On Sleep and Sticktoitiveness

I want to share something I’ve gradually learned about myself with respect to sticktoitiveness, using my experience with polyphasic sleep as a case study.

Almost exactly two years ago, I embarked on a quest to adapt to the uberman sleep schedule: sleeping only six 20min naps per 24h. I made it about 6 days.

Almost three months ago, I started an adaptation to the everyman sleep schedule: 3.5h core sleep at night plus three 20min naps. I’m still going. The obvious difference between the two cases is that uberman is insanely hard and everyman is only very hard. I think that’s a big part, but there’s another pattern I want to delve into.

Quitting… while… ahead?

One day in my high school cafeteria, a friend of mine got a few of us to see how long we could hold some sort of downward dog plank exercise. One friend collapsed, and it was just two of us. Someone said something that made me laugh, and I toppled, lamenting that that had caused me to fall. One of my friends immediately laughed and said, “That is so like Malcolm!” and the others agreed emphatically. I wasn’t sure what they meant, or… if I did, I wasn’t then brave enough to admit it, even to myself.

Years later, I quit my uberman adaptation with a similar attitude, although it took me longer still to realize the parallel. A quotation from my final uberman post:

The Supermemo article I linked to above describes how many bloggers try this, and some of their blogs just end abruptly with no conclusion. While I was ultimately unsuccessful at transitioning, Iā€™m very proud to say that I did not crash or burn out.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that my blog is not dead. Immensely glad. But there’s an aspect in my tone of voice that suggests that I didn’t give the adaptation my best, or fullest shot.

Sticktoitiveness vs determination

Growing up, my parents would often use “sticktoitiveness” to refer to a certain kind of determination. I’m going to suggest a subtle distinction between them based on their etymologies.

  • Determination: seeing something through to the end
    (de-, “concerning”; terminus, “end, limit”)
  • Sticktoitiveness: refusing to let something end prematurely
    (just sticking to it, ends aside)

So, determination is what pushes you through the last mile of a marathon, and sticktoitiveness is what maintains your habits.

In preparing to write this post, I re-read my old uberman archives, and I was somewhat surprised at how many references I made to my life as a future ubersleeper. I had been thinking that one of the reasons I gave up before was that I didn’t have a long-term commitment to it—that I lacked determination. Rather, I had determination, or at least some of it: I was committed to successfully adapting. What I didn’t have was sticktoitiveness: I didn’t have commitment to the process of adapting.

With everyman over the last three months, I’ve at times felt discouraged, and at other times felt very frustrated with myself. “It’s like I’ve got an addiction to my bed!” I lamented to my roommates after another episode of getting up and crawling right back in. Ultimately though, I’ve made progress, and while I’m still not fully stable in my sleep schedule, I feel like I nonetheless have a firmly polyphasic lifestyle and I’m not worried about slipping off of it. (I’m tempted to use the word metastable, which sort of applies insomuch as this current situation is stable enough to endure for the medium-long-term but I’m ultimately expecting to end up in a more stable state.)

Commitment to the process

I’ve matured since that day in the cafeteria. I’ve learned to tough things out more. More powerfully, perhaps, I’ve learned—and created—new ways to understand my own behaviour. This is one of them.

Sticktoitiveness, as I’m defining it, isn’t a blind persistence that persists even when it no longer makes sense. But it’s a commitment to the process of learning, growing, or establishing a new habit, that goes beyond just a commitment to have finished doing so. And sometimes that does mean refusing to be overcome by opposing evidence: at least, refusing to be easily convinced, when the evidence seems to favour what’s convenient or comfortable.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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