So You Want To Sleep Polyphasically

Over the past few years (and mostly this summer) I’ve amassed a myriad of experience surrounding the enigmatic topic of polyphasic sleep. I’ve yet to write a comprehensive polyphasic adaptation advice post, so here goes. (This post was adapted from an email to a friend who is just starting his adaptation.)

I recommend reading puredoxyk’s book Ubersleep as well and following most of her advice: after all, she’s one of the first of not-very-many people to sleep on the uberman schedule, and has also spent years on various other polyphasic schedules. I would recommend reading that before adapting, as it really helps you create a good mindset for this kind of behavioural shift. Since at this stage you may not have time to read it before starting your adaptation, I’m going to pull out the key pieces of advice for you:

Notes from Ubersleep 2.0

1. Keep to your naps exactly on schedule, while adapting.

This isn’t ±1h, and ideally isn’t even ±5mins. Aim for ±1min. In order to do this, you’ll probably want to have an “alarm” on your phone that goes off shortly before your nap. I have one 10mins before with a snooze time of 6mins, set to a nice pleasant sound. 10mins is like “you’d better know where you’re napping and any details” and 4mins is like “you’d better excuse yourself from whoever you’re with or whatever you’re doing and go sleep.”

2. Practice getting up to your alarm.

The longer the routine, the more effective, but the harder to maintain. Good idea to have the first steps include rapid movement like arm-and-head-flailing, and possibly rendering your bed/napspace un-sleep-on-able. Easy mode: put various cumbersome objects on it. Hard mode: put a large bowl full-to-the-brim of water on it.

3. Why I Want to be Polyphasic

Write that at the top of a piece of paper, answer it below, and put that paper somewhere where you can remind yourself of your long-term goals and how awesome they are, when you’re at the depths of tiredness.

4. Make a big fat list (BFL) of stuff to do while you’re tired.

Try to minimize external obligations during this time, and be aware that there will probably be times when you are too tired to do a seated computer task. At those times you have to admit it and do something energetic instead. Realize that even if you sit there and try to work, you won’t get anything done anyway. But you do have a lot of time to get other random fiddly things done. Puredoxyk apparently had like 80 things on her initial list and she finished all of them within a few days.

5. Make a list of things you might do before going to bed.

PD recommends:

  • start making some food
  • start an interesting project
  • do a pep talk
  • make plans with someone (online or irl)
  • rotate alarms (sometimes you’ll get used to the ones you’re using)
  • watch the first bit of a movie (I recommend the show Orphan Black, which is extremely suspenseful)

6. Have a ton of alarms to make sure you always wake up.

This one mostly wasn’t necessary for me, as I don’t think I’ve had a single instance where I didn’t at least wake to the end of Matt’s sleep tracks. However, waking and actually rising are totally different. Puredoxyk recommends things as weird as putting various appliances on timer switches so that they’ll start blending, or toasting, or whatever, when you’re supposed to get up. Another option is to take something that needs to stay frozen out of the freezer before your nap. Then if you oversleep, it goes bad. Anything to increase the pressure on the “get up” side of your body’s internal fight. I like Sleep as Android, which forces me to scan a QR code (which I keep in the bathroom) in order to turn it off.

7. Have a buddy.

Have a dozen (err, don’t have so many that you have bystander effect). Preferably in person, and preferably someone who can be with you during your darkest hours (which may not necessarily be the literally darkest hours; for me it was often 5am-11am). If someone else is adapting with you, that can be really effective, as your downswings in energy may not be simultaneous

A photo of a cat doing a faceplant into some cushions, with text that reads "I will nap... HERE".

Don’t let this be you. Not worth it.

