Polyphasic Sleep Update – Day 60

Today is the 60th day since beginning my polyphasic sleep experiment. It’s hard to fathom that only 60 days have passed – it feels closer to 120 days.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been receiving daily emails with questions about this experiment. Many of those questions have already been answered in my previous polyphasic log entries for days 1-30, so if you really want to know the details, that’s a good place to start. Most of the remaining questions are about various options that I’ve never tried, and I don’t care to speculate on them, since it’s too far outside my own experience. What I did experience contained enough surprises that if I venture beyond that, I’m probably just groping in the dark. To answer those speculative questions, I’ll just say, “Your guess is as good as mine. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to dive in and try it at your own risk.” My polyphasic logs should only be taken in the spirit of an experiential guide, not a how-to manual.

I promised to post another update at day 60, so here goes.

Yes, I’m still doing it. And yes, I’m still alive. As for my sanity, some would argue that it was lost long before this experiment began, so I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Over the past 30 days, I’ve become much more comfortable with polyphasic sleep. While the physical adaptation during the first week was very tough, the psychological adaptation presented a very different kind of challenge. It took me several weeks to really feel “normal” about this whole thing.

My family has adjusted to my out-of-phase sleeping habits fairly well. My wife pokes fun at me for napping during the day: “Aww… baby Sheevy needs his wittle nap.” And my current pet name for her is “Bear” because she has to hibernate every night. I find it less creepy to think of my family as bears than reverse-vampires. My wife told me last night that she likes that I’m up all night though, since it makes her feel safer to have someone guarding the bear cave.

The big challenge I’m facing right now is how to put all this time to use in a balanced and sustainable way. That’s much harder than I thought it would be. Polyphasic sleep completely rewrote my whole concept of time, and I was totally unprepared for that. I no longer think of time in terms of individual days – now it’s a continuous and never-ending flow. It’s largely irrelevant to me whether the sky is black or blue. Instead of scheduling my work into separate days, my to-do list has become an ongoing queue. This is causing some problems for me though. The main problem is a complete lack of balance between work, family, exercise, personal tasks, etc. Because I can work 20 hours a day, I often succumb to the temptation to do so. There’s always “one more task” to be done. And with no lengthy nighttime sleep period to force a reboot, when I get into “work mode,” I find it hard to stop. It no longer makes any sense for me to say, “Well, I’m done for the day. I’ll pick this up again tomorrow.” There is no tomorrow. For me this is still the same day as Halloween. Everything is just a certain number of hours away. Instead of stopping for the day because I need to start winding down before bed, I only stop to take breaks (naps, meals, time with family, exercise, etc.). And then it’s back to work once again to keep plowing through that queue. It’s as if the workday never really ends.

It’s great that I’ve been getting so much done, and my income has gone up a lot this quarter, but I need a more balanced approach if this is going to be healthfully sustainable. I’ve definitely been overworking myself lately. It’s one thing to be a workaholic on monophasic sleep, but polyphasic sleep takes going overboard to a whole new level. If you think working 80 hours a week is overkill, just imagine the possibilities of the 140-hour work week.

Instead of stopping work because the sun just happened to go down (I often lose track of whether it’s day or night), I tend to keep working until I feel I really must take a break. And even then it’s hard to stop working for more than a couple hours before I find myself back in my office. Because my work is so intrinsically rewarding, my default activity is to just keep working. However, I recognize that I need to pay more attention to the other areas of my life and not just work all the time.

When I slept monophasically, I didn’t realize just how much my schedule was rooted to that nighttime sleep period. Wake up, exercise, shower, eat breakfast, work, …, dinner, time with family, read, go to bed, sleep. But that type of schedule was based on breaking time into individual days, where each day would follow a similar schedule. Now that I have a different concept of time, I can’t simply follow the old schedule and add new activities during the night. It simply doesn’t feel right to do so. Polyphasic sleep is NOT the same thing as monophasic sleep plus a few extra hours a day. Not even close. It’s a much, much bigger change, one that is both intoxicating and disturbing.

