Who doesn't love naps?
If one more performance coach or health “guru” tells me I need to sleep eight hours a night, I swear to god…
I know I know, I should be sleeping eight hours a night. I hear on podcast after podcast from smart person after person telling me that “sleeping well is the best biohack there is” or “Want to look better than ever? Start sleeping eight hours a night.”
And dammit, they’re right.
But dammit, that’s not what I want to hear. Look, I’m not gonna give the excuse that I’m too busy to sleep eight hours a night. But I am too busy wasting time staying up late having great conversations with friends and loved ones and forming irreplaceable experiences that are a part of the beauty of the human experience (okay, sometimes I’m just binge-watching Cobra Kai).
Surely my health will suffer for this… or maybe it won’t.
For all our self-assurance about how paramount it is to sleep 8-10 hours a night, we really don’t know very much about sleep. We can’t agree on why we sleep, we can’t agree when we need sleep, we can’t agree on what happens when we dream. We know so little about one-third of our entire existence.
So why are we so assured about it? Well, if you don’t sleep, eventually you die. That’s right, die. So we know you need it.
What if there were a way to sleep less but gain all the benefits of an 8-hour sleep?
Another is to play around with how often we hit the pillow in a 24-hour cycle. Pondering this question is how I came across polyphasic sleep, which, as the name suggests, is sleeping in multiple (poly) phases (phasic). It’s when you break up your sleep into multiple cycles per day.
Being the human guinea pig I am, I decided to take this all the way to the extreme, and try the “Uberman” sleep cycle, where I slept a total of 2-3 hours a day spread out over six 20-30 minute naps.
It. Was. Nuts. And if you’re curious about how it went, you can read about it here.
Now, none of what I’m saying here is backed by science. As in true, repeated, definitive scientific research. However, it is formed with all the current science in mind and driven by my own experience.
After all, to be on the cutting edge of life domination, you often can’t wait for scientific consensus. And by the time any of this is verified or vilified, decades will have passed, when you really could have just tried to see if it worked for you or not, and elected to discard it or add it to your regiment.
While I decided to return to a nightly sleep routine, I haven’t gone back to a standard eight-hour sleep, because I took one thing away from my insane Uberman experiment:
Since my experiment of sleeping fewer than 3 hours a day, I have rarely slept a full 8 hours, five months later. Instead, I typically sleep between 6-7 hours and take between one or two 20-30 minutes naps every day.
In that time I’ve gained 8 lbs of muscle (for a relatively advanced lifter, that’s significant) and all my recovery metrics such as heart rate variability and resting heart rate have remained consistent. In short, I’ve continued to make progress physically, and feel well-rested while shaving off an average of an hour of sleep per night, all by adding a 20-minute nap.
That’s great and all, and I think we can all confirm that after short naps, you feel better (if they get too long and you get into deeper stages of sleep you feel groggy). What’s more exciting to me is whether naps can replace regular sleep. That’s when the research gets spotty at best. Mostly, it’s a void.
However, there are a few studies, one from 1992 and one from 2001 that suggested humans, without artificial light, sleep in two segments (4, 5). Historian Roger Ekrich looked at the sleep patterns of pre-industrial European societies and found that sleeping in two separate parts was also normal (6).
Finally, one study of three modern cultures whose lives closely mimic pre-industrial humans found that they sleep just 6.4 hours per night (7).
Does any of this prove anything? Absolutely not. However, it suggests that maybe we don’t need to be as dogmatic about sleep and maybe there are optimal sleep cycles that don’t involve eight hours of continuous sleep.
And in vain of more research, the only way to know if it works for you is to give it a try.
We’ve been mostly stuck in our home for the too-many-months-to-count now, and even if you’re reading this after the pandemic has passed, remote working will still be more ubiquitous than at any other time in modern culture. Working at home comes with a perk: all you need is a 20-minute break to get your power nap in. All to say, this is as good a time as any to try.
Now, and this is not grounded in science only my experience and I may turn out to be completely wrong, but I think napping has some sort of learned component. Babies have to be trained to sleep through the night. This training, and this is speculative here, wires our brains for monophasic sleep. So when you start to take naps, it’s not going to be easy because your body is so used to being awake at those hours.
So, you need to commit to at least two weeks. At roughly the same time every day, put your head down on the pillow, close the blinders, and set a timer for 20-minutes. At first, you won’t fall asleep.
But over time your body will start to say, “oh, okay this is when we can get some rest” and eventually you’ll be able to. If you’re sleeping 6-7 hours a night right now and are chronically tired, this will be easier than if you’re well-rested and coming at it.
When people say, “I just can’t nap,” it may be because they’ve never given their brain and body a chance to learn how to.
As you do this and get the extra sleep from naps, your body might have several reactions. Maybe it will become natural to wake up earlier or stay up later, because you won’t need as much time to be rested.
Or maybe, your body will just take it as extra rest. I’ve heard anecdotally that Lebron James sleeps 9+ hours a night AND takes naps daily. This could be because he needs to recover more than the rest of us. So, if you’re training hard you can use the nap as a similar recovery strategy. Now, obviously, he needs to recover exceptionally well to play at the level he does, but you can take a similar strategy.
Or you can do what I did and strategically take sleep away at night and replace it with naps. As a rule of thumb, if you plan on adding one nap, sleep 90 minutes less. That’s one cycle. By doing this you’ll add 70 minutes to your day. For me, it took time to adjust to, as I think any change in your sleep routine will. But commit to at least a few weeks to give it an honest shot.
Finally, If you’re used to sleeping much fewer than eight hours and are chronically sleep-deprived, now adding the naps to the routine you should make you feel better — like you slept 60-90 minutes more — even though you only slept 20 minutes more.
Yeah, yeah. You’ve heard this before. Regardless of what you want to get out of this self-experiment, you have to choose metrics to measure. Measure your resting heart rate, HRV, your gym numbers. See how your body reacts to the change in sleep schedule. Maybe you’ll find that your recovery worsens even after several weeks of adjusting. True data will help show you how the change in your schedule affects you.
The only thing I’ve become more certain of about sleep is that we don’t know as much as we think we do. And to me, that’s exciting because it means that’s so much more to learn and experiment with. More importantly for you, a 20-minute nap could be the exact solution you need to finally get the rest you need, ease off of caffeine addiction, or add more waking hours to your day. But the only way you’ll know that is to experiment with it for yourself.