This is the closest to Hermione's Time Turner we're gonna get. And I'm now a world class napper, if nothing else.
I didn’t go to bed for two weeks straight. And I was still a functioning, working, only slightly sleep-deprived person.
And in the last two months, I’ve rarely slept for more than five consecutive hours.
It’ll make sense. Stay with me.
The onset of quarantine was a strange time. Politics and the uprooting of all routines aside, there was something about maintaining the same monotony, trapping my thoughts and actions in the same chair that made weeks and months blur together and made time seem to speed up retrospectively.
Yet, it was also a busy time. A few weeks into quarantine I took on a few big projects (of which one was relaunching RFS) that I knew would consume all my time.
I’ll spare you the “you have to hustle” Gary Vee mindset that seems imperative for success in entrepreneurship. Sure, I could have worked 12+ hour days and sacrificed all the rest of what makes life a sacred experience.
The late-night conversations, the spontaneous adventures, the books, and TV shows (I rewatched all of Californication).
Like Hermione in her unwavering excitement for her classes in The Prisoner of Azkaban, I wanted to have it all. In fact, not only did I feel like I wanted it all, but that I needed it all. Or, I needed something more than working, as fulfilling and exciting as it was.
As Ryan Holiday said in an interview, “The writing is the easy part. Figuring out what you have to say, doing the research, and bringing something new to the table, that’s what’s special and rare… Writer’s live interesting lives.”
By working and working, I was objectively moving my business forward, but to the chagrin of seeking out more experiences that would give me something to say, something to write about. But, I didn’t have enough time.
Like Hermione, I needed an uncommon, inhuman solution.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on a Time-Turner.
(Pulling the occasional all-nighter is probably a better acute solution than polyphasic sleep, but that’s not what I was looking for. If that’s you, check out our all-nighter survival guide).
One day over quarantine, I gazed at my shelf at the 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, and figured it was time to revisit it.
As I flipped through, jotting down my usual notes, I froze at a chapter I had entirely skimmed over called: Becoming Uberman.
And here, I remembered the completely absurd notion that we actually may not need ~8 hours of sleep to be FULLY rested, and replace entire sleep cycles with short naps.
What an erroneous claim… or so I thought, at first.
It’s possible, according to the 4-Hour Body, because REM sleep is supposedly the most valuable portion of sleep, but it takes a full 90-minute sleep cycle to get just a few minutes of REM sleep.
By breaking up sleep into multiple times of day, you can get REM sleep once per 90-minute cycle, or in a 20-minute nap. So, you can get the same amount of REM sleep while sleeping significantly less, and by breaking up sleep into multiple times of the day, you actually get into the same amount of REM sleep, and spend less time in the other stages. So the theory goes, you can sleep less, but get the same amount of REM sleep, thus feeling great.
Sounds like the closest thing to a Time Turner I’m ever gonna get.
If Hermione can take a leap in the pursuit of knowledge, so can I.
After all, this sounds like an absurd claim.
First, of course, I wanted to see what research had been done on polyphasic sleep schedules.
However, it’s a void.
This is just my speculation, but doing this type of research is impractical, and brutal.
Polyphasic sleep schedules definitely don’t fit with normal 9-5 jobs. Stuck in quarantine and working virtually, I had the flexibility to adjust my schedule.
Secondly, it sounds brutal. All accounts on polyphasic sleep talk about the adjustment period lasting at least a week, as your body adapts to the sudden change in sleep schedule. Getting through this stage takes careful planning, discipline, and a commitment to the experiment.
I was confident I had all three,.
Nobody has done this research. And left me a bit concerned. Was I entering an experiment that could very well kill me? I had no idea, and neither did science.
While there’s no research on these specific polyphasic sleep schedules, I did find one study from 1992 that suggested human sleep might be biphasic — that people naturally sleep in two main segments, with a 1-3 hour wake time in between (1).
In this study, when they limited unnatural lighting, participants tended to sleep in two long chunks. A 2001 study showed similar outcomes (2).
Historian Roger Ekrich has also investigated the sleep patterns of pre-industrial European societies, and in those cultures, biphasic sleep was normal (3). This, according to Ekrich, may have changed for two reasons, both related to the industrial revolution.