What I need to do to fix this problem is to rebalance my goals from the top down. This year my main focus has been building this web site and getting my business to the point of profitability, so my major goals were centered around my work. I was OK to allow other areas of my life to coast or even decline slightly. But now that I’ve reached what I feel is the point of sustainable profitability, I don’t need to push myself like a monomaniac. For one it would be nice to take some time off to travel. Did you know that I’ve never traveled outside the United States? I’ve never even been to Mexico or Canada. In fact, there are a number of major US cities I’ve never visited, including New York City and Seattle. I think the last time I had a vacation lasting more than 4 days was when I was a teenager. It would certainly serve my own personal growth to go out and see more of the world instead of just the Vegas versions like the Paris, the Venetian, and the New York New York hotels.

Polyphasic sleep magnifies who you already are. So if you have some small imbalances, on polyphasic sleep they become much more pronounced. Great habits will serve you better. Poor habits will hurt you even more. Going polyphasic has uncovered areas of imbalance in my life that I need to address. On monophasic sleep I could ignore them, but on polyphasic sleep they are far too obvious to ignore.

Why me?

Perhaps the #1 question people have asked me about polyphasic sleep during the past 30 days was: Why me? Why was it that I seemed to be able to adapt to polyphasic sleep where so many others have tried and failed? I’m not the only one who’s done it, but I do have the distinction of being someone who’s made this adaptation recently and actually lasted more than a few weeks. While 60 days isn’t long enough to declare this a lifetime success, it’s very uncommon for anyone to last this long, so it’s enough of a rarity that a lot of people have taken an interest in my experiment. I’ve counted dozens of people who’ve begun attempting polyphasic sleep after reading (and crediting) my logs.

I’ve reviewed the logs of others who’ve recently attempted to adapt to polyphasic sleep, and this helped me identify some key differences that might have given me an edge that others didn’t have:

