Not Enough Hours in the Day?

22 Dec 2012sleep

Since I’ve found some contracting work, my only real problem in life has been lack of time. I spend three or four hours a day walking and caring for our dog Winnie (she’s very high energy and needs a lot of exercise to be happy), I sleep for eight hours or so, and I try to work for about eight hours per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for “everything else”.

So what to do? Winnie time isn’t really negotiable, and Rita’s schedule during the week doesn’t allow her to help too much, especially in the winter when it gets dark early. She does that stuff on the weekend, but then I also want to hang out with her and Winnie. Reducing work time isn’t really an option, both because it’s interesting and because I need to earn enough to support us.

That leaves sleep. It’s interesting that monophasic sleep, the idea of going to bed between ten and midnight and getting up between six and eight, with the whole intervening period ideally spent asleep, seems to be something of a modern invention, dating from the Industrial Revolution. In Europe in medieval times, a pattern called segmented sleep or biphasic sleep was more common–people who were tired after a long day’s work in the fields would come home and go to sleep immediately for “first sleep”, then would wake up some time in the night to do whatever (eat, have sex, visit neighbours, pray, etc.). Then they would go back to bed for “second sleep” before getting up for the next day’s work. And obviously, among nomadic or pastoralist people, sleep was often taken when and where it was possible, perhaps only as short naps.

It turns out that there are people who have experimented with a whole bunch of different sleep patterns. Most of this isn’t really validated scientific research, and there seems to be a very wide range of individual adaptability to different patterns, so it might be difficult to come up with any conclusions that would apply to everyone out there, but some of the anecdotal evidence is very interesting indeed.

A while ago, Rita read Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Body, which is Ferris’s record of using himself as a guinea pig for all sorts of ideas about nutrition, exercise, wound healing and recovery, illness and so on. One of the things he experimented with was sleep, and I remembered that we’d talked about this a bit at the time. So I pulled out Ferris’s book and had a look. He described a range of different sleep patterns that people had tried and had some references to reports of experiences with these.

I’d originally planned to do something fairly conservative. Perhaps reduce my “core sleep” to 4-6 hours and have a nap in the afternoon. But then I read Steve Pavlina’s description of his experiments with polyphasic sleep, and I decided I had to try it.

At first sight, this scheme sounds utterly insane. Instead of going to bed and drifting off for eight sweet hours in La-La Land, you have 20-30 minute naps every four hours. And that’s it. No other sleep. You end up sleeping 2-3 hours per 24-hour period and are awake and active for the rest of the time. That means 21 or 22 hours of activity per day. Wow! Think of all the stuff you could do!

Of course, everyone knows that if you deprive yourself of sleep completely, you end up in a bad way. If you want to know just how bad it can be, go and read about fatal family insomnia (it’s always nice when a disease or disorder is described as “invariably fatal”). The idea here though is not to deprive yourself of sleep, but to train your body to drop into the valuable REM sleep state immediately, instead of drifting through a normal sleep cycle. That means that you get 2-3 hours of REM sleep per day, which is about the same as you would get from 8 hours of monophasic sleep, and REM sleep is supposed to be the sleep state that’s most important for mental recovery and physical recuperation. It sounds kind of unlikely, but it has definitely worked for some people.

The adaptation period from monophasic to polyphasic sleep can be a bit of a bitch though. Starting on Monday, I’m going to find out just how bad it is. I’m going to keep a daily journal recording my progress. It should be an interesting experiment. I’m looking forward to it, although with some degree of trepidation. I’ve followed some advice I’ve seen and have made myself a monster to-do list for the next couple of weeks to keep myself busy.