Why wake up at 5 AM every morning when you can wake up at 3 AM?

An overview of polyphasic sleep patterns and my journey in adapting to one.

Riley Howsden
11 min readNov 18, 2021
Photo by Abdul A on Unsplash

I glanced over my list of goals for the upcoming year, and, just like every other year, it was unrealistic. There was too little time to accomplish everything that I wanted. Not all of these things were deemed productive by most people’s standards; a long list of video games to finish, online courses to complete, books to read, and articles to write. To ensure a higher completion rate from previous years, it was clear that I needed to remove some of these goals. The question begged: “What was I going to focus my time on?” Advice would have been split, depending on the person; some friends would note that you can’t possibly cut out all the fun, narrow your learning. Others would mention that video games were not a good investment of time, especially at my age.

Still, I had to remove something from my list, or I was doomed to fall short again. Then it came to me: what if I just had more time? Not the most novel idea I’ve had. After all, time couldn’t spawn out of thin air. I eyed my proposed accomplishments alongside their rough time investments and realized I had missed the most prominent time expenditure of all, sleep.

How was I going to trade off hours of sleep and still expect to be productive? Like most people, I enjoy being able to sleep and want to ensure I remain healthy. These thoughts led to searching for abnormal sleep patterns online, where I first came across polyphasic sleep cycles. At the beginning of 2021, I adapted to one of these sleep schedules. This post serves as an introduction to those unfamiliar with these unusual sleep patterns, details my difficulties in switching over to one, and assesses whether the sacrifice has made me more productive.

Past Sleep Limitations

Of course, I was not a foreigner to limiting sleep; as most gamers would attest, staying up until 4 AM to finish a game or reach a certain level and then waking up at 8 AM the “next day” to attend class used to be a frequent ritual of mine. However, this sleep pattern was sporadic and unhealthy, and while I didn’t do any official measurements, I doubt it increased my overall productivity.

Later on, in 2016, I was less motivated by video games and more focused on mimicking the many business greats who claimed that sleeping less was a crucial part of their success; Bob Iger, Tim Cook, Elon Musk, etc. All I needed to do was limit my sleep, and I would instantly become a millionaire, right? I had attempted a more structured approach in these times, slowly drawing back the number of minutes I slept each night every week, widdling my way down to approximately six hours a night. I had hoped this strategy of gradually training my body to accept less sleep would prevail, but in truth, it was still challenging. I would often crash during the day and found myself retreating to my car at lunch whenever I could to sneak in a 20–30 minute nap to help sustain myself. That nap always did wonders for me and my afternoons were far more productive. Although I did not know it at the time, my informal approach to sleep matched a typical biphasic sleep pattern.

Unfortunately, allocating time during lunch for napping became more complex in my future positions, so I reverted to a regular sleep pattern soon after. However, fast-forwarding to the onset of a global pandemic paired with the temporary ability to work from home, it felt like the most feasible time to attempt a new sleep schedule. So, in combination with my inquiry on weird sleep patterns, I set out to define a sleep strategy that I felt I could manage in hopes that it might increase my overall productivity.

Enter Polyphasic Sleep

First, it might be helpful to take a step back and explain the core traits of polyphasic sleep. Most humans tend to have a monophasic sleep pattern, a single-core nighttime block. They sleep for approximately 8 hours and are up for the remaining 16. To achieve polyphasic sleep, people partition their day to have multiple, albeit smaller, sleep blocks. There are a surprising amount of ways in which one can divide a day to meet these requirements; a shorter core sleep time with naps, multiple sleep cores, or the most grueling, only naps. An exhaustive list of schedules is available at polyphasic.net.

Now, technically, one could subscribe to a polyphasic schedule that does not reduce total sleep hours. There are still some benefits to this maneuver, such as increasing alertness and productivity during the day. While this was a focus for me, I also wanted to skim off a few hours of sleep. The most feasible structure for achieving this appeared to be the “Everyman”; other schedules were too harsh to adapt to or did not mesh well with outstanding work commitments.

