you sleep a day? Okay, poor line of inquiry. How many hours should you sleep a day? Generally, eight is what they say.

Everybody who sleeps eight hours a day: please put your hands up. Is your hand up? I didn’t think so. Eight hours is a significant chunk of the day, and if we were to listen to the world’s generally good advice, we’d lose a significant chunk of our lives. I think, unconsciously, we all know this, and this is the reason why sleep deprevation is so common.

So, there are two problems here which are opposing one another. Eight hours is an unacceptable amount of time to spent asleep, but sleep deprivation is a bad thing. This problem seems intractable - after all, how can we sleep less and yet not deprive ourselves in the process?

The answer, as usual, is arrived at through the application of agency. Instead of just giving up in the face of adversity, let’s take a second to deconstruct the problem into more managable chunks. A gentle reframing of our wants is of use here - we don’t want sleep, we want the benefits of sleep. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “why is sleep good?”.


Why is Sleep Good?

This is a relatively hard question, actually. Since sleep is literally universal, we don’t have a lot of data on sleep itself. What we do have, however, is information about what happens due to sleep deprivation. This distinction is subtle, but poignant.

A quick wikipedia search seems to imply that rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep is important for every day functioning (REM deprivation symptoms include irritability, drowsiness, concentration difficulties, lack of creativity, and most of the things we commonly associate with not having a good night’s sleep), while non-REM (NREM) seems to be essential for long-term healthiness and neuroplastic reconcilliation of memories and physical motions both.

OK, both REM and NREM sleep are important. Of the two, it seems like REM is more important to the prevention of short-term sleep deprivation. Let’s start there. This page mentions a few interesting facts, the first of which is that sleep occurs in 90 minute cycles with the REM portion coming at the very end, and that REM-deprivation will lead to skipping the first section of the sleep cycle in an attempt to “catch up”.

Interesting. The alarm bells in your head should be ringing right now; this is beginning to sound exploitable. If we can trick our bodies into thinking that they’re REM-deprived, we can skip the usual ramp-up time to get to REM sleep. If NREM weren’t important whatsoever, we’d already have a solution to our original problem.

Unfortunately, NREM, in fact, is important if we want to be able to maintain this solution of ours for any significant amount of time. It is clear that our solution is still missing a critical piece, so we need to dig deeper. The most obvious solution is to simply add a few regular (non REM-deprived) sleep cycles to our routine - so we’ll give that a try.

A Little Math and a Big Plan

Let’s do a little math to make sure we’re on the right track here. In normal (monophasic) sleep, at 8 hours of sleep a night and 90 minute sleep cycles:

$\frac{8 hours * 60 \frac{minutes}{hour}}{90 \frac{minutes}{cycle}} = 5 cycles$

and (according to the NIH), about 20% of that is REM:

$\frac{8 hours * 60 \frac{minutes}{hour}} * 20% REM = 96 minutes REM$, alternatively $18 \frac{minutes REM}{cycle}$

The majority of our sleep is in NREM (72minutesREMcycle) , so this seems like a good place to start culling time. If we want to shave off 4hours = 240minutes of our night, that corresponds to $\frac{240 minutes}{72 \frac{minutes NREM}{cycle}} = 3 cycles of NREM$.

Shaving off three sleep cycles means that we have 2 remaining - a sleep of just 3 hours. In the polyphasic vernacular, this sleep is known as a “core”. However, we’re not done yet - we are still missing 3 cycles worth of REM sleep.

We know that if we sleep while REM-deprived we can launch immediately into REM sleep, and we know that we get 18 minutes of REM sleep every cycle. This suggests that if we want to only get REM sleep, we should take 18 minute naps, and only do so while REM-deprived. Taking an 20 minute nap (let’s round for convenience) is easy, and it’s likely that splitting our REM intake throughout the day will help trick our body into thinking that we’re REM-deprived.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Figuring out when to nap is the last piece of the puzzle, but the indicators (and especially the math) all say we’re probably going to be OK with this course of action.

The polyphasic sleep schedule we’ve developed in this post is known as everyman three. We’ll defer to others for determining when the optimal times to take our naps should be.


So there you have it. A relatively scientifically backed means of turning 24 hours into 28 hours. Just don’t tell your math professor.

I’ve been mostly (although not exceptionally rigorously) following this schedule for about seven months now, and I absolutely love it. Not only is it a great conversation piece, but it means I get four extra hours of productivity (they’re necessarily productive because if they weren’t you might as well just be sleeping) every day. Whenever I slip up and phase back into regular-person sleep, I feel terrible and groggy for a few days.

I consider this evidence that I am doing something right.

Anyway, if this post has inspired you to give polyphasic sleep a try, I’d absolutely love to hear about it. Drop me a line at sandy [DOT] g [DOT] maguire [AT] gmail [DOT] com. Trust me, it’s worth it.