  • Flexibility. I work from home and have complete control over my schedule. I have no job and no boss. I can work day or night. I had a full two weeks set aside for the physical adaptation period with no appointments, meetings, or external obligations, and if I needed to, I could have extended it even longer. I was perfectly OK being a zombie because I didn’t have to function well. I didn’t drive a car at all during that whole first week. I gave my body all the space it needed to get through the adaptation period without undue pressure. I allowed the adaptation to happen in its own perfect time rather than forcing it to converge over a 3-day weekend.
  • Early Riser. I was already an early riser before starting this experiment. I would normally get up at 5am. I think my previous experience altering my sleeping habits helped me a lot. I had already conditioned myself to pop out of bed as soon as the alarm went off – no mental negotiating with myself. A big part of succeeding with polyphasic sleep relies on being able to get up as soon as your nap period is over and not drift back to sleep. In my opinion this is one of the most difficult parts of the adaptation. At the age of 19 I would often sleep from 2:00am until almost noon. Just before adapting to polyphasic sleep, my normal sleep period was about 10:30pm to 5:00am.
  • No caffeine. I’m not a regular caffeine drinker. While I do enjoy a cup of coffee or tea now and then, it’s not something I do daily. I don’t have any coffee in my house. I’ll often go for months at a time with no caffeine. Caffeine is known to interfere with REM sleep, so if you consume any caffeine at all, including soda, I think it’s going to make it very tough to adapt to polyphasic sleep.
  • 100% Vegan. I’ve been a vegan since 1997 and a lacto-ovo vegetarian since 1993. So I haven’t eaten a burger in 12 years (except veggie burgers). I consume no animal products whatsoever, and much of the food I eat is organic. It’s been documented that herbivores require significantly less sleep than omnivores or carnivores. Others who’ve tried polyphasic sleep have often noted in their logs that diet seems to play a significant role in adapting to polyphasic sleep. If you eat heavier foods containing animal products, they’ll require more time and energy to digest, and you’re more likely to be overcome by drowsiness. I think my diet played a key role in my ability to adapt to polyphasic sleep. I’m not sure whether I could have done it otherwise. When I ate animals, my sleeping habits were very different – I already mentioned these differences in the Early Riser section above.
  • Motivation. I had more reasons to succeed with polyphasic sleep than most people. Personal development is my business, so this experiment was something I regarded as part of my work, whether it succeeded or failed. It was not merely a side project or a personal experiment. Also, since I was blogging about the experiment, I had thousands of people around the world watching me. That’s pretty strong motivation to do my very best. Imagine what it would be like if your polyphasic experiment was being televised. I was either going to succeed big or fail big – I was perfectly OK with either outcome, but fizzling out unnoticed wasn’t a viable option for me. If you try polyphasic sleep on your own with no one watching, it’s a lot easier to surrender instead of pushing your body to achieve victory or defeat. Making this a public experiment made it easier for me to reduce the chance of surrender.
  • Attitude. I went into this experiment with plenty of respect and humility for how difficult this was going to be, but I also stayed focused on succeeding, not on the possibility of failure. I didn’t allow myself the luxury of failing in my mind first. If I was going to fail, it was going to be because my body couldn’t handle it, not because I surrendered in my own mind. So the failure would have to be external, not internal. At the same time, I viewed this as an experiment, so I didn’t wrap up my ego in the results. I wasn’t going to beat myself up if I couldn’t hack it. There’s no shame in doing your absolute best and being knocked down by physical limitations. Either I was going to adapt to polyphasic sleep, or I was going to have a learning experience. And either way it could benefit others to see the results.
  • Self-discipline. I have a rich toolkit of self-discipline strategies that I’ve learned over the past 15 years or so. This didn’t make the adaptation any easier, but it did increase my capacity for staying the course in spite of the challenges. It’s similar to a bodybuilder being able to lift heavier weights than the average person. If you develop the muscle of self-discipline, it sure comes in handy when you need that extra strength. The weight is still just as heavy, but your capacity to lift it is greater. I think self-discipline played a role in my experiment, but much less than I expected it would. I think my previous early riser conditioning was a more significant factor in being able to get up as soon as the alarm went off. So I think it might be helpful to become an early riser for a few months first before attempting polyphasic sleep. That’s still a challenging goal, but it’s not nearly as difficult as adapting to full-blown polyphasic sleep. If your self-discipline is very weak, then you may need to build it up a bit first before attempting to take control of your sleep habits. Read the six-part self-discipline series for some tips on that. And be as patient with yourself as you can.
  • Comfort. If you actually convert to polyphasic sleep, you will be forever out of phase with the rest of the world. This could be a serious obstacle if you’re someone who values safety in numbers and wants to stay with the pack. If you’re too self-conscious about being different, that can easily provide a compelling reason to quit when the going gets tough. If you want to sleep polyphasically, you have to be comfortable with being weird. Compared to the average person, polyphasic sleep is highly abnormal. I’m perfectly OK with being different than most people, so this wasn’t an obstacle for me. Being colorblind and left-handed, I learned at an early age to embrace my uniqueness and not to worry about being normal. I can’t even see the color red.
  • Experience. I’m 34 years old, so I have a lot more life experience than your typical 20-year old college student. I see a lot of students attempting polyphasic sleep but virtually none seem to be able to adapt to it successfully. Making it through the adaptation period is very, very hard. If you look at how other people are doing, the odds of success are very low. If I had tried polyphasic sleep back when I was a student, I’m not sure I could have done it. In college I wasn’t yet an early riser or a vegan, my self-discipline was lower, my schedule wasn’t as flexible, and I didn’t have nearly as much personal development knowledge and experience. I might have had more youthful enthusiasm about making the attempt, but I wouldn’t have been as good at directing my energy and pacing myself. I think I probably would have started out with a lot of passion and then burned out after a few days. If you can manage to adapt to polyphasic sleep in your early 20s, I think you’re one incredible human being.

You can speculate on other differences like genetics (maybe the colorblindness gene somehow gives me polyphasic powers???), but the above are the ones I consider to have played a meaningful role in my adaptation.

Any one of these factors could have a make-or-break difference, but when you add them together, I think it gives me quite an edge compared to most people. I’m not surprised at all that most people who attempt polyphasic sleep fail to last more than a few days. It is not remotely easy. Even if you make it past the initial physical adaptation, I found the emotional/psychological adjustment to be very challenging as well. It’s easy to find a reason to stop at some point. You have to be a pretty twisted individual to even attempt something like this.

I plan to post another polyphasic sleep update on day 90, which will be January 18th, 2006. Until then, I’ll see if I can make a dent in the nearly 100 reader questions I have. And hopefully I’ll figure out how to actually take a real vacation at some point.