In the industrial revolution, cheap, artificial lighting (go Thomas Eddison) became available. With artificial illumination (light bulbs), humans could change their circadian rhythms. However, in this time the European workday also shifted much closer to our current societal format. The culture of sleep changed as industrial schedules became the norm.
And, there’s plenty of research showing the benefits of napping — which I covered when I explained why napping is one of the most slept-on biohacks. Maybe these benefits make sense because naturally, we sleep in two chunks. Cultures where the siesta is common also show some evidence for a broken-up, biphasic sleeping schedule. However, maybe naps show these benefits because we’re, as a culture, sleep-deprived. That’s also a feasible explanation.
Then, there’s also some research on modern-day non-industrial cultures. A 2015 study of three societies, whose lifestyles most closely mimic ancestral humans, slept much less than most industrial societies, with an average of just 6.4 hours of sleep per night (4).
If we go back even further into evolution, some of our ancestors show polyphasic sleep schedules. Among primates, it’s mixed. Cynomolgus monkeys showed a more polyphasic sleep schedule, as they were awake for about 10% of the “dark” cycle (nighttime), compared to 5% for humans (5). Other non-human primates are more monophasic, only staying awake for ~3% of the dark cycle.
Finally, there are plenty of other mammals who sleep polyphasically, like rodents (6). Although this evolutionary adaptation can be explained because these small mammals needed to avoid predators, and also needed to eat frequently (7). Humans haven’t particularly needed to do any of those things.
Regardless, none of this supports the more extreme polyphasic sleep schedules that add time to your day. However, to me, it shows that our sleep schedules may be more malleable than we think. What if we can adjust our sleep schedules dramatically without adverse health effects? What if there are benefits?
Maybe we can change our sleep in completely healthy ways. And in light of a lack of research, there would be only one way to find out: my own polyphasic sleep experiment.
The strongest empirical evidence for the efficacy of polyphasic comes from PureDoxyk (not her actual name), who wrote the book Ubersleep: Nap-Based Sleep Schedules and the Polyphasic Lifestyle.
PureDoxyk, as a lifelong polyphasic sleeper herself, ran a forum for polyphasic sleep for years and found certain patterns required to make polyphasic sleep successful, including which specific schedules seemed to work best.
In vain of actual scientific evidence, her book would become my bible. Really, I was placing my faith in her (and others) experience.
PureDoxyk outlines a few methods of polyphasic sleep, the same ones that appeared in The 4-Hour Body, ranging from “Everyman” where you still take a “core sleep” between 3 and 4.5 hours and take between 2-4 20-minute naps. Then, there is the ultimate polyphasic schedule:
Uberman, which is six 20-minute naps evenly spaced out throughout the day.
The Uberman, while downright absurd, stood out to me for a few reasons:
Starting on June 15, 2020, my sleep schedule would be as follows:
20-minute naps spaced every four hours (12:00 am, 4:00 am, 8:00 am, 12:00 pm, 4:00 pm, 8:00 pm).
The secret, to making this successful, according to PureDoyxk:
You absolutely can’t miss a nap, and you can’t oversleep. Going in, I was confident in my discipline. If anybody could successfully give this a shot, I think it was me.
But could I do it without damaging my health?
By sleeping just two hours a day, my body, so the theory goes, will prioritize REM sleep, and I will lose out on most of my light and deep sleep. Deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep, is where the brain waves slow down and is apparently when we produce a lot of key recovery hormones, like growth hormone. And as RFS readers, you know how important hormones are.
One strong retractor of polyphasic sleep said that growth hormone will be repressed in a polyphasic sleep schedule. This makes sense, and it scared me. We do, in fact, release most of our growth hormone on a normal sleep schedule while asleep.
But, a study done on night shift workers showed that growth hormone secretion, for them, occurred less during their sleep period but increased during their waking period, and overall it did not decrease their growth hormone production (8). Of course, one study doesn’t show the full story, but it did ease my concerns about growth hormone production.
Capping the Downside:
The key to making this experiment a success, I determined, was monitoring my health, performance, and mental state. By monitoring as much as I could, I could track whether I was deteriorating in any capacity, and serious red flags in any of these categories after more than two weeks and I would terminate the experiment, and move back to an 8-hour monophasic sleep pattern. I also, as much a practical, stuck to smart general strategies for improving my sleep quality.
