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, I’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 <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastability” title=””Metastability describes the behaviour of certain physical systems that can exist in long lived states that are less stable than the system’s most stable state.” – Wikipedia” target=”_blank”>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.

Polyphasic Sleep 2: Everyman (Day 11)

Polyphasic sleep, we meet again.

As you may know, I attempted to adapt to the rather incredible uberman sleep schedule back in summer 2011. The first half-dozen posts on this blog document that process.

When I quit uberman after about a week, I reflected about the various benefits and costs of doing it, ultimately concluding that I would not do it again. Well…

(For the sake of brevity and of people who already know anything about this topic, I’m going to try to avoid explaining polyphasic itself. There is already plenty of that on the internet. If you’re confused by something, google it or comment below and I’ll explain.)

What changed?

Well, first of all, I’m not doing uberman again. I’m doing everyman (~3.3h core sleep at night plus three 20min naps). There are a few other factors that have converged to make this happen though:

  1. I met someone very awesome who does everyman, and met other people who know other successful polyphasers personally. This was really helpful because I had much more immediate evidence that this was indeed working for some people. This was the inspiration/impetus.
  2. I’m working at a software startup that has comfy memory foam mattresses and doesn’t care when I sleep. This gives me lots of flexibility, which is super-important for adaptation.
  3. polyphasicsociety.com. This website didn’t exist when I tried uberman in 2011. While various bloggers were talking about polyphasic, nobody seemed to actually know anything. This site actually provides solid recommendations and cites literature. Unfortunately there has still been virtually no direct research on the subject.
  4. I have discovered the Zeo sleep tracker. Sadly Zeo is out of business, but these are totally worth it and I’d seriously recommend trying to acquire one (eBay, Amazon) if you want to do polyphasic.
  5. I have acquired amazing nap mp3s, created (as far as I know) by Matt Fallshaw. More on these below.

The first steps of adaptation

I’m already 11 days in! Unlike my last attempt, where I decided to blog daily, I’m trying to make this one feel somewhat more normal, and therefore I don’t want to have this huge posting thing. The other part is that it everyman is more normal, because I still have a main night-time sleep. Here’s the story.

After deciding in late March that I wanted to do this, I scheduled my adaptation to start the following weekend. I was already intending to go out Saturday night clubbing, and I figured I just wouldn’t sleep afterwards. It is generally agreed among most polyphasers I’ve talked to that the best way to adapt to everyman is to pretend to adapt to uberman. Furthermore, the best way to adapt to uberman consists of sleeping every 2h instead of every 4h, which is called the naptation or exaptation. So that’s what I did.

After not sleeping since Friday night, I finally took a nap Sunday morning, and proceeded to take naps every 2h for about a day. I was pretty tired in the morning but felt quite competent in the afternoon / evening. (Sidenote on feeling competent while possibly having inadequate self-assessment abilities: I’ve started using Quantified Mind to track my cognitive performance. Unfortunately I didn’t do enough trials before starting adaption to be able to negate practice effects, but at the very least if I ever quit polyphasic or switch to a different version, even temporarily, I should be able to tell how it’s affecting my brain.)

REM naps, glorious REM naps

Then, I started cutting out some of the naps midday. Tuesday morning was crazy. I was utterly exhausted and probably would not have been able to avoid sleeping if it hadn’t been for my friend who stayed over and kept me awake by asking me random questions (and tickling me incessantly when I would doze). Even still I think I crashed a bit during while she was totally asleep. I… don’t remember. Anyway, on the advice of several other polyphasers, I decided to start my core that night. This is a cool part of the story. In my uberman conclusion post, I note under benefits:

I feel like I’m better at napping now, although that will have to be re-examined once I’m no longer sleep deprived. — past!Malcolm

In the year-and-a-half since the uberman experiment, I indeed retained my ability to REM-nap, and while I only tried it when tired, tired is a pretty common state for university students, so it came in handy plenty of times. The other cool result of this was that when I started my adaptation to everyman this month, I was REM-napping a few of my naps from the very first day, and about half of them by Tuesday. Apparently many people take much longer (including myself when I tried Uberman) but my polyphasic friends suggested that I could now add a core.

My Everyman Schedule

Radial chart indicating when I'm asleep and awake

My exact schedule. Purple is sleep, black is wake. The circle is a 24h clock with midnight at the top.

It took me a decent amount of time to figure out what schedule would work best for me, but I ultimately settled on:

  • Core: 01:30-05:00
  • Nap: 08:30-08:50
  • Nap: 13:20-13:40
  • Nap: 19:00-19:20

My core was actually originally going to be like 1:15 but the first few nights I was late anyway so I ended up keeping it at 1:30. I’ve successfully awoken every time, but after my core on nights 1 and 3 I didn’t manage to get myself out-of-bed enough and conked out for another few hours.

The Zeo and phases of sleep

During naps, my Zeo tells me how much sleep I actually got, and what kind. I can virtually always tell when I have REM naps, because I dream, but it’s not nearly as obvious how long I slept. The really good ones, though, where I REM for the whole 20mins (I’ve had I think 3 of these so far) have me wake up feeling like I’ve gone to Narnia. It seriously feels like I’ve been gone for hours, so it’s a weird adjustment to return to a world that was basically like the one I left.

For my core sleep, the Zeo has been hugely helpful in indicating my cycles and how much deep sleep I’m getting (the idea is that REM is gained mostly through naps, and deep (aka SWS / short-wave sleep) mostly during core. There were actually a couple of nights when I got an insanely large amount of deep sleep—2 hours 25 minutes! I only have 2 nights’ of monophasic Zeo data, but this appears to be a solid hour more than I was getting before.

However, I’m much more concerned about REM sleep. I appear to have been getting at least 2 hours when monophasic, which will be tough to replicate polyphasically. I might need 4 naps per day. …although I seem to recall reading that REM is more effective with smaller doses administered frequently throughout the day. Lately I’ve been adding a 10:40am nap, which seems to be very helpful and REMful (one of them was one of the solid 20mins of REM).

The sleep mp3s

Oh man, these are so awesome. Historically I’ve relied on vibrating alarms to annoy me out of bed. I still do that for my core sleep, but for almost all of my naps this time I’ve used this mp3. For length-variants and other polyphasic resources, check out the links on this lesswrong.com comment.

The track is mostly composed of waves, sohttp://blog.myzeo.com/sleep-architecture-again/ft pitched tones, and vague babble (similar to coffivity.com but without coffeeshop sounds) which is pleasant. Then, 20 minutes in, a beautiful, slow, simple synth melody starts, and plays for 2 minutes. At that point, classical guitar comes in, then seconds later piano, then an electric guitar playing rock, followed by some crazy sounds that will make you think you should probably head for cover. I struggle to imagine sleeping through this when it’s playing on headphones. Surprisingly, though, I have never needed this alarming ending. In fact, I become awake/aware almost instantly at the first synth tone. I don’t know how this works, but it feels like magic and it’s so much nicer than having to awaken to beeping, bells, or angry vibrations.

I’m just getting started

This everyman adaptation is going really well. I’ve had a few mess-ups (such as this morning when I managed to sleep for 2 hours sitting in a chair with my computer on my lap. Thank god it didn’t fall off…) but all in all I’m feeling quite confident this will work. I’m already feeling way more rested than I would expect sleeping just 30h/week. Anyway, it’s time for my core! Sweet dreams (:

Edit: Everyman lasted a few months, and then I switched to a biphasic sleep schedule, which I’ve been doing since (for over two years). Read this update to find out more: Polyphasic? No, but stably and happily biphasic

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