Unusual Sleep Cycles
Health experts frequently emphasize (and college students frequently ignore) the golden rule of sleep: “always get eight hours a day!” Because the expectation to get 7-8 hours of sleep has become all but ubiquitous, it may sound incredibly difficult and unhealthy to sleep for only two or three hours a day – but a growing number of individuals are making this possible with the use of “polyphasic” sleep cycles. Steve Pavlina, an exchange student who studied at Peking University in 2011, successfully functioned on only two hours of sleep a day by adhering to the Dymaxion sleep cycle, which only includes four 30-minute naps, evenly spaced throughout the day. Successfully utilizing a polyphasic sleep cycle can add as many as five or six hours back to one’s day – but is it healthy and feasible, especially for college students?
Most people utilize “monophasic” – one-phase – sleep cycles, which include a long sleep of 7-8 hours at night, optionally supplemented by a short nap in the middle of the day. This sleep cycle became ubiquitous during the Industrial Revolution, when long work hours kept people busy during the day and only allowed people to sleep at night. Although average workdays are shorter now, many people are still only free to sleep at night – but those whose days are more flexible, and who could benefit from having more productive time, can try a number of alternate sleep cycles. The easiest to adapt to are the “biphasic” cycles, which split the sleep schedule into two parts. There are multiple varieties of the biphasic cycle, the most popular of which is the segmented sleep cycle, which involves two three-and-a-half core naps at night, separated by a two hour waking period. Another option is the “siesta” schedule, which consists of a five-hour nap during the day and a 2 hour nap, or “siesta”, during the day. The biphasic sleep cycles are typically the best options for those who are working or studying full-time, as they require minimal interruption during the day and maintain a 5-7 hour sleep schedule.
Those are looking for even more time during the day, however, will need to use even more fragmented sleep schedules. There are even more variations of the polyphasic sleep cycle, like the Everyman (3.5 hour nap at night, 3 half-hour naps during the day), the Uberman( 6-9 20 minute naps spread throughout the day) or the Dymaxion (four 30-minute naps a day). The Dymaxion is by far the most daunting sleep cycle variation, and when Steve Pavlina tried it at Peking University, he was almost certain he would fail. However, for the month he tried it, he reported feeling fresher and more alert than ever before.
The Dymaxion sleep cycle – or any of the aforementioned variations – canbe effective for more than Mr. Pavlina, but they must be executed carefully. First, one must adapt to the sleeping schedule by gradually phasing it in – if you sleep for 7 hours a day, immediately transitioning to a 2 hour sleeping schedule will be disastrous. Instead, for example, try changing one of the half-hour naps to a 3 hour nap until you feel ready to shorten the schedule further. Second, the reason shorter naps can be effective is that, over time, your body will fall into REM sleep the second you hit the pillow – and as a result, it can be even harder for alarms to wake you up. Using backup alarms will reduce the chances of oversleeping during a nap, which can disrupt the entire schedule. Finally, staying physically close to one’s bed has been psychologically demonstrated to make individuals sleepier, especially when adapting to new sleep cycles. Therefore, take care to stay as far from your bed as possible in between napping sessions.
If you’ve ever complained about not having enough time in the day, you may have heard someone respond “you have the same number of hours in the day as Gandhi [or Martin Luther King, or Beyonce] did”. While it may be difficult to use your time as effectively as these individuals, using a polyphasic sleep cycle could drastically increase the time you have to get work done and progress toward your goals.