I wanted to do my due diligence to the scientific process. And that required setting my baseline, the control of the study. Not only for my general health but also for my mental capabilities, and physical performance.
As PureDoxyk admitted in Ubersleep, she hadn’t heard of any serious athletes who’d tried a polyphasic sleep schedule, which means the effects on athletic performance are completely unknown. That’s right, I may very well be the best athlete to ever sleep two hours a day. Fact.
I’m a starter on every USA Uberman Olympic team.
For the week leading up to the experiment, I tracked my sleep with an Oura Ring. You can debate the efficacy of wearable data, but Oura Ring at a reasonable $300 price point was both fashionable, affordable, and its data in that week lined up with my subjective sleep. Turns out, I’m pretty good at monophasic sleep. Which makes sense, because I’ve been, you know, practicing it my whole life.
The Oura Ring also tracked my resting heart rate. Variations in resting heart rate (HRV) and a generally elevated heart rate I decided it was an easy, mostly reliable metric for recovery.
If you don’t want to spend $300 bucks, you can pick up a Heart-Strong Fitness Tracker for just $15 with our link for Roman Fitness Systems readers.
Throughout the week, my average resting heart rate was 47 bpm.
As I alluded to, I couldn’t find anything on athletes trying polyphasic sleep, especially one as extreme as Uberman. Was it possible to maintain and possibly improve my athletic performance while only sleeping two hours a night? First, I needed baseline measurements.
Broad Jump: 101.2 inches
10-yard Sprint (stopwatch timed): 1.71
155lb bench press: 18 reps
Pull-ups: 21 reps
185 lb Front Split Squat: 17 reps per side
Weight: 160.8 lbs
Mental Capacity Measurements:
Memory: Short term memory test
76% recall 764ms average response time
Reaction Time: Typing speed/accuracy: Three minute test: 79 WPM 2 errors. Adjusted speed 78 WPM.
In an effort to control as much about the previous week and the test week as possible, I maintained my diet, and perhaps more importantly, my meal timing. Before starting, I only ate from 9am-9pm (12 hour fast) and I maintained that throughout, eating the standard three meals.
I slept in the same bed, under the same conditions. Or, as close to the same conditions as possible. I completely omitted alcohol and caffeine (RIP fun summer 2020), at least until I felt settled into the experiment. As PureDoxyk said, “anything that messes with your sleep normally will still mess with your sleep.” Valid.
On to the experiment…
Make no mistake about it: The adjustment phase sucks. Everybody who’s made it through says so. But, those who’re successful say it gets better and better, until eventually, you’re “fully adapted” and as alert as you are on monophasic sleep, but with much less sleep.
In order to get to the promised land, I had to get through hell week.
Okay, the first night was kinda fun, because I wasn’t in any sleep deprivation yet, it was like staying up late for a party, except with a 20-minute nap at midnight and another at 4am.
And without friends. I had so much excitement and adrenaline, staying up wasn’t that hard. But then. it only got harder. And, it wasn’t the kind of difficult task I knew I could grit my teeth and get through.. In fact, I tried exactly that and sewered my sleep schedule twice in the first week.
I started by staying up through Sunday night.
On Tuesday night/Wednesday morning (these things blend together when you don’t sleep), my third night without a long sleep, I woke up from my 4am groggy, and bored. So, I grabbed a book: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and then… I blacked out. The next thing I remember, it was past 8 am, the summer sun rays beamed into my face, and Gaiman’s book straddled over my chest. Fuck. I passed out and probably fucked with my adjustment time.
Then Saturday night, when I woke up from my 4:30 am nap and I found a stranger sleeping on the floor in my office space (okay, yes, we had people over) so instead of getting to work, I went back to my room andddddd then it was 10am.
Just when I felt like I was close to getting over the hump. Each day, I’d been feeling better and better, especially during the day and then.. Back to the struggle bus.
I could either abort the mission or have one hell week extend into two.
But this time, I wouldn’t let myself make the same mistakes. I needed to write down what I was going to do during the blocks when I was most susceptible to falling asleep. For me, the 4 am-8 am window was the toughest.
