It all started with an innocuous wish: If only there were more hours in the day.
I’ll bet you’ve wished for that, too. It’s human nature to race against the slippery hands of the clock, believing full well that with just a few more hours in our day, we could write the Great American Novel, learn Chinese, and memorize all of Beyoncé’s choreography.
So when I heard that it was possible to add up to six extra hours each day — more than three months of extra time each year — I was sold.
The trick is polyphasic sleep, an alternative sleeping cycle that reorganizes slumber into tiny, economical chunks. Though there are many varieties of polyphasic sleep, the most buzzed-about schedules are called Uberman and Everyman, which trade the old eight-hour routine for a series of little naps (totaling two hours and four hours per day, respectively). Both get their names from PureDoxyk, a blogger who became internet-famous when she started tinkering with her sleep cycles in 2000. She swore by the Uberman schedule for years, calling the six 20 minute naps “euphoria.” But, when she found that the rigidity of a real job wouldn’t accommodate her nap time, she invented the Everyman schedule: three hours of “core sleep” plus three 20 minute naps. She’s been sleeping that way since 2009.
I’ve never claimed to be über anything, and the idea of slinking by with just two hours of shut-eye makes me wince (full disclosure: If I get anything less than a full eight hours, there’s usually hell to pay). But, the Everyman is designed to work for, well, everyone, so I figure I can do it, too.
Before I begin, I consult with Dr. W. Christopher Winter, a sleep expert at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. I ask him for his professional opinion on polyphasic sleep, and he snorts.
“I mean, good luck, but I can almost guarantee that you’re going to say, 'Not only did it not help, but I feel terrible.'”
Dr. Winter explains that polyphasic schedules launch your body straight into REM sleep during the nap periods, thereby shaving off the other stages of sleep that typically come before. The thing is, while four hours of sleep might be enough to meet daily REM requirements, it comes at the expense of some deep sleep and a lot of light sleep.
Dr. Winter compares this to a balanced diet: You can trim the fat out of your meals, but if you cut out fats altogether, your brain would turn to mush.
Still, I’m insistent on testing the Everyman schedule, so Dr. Winter suggests using the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which measures the likelihood of nodding off in various circumstances. The scale spans from zero (never sleepy) to 24 (always sleepy), and I score a perfectly wakeful four. Dr. Winter warns that if my score begins to upsurge, I should take this as a sign of sleep deprivation — a scenario that he makes clear is inevitable with polyphasic sleep.
“Frankly, it’s pretty much impossible to do,” Dr. Winter says of my sleep experiment. “Give it a try and see how unbelievably miserable you are and what unusual situations you start falling asleep in.”
I take that as a challenge.
To prepare my body for its new restricted sleep regimen, I pull an all-nighter. This advice comes from the Polyphasic Society’s website, which recommends staying awake for a full 24 hours to “induce sleep deprivation,” the same way you might fast the day before a big diet.
I decide I should brush up on the latest research about alternative sleep schedules, and after a few minutes of scouring the Internet, I find… nothing.
I blink. There is actually zero research on polyphasic sleep, save for the anecdotal evidence from bloggers like PureDoxyk. I ask her what she makes of the lack of scientific backing, and she shrugs.
“Well, without real science to support one side or the other, it's all personal experiences and hypotheses.”
I guess this will be a hypothesis of my own. I create my sleep schedule — three hours of “core” in the evening, plus three 20 minute naps throughout the day — and hope for the best.
By the time morning light seeps into my windows, my sleeplessness is outweighed by a dangerous sense of invincibility. I have more time than I know what to do with!
I feel curiously focused, with razor-sharp attention on whatever task I’m doing. I begin and finish a new novel within the day. The kitchen is spotless. The dog is walked. I’m so energized, in fact, that I accidentally skip one of my naps.
In high school, the girl who beat me for valedictorian used to say, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” I wonder what she’s up to now and cackle to myself: Who’s sleeping now?
I doze straight through my morning alarm, and wake up nearly two hours later to a stream of golden light on my cheek. Dr. Winter had warned me that, “Sleep is absolute in our bodies,” meaning that it’s very difficult to remain sleep deprived without nodding off. I think of this as I shove myself out of bed.
I visit an old friend, and she takes one look at me before offering, “Wow, you look…tired.”