The concept behind Everyman is relatively straightforward; remove a 90-minute cycle from the core sleeping hours and replace it with a 20-minute nap during the day, effectively saving 70 minutes. The single nap version is formally known as “E1”, a 6-hour core supplemented with a 20-minute nap (note that 7.5 hours, or five complete sleep cycles, acts as the baseline for all these schedules). By increasing the number of naps, one can reduce their sleep core and arrive at different versions of the Everyman; for example, E2 is a 4.5-hour core with two 20-minute naps, E3 is a 3.0-hour core with three 20-minute naps, and E4 is a 1.5-hour core with four 20-minute naps.

Setting a Schedule

While I was ambitious to jump into the E3 schedule cold turkey, I decided against it after reading posts on others who had struggled with the adaptation. Most polyphasic sleepers’ advice was that E3, a total of four hours of sleep, would be a grueling achievement without previous experimentation with sleep.

I stepped back from my hubris and reassessed my actual goals:

  • I need a schedule that will accommodate my current workday
  • I want a schedule that will save me a few hours of sleep each day
  • I want a schedule that will improve my wakefulness during the workday

Even if I could pull off E3, it would be complicated to schedule three consistent time slots for my naps during the workday. One nap could align with the lunch hour, and another could occur in the early morning before work began, but the third needed to happen in the afternoon; it would be nigh impossible to find a regular time slot that was meeting-free across all days.

In the end, I opted for the E2 variant, which was the best balance of reducing sleep hours and a nap schedule with work hours in mind. The plan I decided upon consisted of:

  • Core sleep from 10:00 PM — 2:30 AM.
  • First nap between 7:15 AM — 7:45 AM.
  • Second nap between 12:30 PM — 1:00 PM.

A common way that polyphasic sleepers represent their schedules is through a “nap chart”, seen below. Here I have sketched out the schedule mentioned above; in this case, green represents actual sleep time, and yellow, blue, and purple represent the rough breakdown of self-study, work blocks, and leisure time.

Image credit to Lars Karbo — create your own sleep chart at https://napchart.com/

The chosen nap times proved ideal; in the early morning, I could focus on personal projects and writing, and I would go into my morning work hours and afternoon work hours feeling refreshed from an adjacent nap. I would have less energy in the evening hours, which was okay since it meshed well with my planned activities; video games, watching shows and reading casual books. Of course, that sounds pretty awesome on the surface, but we’re ignoring an essential part: first, I had to adjust my body to this new pattern to reap the long-term benefits. It turns out; easier said than done.

The Adaptation Journey

When I first started this sleep program, I was relatively confident that the adaptation process would be similar to a person trying a new workout schedule after being sedentary for quite some time. From my personal experiences, starting a new exercise regiment is difficult initially but gradually eases with time once the body adjusts. Effectively, hurdling over that initial hump was the key to a successful adaptation. In practice, accommodating a polyphasic sleep schedule had a shockingly different difficulty curve. Here is a rough illustration:

As you can see, instead of becoming more manageable over time, like adapting to a new workout, the new sleep schedule was exponentially more demanding as time passed until eventually, it just magically clicked into place. Under this structure, the mental component was the most difficult; I broke down and almost quit numerous times. On average, each day felt more brutal than the previous. To elaborate, I will detail the four defining stages of progression that I experienced, which represent the above curve.

Stage One — Wow, this is EZ

I was under the impression the first week would be the most challenging, expecting my body to rebel against the lack of sleep. Instead, I felt great, motivated on a high as I was determined to make this new sleep schedule work. The only hiccup was not falling asleep as quickly as I would have liked for my naps. By the end of the day, I had limited energy; falling asleep for my core hours was more natural and came quickly. The future looked bright!

Stage Two — Wait a second…

As I went into the second week of my new sleep pattern, some cracks started to emerge. I began to experience random pockets of tiredness throughout the day. Sometimes they would line up with my naps, which benefited my ability to fall asleep more quickly, but often they did not. To combat this, I found that light physical activities, such as minor tasks and cleaning around the house, helped distract me from these temporary dips.

