Bill and Melinda Gates were recently asked by Kentucky schoolchildren what superpower they wanted most. Bill said more energy; Melinda said more time. Even to the richest couple in the world, time is money.
But where do you get more time? You could get off your ass and fix the flux capacitor collecting dust in your garage. You could run really fast in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation. Or, you could sleep less. That’s the approach an online subset of “sleep hackers” have taken, using a method called “polyphasic sleep.” In splitting the traditional eight-hour nocturnal block into smaller chunks, they manage to squeeze more hours into each waking day.
There are a handful of sleep schedules that will accomplish this. The most infamous, the “Uberman,” comprises six 20-minute naps spaced throughout the day … and night. That’s it. As you might expect, it’s hard as hell to adapt to, but once you get the hang of it, you’ve got 22 hours a day to kill. In theory.
Marie Staver created the Uberman schedule with her friend while attending St. John’s College in the early 2000s. “We just owned everything—it was ridiculous,” she tells me of her triumphant post-adjustment period. “We did all of our hobbies, we both worked a job. … we had everything done all the time.”
There are less severe schedules, too. Some call for a slightly longer “core” sleep—anywhere from two to five hours—at night, with a number of naps during the day. Others tweak the length of the nighttime sleep and the number of naps. Some include multiple core sleeps. But they all result in more waking time than your traditional “monophasic” sleep schedule. Sounds too good to be true, right? Could be. There’s not much in the way of science backing any of this. And even if the anecdotal evidence is legit—and these people really are out here thriving off just a few hours of sleep each day—the long-term effects are unknown, and unlikely to be pleasant.
At the end of the day, you’re probably not going to sleep polyphasically. (Or at any other time of day, for that matter.) The adaptation phase is “hellacious,” as Staver put it, leaving the would-be sleep hacker in a zombie-like state for the first week or so. Even once you get used to it, you need specific, achievable goals to keep you busy, and those are deceptively hard to come by. Plus, you know you don’t like what naps do to your hair.
Still, there’s plenty to be learned from sleep hackers, even if you don’t want to become one. “The truth of the matter is that if you wanted to try to better understand sleep itself, you should study polyphasic sleep,” longtime WebMD sleep expert Michael Breus tells me. “Because what you learn from a polyphasic sleep schedule may in fact help you understand what happens from a full sleep schedule.”
Here, then, are some sleep tips that won’t immediately ruin your life.
While scientists aren’t that keen on the idea of living off naps, they also don’t advise excising them altogether. Quite the opposite, actually. Your body is naturally groggy in the late afternoon, and there’s science behind it—2:30 is, for whatever reason, around the time that your body’s temperature dips and your melatonin levels increase. In other words, sleepy time.
Some companies combat this by allowing employees to nap during the working day. Google even sometimes provides in-office sleep pods; this increases productivity in theory, and in practice probably results in a lot of hilarious “Google Naps” jokes. Plus, parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America shut it down in the afternoon to make time for siestas. You’re not too good for parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, are you?
Thing is, as lovely as naps are, many people hate the feeling of waking up from one in the afternoon. But if afternoon naps leave you feeling weird, you’re probably sleeping too long. Sleep hackers’ general rule is to nap for 20 minutes, roughly. That prevents you from getting too deep into a sleep cycle, but allows your body to hit restart for a bit. Figure out what the perfect length is for you, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at falling into—and out of—the nap quickly.
A sizable amount of evidence suggests humans haven’t always slept in a single, eight-hour stretch. In more agrarian days, when our body clocks hadn’t yet been confused by the implementation of artificial light, it was regularly too dark to work for more than half the day. But that doesn’t mean farmer folks were just sleeping the whole time—that would be a whole hell of a lot of sleep.
Some historians believe, then, that people would go to sleep for a few hours, wake up for a bit, and then have a so-called “second sleep.” The white part of that sleep Oreo was often used as a time of contemplation or creativity or socialization. Also, baby-making. Who knows? You might have descended from an intra-sleep quickie. You might not even be here if not for polyphasic sleep.
Also, babies live off segmented sleep, and “I slept like a baby” is literally what you say when you did a good sleep. Though if you’re currently caring for a baby, you know all about this fragmented shit already.
Reducing your sleep to a series of naps might sound antithetical to the idea of listening to your body, but that’s not always the case. Aligning nap times with circadian rhythms is one way for sleep hackers to make sure their naps are in step, albeit forcedly, with their body’s clocks. During the adaptation period, they often have to recognize when they need additional sleep and substitute a shorter nap with a longer core sleep. Even after the adaptation process, one schedule—the fairly self-explanatory Sleep Polyphasically As Much As You Like—is built entirely around responding to the body’s needs in real time.
If sleep hackers, whom some scientists believe are harmfully depriving themselves of an absolutely necessary thing, still feel the need to at least try and listen to their bodies, surely you have no excuse. Your body is hard-wired to feel sleep pressure when it needs more Z’s. Unless you’re battling a sleep disorder like insomnia, getting better sleep can be as simple as taking note of what your body wants.
Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some lucky people can get by with just six hours a night. Others need 10 to fully function. Just because eight is a nice, round number doesn’t mean that it’s right for you.
Staver, the Uberman founder, first started sleeping polyphasically because she was unable to handle a traditional eight-hour block. She found that whenever she lay down to sleep, she would wake up after about 20 minutes. Her friend remembered reading that Leonardo Da Vinci slept in a similar way; Staver started spreading her 20-minute naps throughout the day, and 10 days later, she insists she was getting the best sleep of her life. Meanwhile, Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer tried the same sleep method after reading a book about Da Vinci. (“See, that means ‘From Vinci.’ Did you know that?”) In the span of 22 television minutes, Kramer ends up waking up in both a pile of garbage and the Hudson River. (Again, the adaptation process is a real mother.)
It can be hard to distinguish sleep hackers’ supposed discoveries from pseudoscience. Polyphasism might truly be an unhealthy way to live, and it might be sustainable only for a few people with a very specific makeup.
But if there’s one thing that’s clear from the fact that sleep hackers, however precariously, are operating on these abnormal schedules, it’s this: sleep is a habit. Even the schedule that lets you sleep whenever you want requires rigidity during the adaptation process. So at least at first, go to sleep at the same time every day, and wake up at the same time. Your body has its own internal clock, and sleeping on a consistent schedule will make it easier to both fall asleep and wake up. Do it on weekends, too. You might not get into bed at the same hour on a Friday as on a Monday, but don’t try to right a wrong by doubling down and oversleeping. And if you need added anti-snooze motivation the morning after your latest bender, just remind yourself: at least you got more than 20 minutes.
Brandon Foster covers Wyoming sports at the Casper Star-Tribune. He used to cover Mizzou sports at the Jefferson City News Tribune. He still tweets @BFoster91.