I have a confession. I’m a sleep hacker. It started when I was old enough to read by flashlight, which happened shortly after I learned to read at 18 months. Reading was always more fun than sleeping.
In my life, I’ve tried several different sleep experiments, always shaped somewhat by what was possible given life circumstances outside the bedroom.
Delayed sleep + Quasi-multiphasic
Driven by the unnatural setup of a high school schedule, I’d sleep 3-4 hours at night (3-6am), then arrive at school so exhausted that I was famous for taking a nap in almost every class. That meant an additional 1.5 hours of sleep, broken in to 15 minute naps spread across 6 periods. I got away with this because I graduated #2 in my class, so I could ignore teacher complaints about sleeping through slow lectures. But on Friday and Saturday, I’d sleep 10-12 hours, so my weekly average was between 6.5 and 7.3 hours of sleep per day. Not efficient and not very healthy. There’s also evidence that people under 20 need extra sleep. I also stupidly used Coke (the bubbly kind) for alertness.
At university, I decided to follow my circadian rhythm, assuming I actually had one left. I naturally found that when class schedules allowed, I stayed up until 6am, then slept until 11am or noon. 4-6 hours per night was a slight improvement, and it was slightly more efficient because no one else was awake. But it didn’t really save a lot of time, and probably didn’t help with alertness either. Sleeping in on weekends also didn’t help my average very much. I didn’t quantify alertness then but I believe it was declining. Coffee for alertness in the morning.
Radically reduced sleep experiment 1
I decided to complete 2 semesters of Computer Information Systems classes in a single semester while starting a career as a magazine writer. For 90 days, I slept 2-3 hours per night, from 5am to 7am, then drove to school barely awake before downing 40-60 oz of coffee to start a day of classes. I’d feel awesome until I’d crash in 3 hours, then somehow make it through the day. My GPA was 3.9 that semester, my best ever, but by the end of the semester, I felt like I’d burned myself out and just didn’t have the focus I wanted to have. In addition to sick amounts of coffee, I worked out several times a week with weights in order to have more energy. In retrospect, I gave myself adrenal fatigue and probably hurt my thyroid function with this experiment. Fixing it took some time when I figured that out later.
Polyphasic sleep experiment
Being a biohacker, I heard about polyphasic sleep in 2000 in this post. I tried it briefly in 2001 or 2002. The massive inconvenience and rigidity of the schedule in no way made up for the few hours of sleep it saved over the delayed sleep schedule that gave me 4-6 hours/night plus extra on weekends. I gave it about 6 weeks and found that it didn’t work when I was an executive who also ran a university program in the evenings, followed by additional biohacking afterwards. I also have serious concerns about melatonin formation on this schedule.
Bulletproof Sleep: Radically reduced enhanced recovery sleep
All these years of playing with sleep helped me learn more about what goes into getting good efficient sleep: falling asleep fast and spending as much time as possible in REM and delta (deep restorative) sleep. I give my body as much nutrition as I can before sleep so it has the raw materials it needs to regenerate, including a handful of relaxing amino acids, magnesium, potassium, and trace minerals.
On the average night, I go to sleep at between 2:30 and 4:30am and sleep until 7:00-7:30. On most nights, I use Pzizz or a custom soundtrack. If I will get less than 4 hours of sleep, I use my CES machine to run a current across my brain at between .5 and 1.5hz, the range of physical regenerative sleep. I’ve had nights of 2.5 hours of sleep at 1.5hz which resulted in me waking fully alert and ready to go. I can sustain 2 hours of sleep for 3 nights in a row, with flights between each night, before I start to lose performance. Every night, I do at least 5 minutes of Heart Math heart rate variability coherence/breathing exercises before sleep, with or without the emWave unit. (I am a Heart Math certified Executive Coach if you’re interested…)
I’ve gone for 19 months on this schedule, sleeping less than 5 hours always (5 hours feels like sleeping in), and often much less. I’ve traveled extensively during this time, had a 2nd baby, and had several career changes (from time at a VC on Sand Hill Road, to 2 startups, to working as a VP for a large Internet security company). I *feel* great. My immune function is good. I started to worry that I was aging or killing myself with this program, so being an anti-aging guy and a biohacker, I got the data.
I wore a stick-on advanced 24 hour heart rate recording device to monitor autonomic nervous system function to see if I was experiencing stress. It showed very good ANS function. It hurt like hell when it came off, too:
My red blood cell volume is ideal. My blood & lipid chemistry is shockingly good. My cortisol level is 107, the 2nd lowest I’ve had in 7 years of tracking it, despite a more stressful lifestyle. I can find no data that says I’m harming myself.
In my mind, this is proof that polyphasic sleep is for masochists. If I can thrive on 4 hours of continuous sleep for long periods of time, and only 2 hours when necessary, why would I go to the inconvenience, crazy schedules, and inflexibility of polyphasic sleep? I wouldn’t trade one extra hour of the day for a rigid requirement that I sleep at odd nap times. The law of diminishing returns gets in the way of polyphasic.
Plus, I get to curl up next to my beautiful wife at night, something that is good for my relationship. Polyphasic snuggling just isn’t very hot, and having to take a nap right in the middle of a Saturday family event is no good either. I also get to see my two young children during the day when I’m working from home. And I’m awake and alert all day long!
If you are looking to reduce your sleep, this is what you need to do:
1) Convince yourself that 5 hours of sleep is all you need to be healthy (the data is here to prove it) and that 8 hours is too much (it is).
2) Go on the Bulletproof Diet. You will need the high functioning metabolism to keep you healthy and strong. Healthy people need less sleep.
3) Take the relaxation nutrients I recommend in the sleep hacking posts.
4) Get an emWave2 and learn to use it. It is proven to reduce cortisol and improve sleep.
a Zeo Sleep Cycle so you can see how much REM vs deep sleep you are actually getting.
6) Get Pzizz so you can get into deeper sleep faster.
7) Consider a CES machine if you’re going to go for less than 4 hours of sleep regularly. If a CES is too pricey, a light/sound machine may work as well.
If you do not have the equipment I reference here, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing it from the links above. I use everything here and have for years; nothing in this post is here for commercial reasons. I also offer executive coaching if you want 1 on 1 advice.
Getting an extra 3-4 hours per night is life-changing. You can write a book, for instance, or finally answer your email, or learn a language. It’s awesome. The steps above aren’t very hard to do. Figuring them out, on the other hand, has taken years. I hope this info proves helpful to you too.