Personal advice (i.e not from Ubersleep)

8. Incentivize yourself to avoid even the slightest extra sleep.

I haven’t actually tried this, but you might consider putting a really high financial (or experiential; could be eating a cockroach) penalty on being asleep for more than 30 consecutive mins ever during your adaptation (with an appropriate caveat for schedules with cores). This could add extra gravitas to the need to stay awake constantly, and because the penalty applies every time, it would ruin any ability to say “just this once”. Obviously you want to be careful with this because sometimes you might be totally blindsided and feel like it wasn’t your fault. Still though, like Beeminder, this would allow you to be hyper-vigilant about the moment-to-moment decisions so as to achieve your ultimate goal. This could be combined with tip #7

9. Find a way to get past the discomfort of realizing you’ve already messed up.

Something further from my own experience: I would sometimes doze off, and then half-wake-up but not actually get up. I think part of this comes from not wanting to consciously face the shittiness of just having overslept. But it So you might consider a separate motivational hack in that case. That would be almost impossible to actually enforce though, which means it might not make sense. At the very least, be aware that this might happen.

10. Move objects fast and rotationally.

Something for the Big Fat List: learn to juggle, or (even better) spin poi or devil sticks. I’ve found this to be a very wakefulness-inducing activity. Juggling is okay but I think poi and devil sticks are better as they allow you to build up a lot of rotational momentum in objects, which is really engaging and exciting. Juggling balls doesn’t have that. Juggling pins, maybe? This sort of thing only costs $20-$40 to start, so it’s worth going and buying some objects like this for the sake of adaptation, unless you’re extremely broke.

How to think about the adapation process

Unfortunately, not much is known about the mechanism by which polyphasic adaptation works, and there are actually several models of this. The model that polyphasicsociety.com uses is that napping is mostly a skill to be learned, so they make suggestions like the Nap Exaptation (often “naptations”) which involves taking a lot of practice naps. Puredoxyk’s model is that your body needs to be taught to get its sleep at different times of day than it did before. At first, deprived of sleep during the normal hours, the body will respond violently with a survival response designed to get you to fall asleep immediately at all costs. Then, once you refuse to yield, the body tries a different tactic, which is to get sleep during the polyphasic periods allotted. If you give in, you tell your body that the sleep deprivation works, and thus it doesn’t try adapting.

Based on that, you want your immediate response to “I’m dozing off” to be “OMFG I better run around the block right now! It’s life or death!!!” Maybe not that dramatic, but that’s better than your response being “well, I’ll just get up in a few moments”. If you have the ability to install dramatic imagery, you might try something like a bear chasing you and forcing you to hibernate with it. More realistically, you could simply suddenly point your fist to the sky and say “No! I must not sleep! Sleep is the time-killer! Sleep is the little death that brings total hibernation!”

One thing that is embarrassingly common to see among wannabe polyphasers (including a younger Malcolm) is to remark, mid-adaptation, something to the effect of “clearly my body isn’t meant for this”. This, I think, is the counterpart to the legitimately mindblowing reality that even with no experience, you’re still way more rested with 20min naps every 4h than not. This can lead to a sense of “wow, my body is doing this cool thing.” Which it is. Just know that until your body is doing that consistently and you feel totally rested almost all of the time, rather than rested-enough some of the time, you are not fully adapted. Being not fully adapted means that you’re still experiencing sleep deprivation, which yes, your body is not meant for.

But don’t confuse this temporary pain for an incompatibility with the system long-term. This is like visiting Brazil for a week and saying, “I could never live there! I couldn’t understand anybody!” Your brain is much more malleable than you think.

(As far as I can tell, neither Puredoxyk’s model nor Forevernade’s model on PolySoc really explain all of the data I’ve experienced. So there’s clearly more to it. They both have their merits though.)

Tiny tips

  • Want to nap barefoot, but hate putting on cold socks afterwards? Sleep on your socks! This works for most kinds of clothing, actually.
  • The sleeve of a long-sleeved t-shirt makes a great face-mask to keep the brightness out.
  • Anything that involves moving about energetically is great for wakefulness. Unless it’s dangerous.
  • I found I would sometimes feel like I was relying on backup alarms, so instead of setting it to on I would tap the toggle button over a dozen times without looking, which means that there were decent odds of me having a backup alarm, but it was something I couldn’t rely on.
  • Puredoxyk recommends not eating shortly before or after naps, but I once was literally still chewing meat as I laid down and I proceeded to have 15mins of REM sleep. So…
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.

Stay focused on what matters
Check out Complice, a web-app that I built to help people achieve their personal & professional goals. Complice logo
Follow me on Twitter!
492 feed subscribers