For most of us, sleep seems a non-negotiable item. Our body demands a certain level to be refreshed, and other than on weekends or when our schedule becomes unduly cramped, we seek the same amount of time every night.
Steve Pavlina is different. The personal development coach and blogger experiments with his sleep patterns, looking for an edge. One tactic, in the guise of becoming an early riser, not only suggests an advantage in being an early bird but also shows what may be a practical way to reduce the number of hours you devote to sleep, unlocking time for other pursuits.
Another idea, polyphasic sleep, seems wacky to me, but is certainly worth thinking about, if nothing more than to remind us sleep is something we might be able to control.
Mr. Pavlina was for many years a late riser, often only hitting his stride in mid-afternoon and toiling until the wee hours of the morning. But he noted the high correlation between success and rising early, not only in the stories of successful people but in his own life. "On those rare occasions where I did get up early, I noticed that my productivity was almost always higher, not just in the morning but all throughout the day. And I also noticed a significant feeling of well-being," he writes on his eponymous blog.
So he determined to become an early riser, but initially failed. He would shut off the clock when it called him to action, and return to sleep. But after delving into sleep research, he decided on a new strategy, ironically one that ignored the prevailing advice.
He notes there are two main schools of thought about sleep patterns. One is that you should go to bed and rise at the same times every day. In effect, you have an alarm clock at both ends, sleeping the same number of hours every day, providing predictability and sufficient rest if you leave enough time.
The second school of thought is to listen to your body's needs and go to bed when you're tired and get up when you naturally wake up. That is based on biology: Our bodies know how much rest we need.
Mr. Pavlina found both approaches lacking if you care about productivity. First, he questions whether you need the same amount of sleep every night, arguing daily requirements can fluctuate. He also believes if you go to bed and don't fall asleep immediately, it's an indication that you aren't sleepy enough; you waste productive time lying there trying to embrace sleep. On the other hand, if you just go with the flow, trying to let your body determine your sleep patterns, you'll end up sleeping more than you actually need to – he estimates 10 to 15 hours a week extra, time you probably don't have available to waste.
The optimal solution for him is to combine the two approaches. He only goes to bed when he's sleepy – very sleepy – and confident he will fall asleep immediately, but he sets the clock to wake up at the same (early) hour every day, seven days a week. "Most of the time I go to bed between 10 to 11 p.m. If I'm not sleepy, I stay up until I can't keep my eyes open any longer. Reading is an excellent activity to do during this time, since it becomes obvious when I'm too sleepy to read," he writes on his blog.
If he gets too much sleep one night, he adjusts the next. If he's full of beans another day, he stays up reading and gets less sleep. He believes his body knows when to knock him out because the wake-up hour is non-negotiable. "A side effect was that on average, I slept about 90 minutes less per night, but I actually felt more well-rested. I was sleeping almost the entire time I was in bed," he writes.
The onset of sleepiness he is suggesting comes when your brain starts releasing hormones to knock you out. That is different from just being tired; it means feeling drowsy. For that to happen, obviously you have to watch your caffeine consumption pattern and also give yourself some downtime before bed, which is why he recommends reading.
As for polyphasic sleep, it's a term coined by psychologist J. S. Szymanski to cover sleep that comes in many bursts over a day. For Mr. Pavlina, that meant sleeping in 20-minute naps that he took every four hours during the day, in a never-ending cycle. If you're doing the math, that was about two hours of sleep a day.
Initially, as you might expect, he was like a zombie. But eventually, after sleep deprivation kicked in, his body adapted, and the crucial REM sleep that normally only first cycles in after about 90 minutes of sleep took place during his naps.
"After adapting to polyphasic sleep, I could lie down for a nap, set a timer for 20 minutes, fall asleep, and wake up remembering an extremely vivid dream. During my polyphasic experiments, I could normally fall asleep within a few minutes, and I'd often wake up naturally a minute or two before the alarm went off. The dreams I had during these times were extremely vivid, and I experienced a sense of time dilation. Even though I was only asleep for 15 minutes or so, it felt like my dreams lasted more than an hour. I'd awaken amazed at how little time had passed," he writes in another blog post.
But it's not a sleep schedule that someone who works scheduled hours in an office can contemplate, and even though he was working at home and setting his own work hours, Mr. Pavlina gave up because the rest of the world – including his wife – was monophasic. The rigorous routine he was wedded to also became a barrier. Amongst other things, he didn't like having to chop his work and other activities into 3.5-hour blocks. But his experiments encourage us to think of our own sleep patterns, and how they might be tweaked or revamped.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.
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