Up until then, I had let myself make decisions at times when I was in no position to do so. When the coziness of my bed and just a few seconds of allowing my heavy eyelids to shut and my mind to wander into dreams felt 1000x more appealing than anything else.
Some of the days I did a light workout, but then I finished by 5:30-6 and still had tons of time to kill. Too drowsy to write or work, I was twiddling my thumbs, mostly. During this block, I was most susceptible for the sleep grim reaper to strike me down and fuck it all up.
I resolved to plan out thoroughly what activities I would do during what blocks, especially now that I knew which blocks would be the hardest and easiest for me in a sleep-deprived state.
Generally, here’s what it looked like:
8am-12pm – work
12pm-4pm – work
4pm-8pm – work until a big meal
8pm-12am – relax, tv, fun reading
12am-4am – work — writing focused so it was mentally stimulating. If tired, mentally stimulating TV shows like Billions or Californication
4am-8am – workout, walk outside, shoot hoops
Regretfully, I didn’t do a full retest of everything. I have no real excuses other than it was never convenient. BUT. I can say with pretty substantial confidence that my reflexes and general mental processing, even at my peak work hours, weren’t quite as sharp as normal, although I attribute this to the fact that I was still adjusting. However, I did do another max pull-up test, and banged out 23.
Chalk it up to adrenaline, the desire to support the experiment that I didn’t have during the baseline test. But, after a week and a half with a TOTAL amount of sleep of 16 hours (that’s how much you’d get in just two nights, normally) I was still able to do the same amount of pull-ups. So, I wasn’t completely deteriorating. And also not dying.
My resting heart rate during the first sleepless week average 54 bpm, and 51 in the second week. The striking key here is that I seemed to be recovery better in the second week than the first which suggests that, despite sleeping less, my body was beginning to improve its recovery and adjust to the sleep schedule.
Small sample, for sure. But overall it aligns with PureDoxyk’s experience as well.
A Full Week of Uberman
I got through a full week of Uberman on this schedule without fucking up — two weeks total. By the end, I felt decent. During the day I was productive and I night I could stay awake by following the schedule. Nonetheless, I decided to not move forward with it for another week.
After a full week without fuck ups I was STILL just absolutely exhausted between midnight and 8am.
I didn’t want to keep “grinding it out.” Especially, because during the late-night hours, I was only intermittently productive. There was even one time in the second week when my friend and I went to an outdoor socially-distanced gathering, but I had to nap at 8pm.
I excused myself from beer die, while I was HEATING UP, to rip a 20-minute nap in the back of the car.
Then there was the time a few days later when my roommate’s grandma invited us over for dinner, and I had to actually excuse myself after dinner to sleep in her guest room for 20 minutes. Taking naps in stranger’s bedrooms, I decided, was not something I wanted to make a habit of.
And during those light night hours, I wasn’t productive. Often I would have solid writing sessions until about 2 am at the latest, but then I just fought to stay awake. If those late-night hours weren’t productive anyways, what was the point of not sleeping?
Why don’t I just sleep when I’m most tired?
Such a simple question. That made a ton of sense. I went back to PureDoxyk, and read up on the Everyman schedule. Sleeping 4.5 hours per night, I could take 2-3 naps during the day. This, honestly, sounded like the perfect compromise. That night when I started to get drowsy around 2 am, I just went to bed, and woke up at 6:30 to workout.
So, I transitioned right from Uberman into Everyman, and I haven’t looked back, as I write this in August 2020 nearly two full months later.
My routine became: three naps in the day — not really at specific times either, just kinda when I felt like a nap — and then work in the evening until I felt like going to sleep. Then, I’d set the alarm for ~5 hours in the future (to make sure I got 4.5) and wake up. Do my workout, eat.
Work. Nap. Work. Nap. Dinner. Mischief. Write. Repeat.
Find a better quarantine routine. I dare you.
The Uberman —> Everyman Innovation
Based on everything I’ve read, going from Uberman right to Everyman seems rare. But, also kind of genius, if I say so myself because it takes away the worst parts of adjusting to both Uberman and Everyman. Adjusting to Everyman sucks because it takes so long, and adjusting to Uberman sucks because.. Well.. it sucks. Acute sleep deprivation is as miserable as being sick or injured. Except you have the instant ability to get rid of it yet you constantly choose not to.