I used to scoff at the notion of “beauty sleep,” as if there were magical elves who primped and preened people in their slumber. Now, I’m a believer. A glance in the mirror confirms what my friend saw: My eyes are bloodshot and puffy, my skin is sallow, and my face betrays me when I whisper, “I’m awake! I’m awake!”
At the risk of falling back asleep, I assign myself the task of sorting through the kitchen cabinets this morning. After only an hour of being awake, I’m already craving a nap and feeling heavy on my feet.
The experience of my self-induced sleep deprivation is becoming painful. As soon as I wake up, I begin counting the minutes until I can sleep again, waiting impatiently for each delicious nap, but then jolting myself awake as soon as I begin to feel comfortable. I find myself obsessed with sleep, yet I deliberately deprive myself of more than a few hours per day. I wonder if I should invent the term “sleep anorexia.”
At night, I fall asleep easily for my nighttime nap. Suddenly, I’m dreaming that I’m perched on my bed, smoothing my pillowcase, and sinking into my sheets. When I jolt awake at the sound of my alarm, I realize that I had just been dreaming about sleep. It takes a second for this to register before I realize that something about this incident is very wrong.
I feel like I have a hangover — the kind where it’s not impossible that I’m actually still drunk. I turn the lights on, a recommended trick to awaken the senses, but the blaring light causes my head to spin.
I look at the stack of books on my bedside table and groan. I haven’t been able to make it through more than a few pages of reading for the past few days before the drowsiness hits me, making my awake time markedly less productive than I’d expected. It turns out that polyphasic sleepers don’t spend their waking hours reading Hemingway or writing the Great American Novel; instead, they spend it exercising or cleaning or staying on their feet. Otherwise, they’d fall asleep.
As the day progresses, I develop an agonizing headache. I peruse the internet and find that not only can lack of restorative sleep cause tension headaches, but it can also trigger migraines. Will this be over soon?
Today I get a massage, which I hope will alleviate my persistent headache. As I undress and slide onto the massage table, I’m concerned that this will soon turn into the most expensive nap I've ever taken.
Fortunately, it’s impossible to nap during the massage: My neck and back are so tense that the masseuse uses her icepick elbows to dig into my flesh, causing me to yowl. “Wow, you’re really tense,” she comments. I theorize that this is the result of holding my head up for four extra hours per day. It is not relaxing.
I’m supposed to tackle a few more things on my to-do list today, but I can’t find the motivation. Instead, I use all the energy I can muster to sit staring at the clock, counting the minutes until my next nap. I have more time than I know what to do with, yet I'm markedly less productivity than I was on my old monophasic routine. Plus, the constant wakefulness is lonely: I’m dying for some pillow talk during my super-late nights and super-early mornings, but there’s simply no one else awake.
I wake up dutifully to my alarm, only to find myself crumpled into a heap on the couch two hours later. I’m not sure how I arrived there or how long I’ve been sleeping, and I’m suddenly confused about the events of the morning.
How long was I awake before I collapsed on the couch? Did the dog come in to lick me, or was it a dream? Did I send that text, or had I just imagined it? Am I really awake?
I measure myself again on the Epworth Sleep Scale to quantify the effects of the Everyman cycle. I mark high chances of dozing doing pretty much anything, and I end up with a whopping 16. My sleepiness has quadrupled in just a week.
Polyphasic experts recommend taking the acclamation phase during “vacation time,” as not to disrupt daily activities with the excessive sleeplessness. This is sort of like recommending a vacation for suffering stimulant withdrawals.
Come to think of it, stimulants might be a preferred alternative. At I'd have the energy to get things done.
Desperate to end this sleepless hell, I check in with PureDoxyk about how long it usually takes people to acclimate to the new schedule. She tells me that it can take up to “one month of strict adherence to the new schedule.”
I let a silent scream escape as I imagine the agony of this for another three weeks and I decide to quit, right then and there. Maybe I can’t claim to have given it my all, but Everyman certainly took everything out of me.
My surrender takes the form of 15 hours of dreamless sleep. When I wake, I consider the success that some have had with polyphasic sleep, and I give them a ton of credit. As for myself, I vow to never speak of “naps” again.
It seems my wish to outrace time is better left in my dreams.