Stage Three — What have I done?

About two weeks in, a more intense set of sleep deprivation symptoms started to kick in. The random tiredness was more frequent, pushing my mental mindset towards just giving in to a nap at any time of the day. On a positive note, falling asleep, both for the core hours and nap times, was happening instantly.

However, the most significant problem was the opposite end of that: waking up. I started to oversleep at times, most noticeably on naps, where I wouldn’t even register that my alarm had gone off. Each occurrence felt like a huge setback, confusing my body’s internal clock further. Even when I did wake up to the alarm, I would often still feel exhausted, and the overall sleep inertia was strong. I also struggled with the temptation to fall back asleep. Weekends, where I had no work responsibilities, were the worst. The probability I would fall back asleep not once but multiple times during the day was high. This trend of wasted weekends and exhaustion-induced weekdays was depressing, and there were times I felt like crying, contemplating if these extra hours were worth the sacrifice.

While the previous two stages panned out rather quickly, the length of the third stage encompassed most of my adaptation time and lasted approximately two months. While the exhaustion didn’t lessen during this time, my ability to prevent oversleeping improved with time. For the last few weeks of this stage, I had eliminated those issues almost entirely. I still felt awful, but I at least felt accomplished in the willpower I had gained.

Stage Four — I see the light…

And then, something just seemed to click, not entirely overnight, but with a surprising momentum towards the better. Instead of feeling exhausted all the time, I had returned to the random pockets of tiredness in stages one and two, which were much easier to combat. I was no longer sleeping through alarms, and the sleep inertia when waking from naps was more manageable.

Eventually, I got to the point where falling asleep happened almost instantly, and waking up would occur before my alarms. I would be unnecessarily confused as I would always feel like I had missed my alarm. Naps started to feel like they were 10x longer than the time I had allotted, and the cadence of weird dreams during them had increased. All of this felt like a quick turnaround from my sad state just a few weeks before. It was as if my body had finally yielded its prior tendencies and accepted that this was the new norm.

Increased Productivity?

The question remains — was the laborious process worthwhile? Have I become more productive? Of course, it is one thing to magically create more hours in a day and another to ensure that those hours convert to meaningful output. The short answer is yes, but not quite as strongly as I would have initially assumed. Also, I wouldn’t attribute productivity solely to the reduction in sleep alone.

For example, there were habits that I picked up that have undoubtedly increased my productivity, and technically, none of these habits required a sleep sacrifice. If someone were asking for advice, I would suggest focusing on these rituals before flirting with a polyphasic sleep schedule.

  • Regulated Naps — naps are incredibly beneficial, given you have set some basic rules to how you rest; the key ones are that you don’t nap too long (30 minutes max) or too late in the day (do NOT nap after 5 PM).
  • Waking Up Early — as someone who has spent a large portion of their life staying up late, I have found that morning hours are way more productive. The additional motivation of having knocked out a few tasks before others even start their day is genuinely refreshing.
  • Setting a Daily Routine — having a general structure for what to focus on at different hours of the day is beneficial; adapting to a new sleep schedule solidified the need for that routine to be more robust, especially in the morning hours.

As for suggesting a polyphasic sleep schedule to others, I would be hesitant. While the long-term benefits of having a few extra hours are apparent, a hefty investment is needed to stabilize that schedule. During the adaptation process, especially stage three, overall productivity will dip as the body prepares to repartition sleep. Even after complete adaptation, it will take many weeks to reach a break-even point as you need to account for the lost productivity during the process. On my timeline, I would wager it took three months before I had reached that break-even point. The expected value becomes pretty low once you couple this knowledge with the non-negligible probability that a person will give up before adapting.

All that said, if you’re into trying new things and aren’t afraid of the possibility of failure, attempting a new sleep schedule will give you a new outlook on life, or at the very least, a blog post to write.



Riley Howsden

“Half-Stack” machine learning propagandist in the gaming industry — a critic of all data presented deceitfully, unless it contains a meme, then it must be true.