With this method, I got the suck out of the way (within two weeks) and felt adjusted after two-three weeks to an Everyman schedule that’s actually quite easy to follow (in quarantine anyway).
The next weeks and then months flew by in themes of groundhog days, writing projects, movies, and summer grilling.
By the end of the fourth week (second of Everyman) I stopped timing my naps. I just used them as 20-minute breaks whenever I needed them — always one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and if necessary, one after dinner, but never at specific hours. This had the advantage of not interfering with evening social activities because I could easily move naps up in the day if I needed to.
As I said, my biggest regret was not measuring my mental and physical capacities during Uberman. Fortunately, I didn’t make the same mistake on Everyman.
My strength and power stats were all very similar.
Broad Jump: 100.7 inches
10-yard Sprint (stopwatch timed): 1.72
155lb bench press: 19 reps
Pull-ups: 24 reps
185 lb Front Split Squat: 17 reps per side
Weight: 160.5 lbs
Mental Capacity Measurements:
Memory: Short term memory test
77% recall 769ms average response time
Reaction Time: Typing speed/accuracy: Three minute test: 86 WPM 2 errors. Adjusted speed 85 WPM (a substantial improvement, although I probably just got better at typing).
My resting heart rate in week three and four averaged 49 BPM, and the by week five I was back to 47 BPM where I’ve hovered consistently around.
This would agree with PureDoxyk data that it takes a full four weeks for the body to adjust to Everyman, despite my belief that I’d sped up the process by starting in Uberman. So maybe I didn’t come up with anything genius to adjust more quickly to Everyman.
I attribute the slight increases in strength numbers to the fact that I was training consistently. Good, consistent training goes a long way. So again, it seems that physically I wasn’t suffering by slashing a few hours of sleep per night, as long as I keep my 2-3 naps.
Well, I haven’t gone back. I had one day I couldn’t take naps because of activities and whatnot, and I lived off of coffee, slept my five hours, and took an extra nap the next day. I had an elevated resting heart rate (54) but recovered back to normal within a few days.
I’ll update this section when the time comes (probably not until I have some kind of life commitment that prevents me from napping regularly). This kind of kicks ass, honestly.
While sleeping polyphasically, I had more hours than everybody else. And I don’t want need to tell you why it’s an advantage. But, it’s not everything. In fact, more time isn’t useful at all if I’m not holding my attention anywhere specific. An hour spent mindlessly scrolling through Instagram probably isn’t helping much.
Many of these long days, my limiting factor for productive activities wasn’t time, it was attention.
When I’m dialed in for an hour, it’s amazing how much I can get done (it’s almost always more than I could do in several more hours with much less focus).
So, while guarding our time is super important, guarding our attention is equally, if not more, important. This is true for writing, researching, and working out. You can, effectively, do more in less time.
Polyphasic sleep solidified this lesson for me because I got more work done on Everyman than I did on Uberman because I was able to concentrate when it was time to work.
So, before you try something crazy like this in the name of productivity, first ask, do I just need to improve my attention? Should I start meditating or doing other mindfulness practices first? Do I just need to put my fucking phone away while I work?
While this is obviously not science, and we don’t really have much science, my personal experiment seems to support the hypothesis that sleep is more malleable than we think.
And, perhaps, whether it is or isn’t, it’s worth questioning the assumption that we have to abide by the rigid assumption of one long 7-9 hour sleep. Questioning the assumptions of our world, I believe, is one of the most important practices to cultivate.
Because, without examining how the world works and pondering on ways to improve it, we never move forward. And, this experiment was another great example that the world has more complexity, nuance, and opportunity than our narrow viewpoint and understanding of it.
As I mentioned, there were some social situations where I had to go take a nap in odd places. And when I did, my off-the-walls experiment became the talk of the event.
Oftentimes people would notice my Oura ring and ask, “what’s with the ring?” To which I’d dive into the story of starting to run these businesses and writing all the time and stuff, and would eventually lead to the payoff that I wear the ring because I’m doing a sleep experiment.
Some people’s eyebrows shuttered, and I could tell they were judging me a minor lunatic. But they always asked follow-up questions about the business or the experiment and how I’ve felt and all of that. Nobody thought I was boring, and if we remember the value of going against expectations, it led to a lot of interesting conversations.
During the adjustment period, I didn’t nap until midway through the first week. Dreams are a sign that you’re in REM sleep, which means you’re having efficient, effective nap periods. By the time I switched to Everyman, within seconds of my head hitting the pillow, I was entrenched in a whole new world — the world of our dreams.
Each nap became like transporting out my life and into a new one with all the weird associations and events that take place in dreams.
Sometimes those dreams felt like hours, as if I’d been asleep for an entire night… even though only twenty minutes had passed.
Our research on sleep is shady at best. Our research on dreaming is even more diminutive.
I have no research on this. This is pure speculation and I might be totally wrong. But, I think it’s possible to get better at napping with practice.
Anytime someone says, “I just can’t nap” or “If I nap I sleep for hours” I just know they haven’t trained their bodies the art of the 20-minute nap, which likely won’t disrupt your sleep schedule and will be a quick reboot.
More broadly, I think about how babies are trained to sleep through the night — trained to monophasic when initially their sleep schedule is erratic and random.
Again, this is my current hypothesis. I think you could refute it by suggesting that the only time we need naps are when we’re sleep deprived in some way. Which also makes sense.
So, I want more research to find out, but I think if you want to be a nap person, start laying your eyes shut and setting a timer for 20 minutes. The first time you won’t fall asleep. Maybe the fifth time you won’t. But eventually, your body will be like “oh okay we sleep when we do this,” just as it does when you sleep for eight hours at night.
By now, I’m sure you have some kind of understanding of what to expect. If it doesn’t fit in your schedule don’t do it. And don’t do it unless it simultaneously scares the fuck out of you and excites you. This excitement and curiosity is the only way you’re going to get through it.
I’d also only suggest trying polyphasic sleep if you have a project you’re driven to invest more time into. Because as you gain back a ton of time, you’ll actually, believe it or not, be bored, so you’ll need a go-to activity that reminds you of why you’re on a different schedule than the rest of the world.
If you’re stoked to give it a shot, then you’re definitely going to want to get some kind of sleeper tracker. Like I said, I went with the Oura Ring for no real reason other than it looks cool. And that’s super important. And you know what, wearing rings in general I think is a great touch to a well-thought-out look.
I went with the silver one, although the black one looks dope also.
But if you don’t want to spend the money on a fancy sleep ring, then pick up this wearable fitness tracker for $15.
Okay, I know there are way bigger problems. Police are still murdering black people for being black. Health care costs are through the roof. We can’t even get everybody on the same page with fighting a pandemic. In short: society is collapsing.
I’m not sure polyphasic sleep fits into solving any of this.
But, I do believe that solving problems — big and small — start with a single individual’s contributions that lead others to contribute which spreads a chain of people working to make the world a better place.
So, if YOU think you can make the world a better place, but you just need more time, then adapting to a polyphasic lifestyle could have the type of ripple effect that changes the world.
If you’re interested, I recommend you use the precautions and measurements I used to avoid dangers to yourself both mentally and physically. Also (disclaimer) please talk to your doctor before starting anything as outrageous as this.
I’d also like to specifically call out those in the scientific community who are interested in running this type of research. Pure Doxyk has her experiments, I and others have more.
But, at this point, no amount of anecdotal evidence is going to calm down people’s nerves or make them less afraid. We need some controlled experiments in sleep labs looking at the short-term and long-term effects of polyphasic sleep.
So if you’re
A) A mad scientist with a weird obsession for dreaming, napping, and changing sleep
B) A rich person with the same obsession who can fund the mad scientist
Then let’s make some introductions, maybe have a drink or two, and get the polyphasic party started.
Sleep is a huge part of fitness, performance, and life. As such, we’ve published a few guides on how to optimize your sleep for your life.
12 Simple Strategies to Improve Your Sleep Quality
3 Ways Lack of Sleep is Making You Fat
The All-Nighter Experiment: How to Survive an All-Nighter