Recently I had more opportunities to work with sleep hacking. I feel more productive but also exhausted. My productivity doubled for the time of the experiment. And I am ready to share some things I learned about sleep.
Our monophasic 9 hours per night sleep is a modern creation, a result of long work hours and artificial lights. Throughout history, people used to wake up around the middle of the night, do certain things, and go to sleep again. There are many records of such activity. Then in the middle of the day in a warm climate, people used to have a short siesta sleep. As a result, we have a sort of triphasic sleep: one relatively long sleep (4.5 hours), a wake-up, a shorter sleep (1.5 hours), and a nap (20 min) in the middle of the day based on circadian cycle. This is not the only polyphase option, but a viable one.
As during the COVID19 lockdown my activities were limited, I decided to sleep more often as a form of recreation. With more cycles of sleep, the sleep itself got shorter. The sort of sleep I used, called everyman sleep, is the most natural and flexible format as the sleep does not have to be timed with an alarm clock.
Having different cycles of sleep, I started to feel more different gradations of sleep and wakefulness. We have multiple cycles of sleep, 90 min each. A cycle is comprised of an average of 4 stages, 15 min each. The first stage is basically a relaxation and the body rests. It is usually easy to wake up in the second stage when the brain restructures the memories. In the third stage called SWS we kind of finalize long-term memories. The fourth stage called REM allows our brain to run some sort of simulations. The eyes are almost awake when this happens, but the muscles are sort of paralyzed.
The basic idea of the everyman in my interpretation was as follows. Use 3 cycles of SWS-heavy sleep to stabilize what I learned. Then take a couple of hours basically to daydream, and go to sleep for another cycle that is REM-heavy. In the middle of the day, the body gets tired, so it should get an extra relaxation cycle.
Insomnia by design
The hours immediately before and after the sleep are somewhat groggy. By adding more cycles of sleep, I effectively generate controlled insomnia. I do not have a lot of insomnia, so this was new to me.
Soon I understood that I cannot focus during the periods of insomnia, and I should stay away from coffee. I had some positive experiences with energy bars. An energy bar is a sugar rush sufficient for approximately two hours, which is all that I needed.
I felt that I was still partially asleep: sensitive to noises, meditative, and nonjudgemental. Throughout history this used to be the time of the most intimate thoughts and conversations, and my personal state was appropriate. Strangely I also felt less disturbed by frequent context changes. I know that usually, the connection is the opposite: multitasking is known to cause insomnia. As all my family was asleep, I used to watch news and comedy, daydream and outline the activity for the new day.
My productivity went up significantly. Now I had two productive periods during the day, each with its own meal, and a planning session at night with an energy bar. During the day I did not need to do planning, so I had to focus on productive work. During the night I could not work, so I focused on planning. In the parameter I measured (speedwriting: number of words written per day), my productivity effectively doubled! And I had more energy.
This came with a price that was quite expected. I quote: “memory problems and a higher risk of accidents, spikes of blood sugar and appetite.” But then again, I could blame the home confinement for the same symptoms. Who did not gain a couple of pounds during the COVID19 crisis?
There is whole-brain connectivity during insomnia. When this lasts for a couple of hours, it can generate surprisingly creative results. Not only I typed more I also had more ideas to type about. The known penalty here is increased depression and anxiety, rumination, saliency. To deal with that, I consumed abnormal amounts of comedy shows and news during the first hour after waking up.
To unburden the brain, I took upon myself significantly more chores than usual including some physical stuff. I finished the projects I procrastinated for months.
After a month of polyphasic high-energy activity, I felt exhausted. It felt like the brain worked extra time and needed some rest.
Dangers to avoid
Here are some things I was very careful to do:
- The 20 min nap is not a healthy replacement of a full sleep cycle, and we still should have at least 3 full cycles daily.
- Coffee and sugar stimulate the brain and mess up with the cycle. It is OK to consume immediately after the end of a big cycle but never consume before you need to sleep.
- During the minima in the circadian cycle, we should definitely sleep. The longer sleep should be at night. Otherwise, the melatonin release is disrupted.
- Each time I work up I felt I needed to eat something. Protein-rich diet during the day allows slow release of energy. Eating protein twice a day, an hour after each nap provided a reasonable nutritional balance.
- I did not drive during that period. I broke one plate, two glasses, and one a shaving tool within three months. Not horrible, but usually I do not break anything. On the other hand, I had significantly more dishes to clean.
Having a sleep cycle different from everybody else is a social problem. Various people wanted to wake me up during the siesta time. The noises I made during the night disturbed my family. Immediately before and after sleep, we tend to be more sensitive and the family did not enjoy this. Overall I felt more conflicts, as my sleep cycle diverged from sleep cycles of other family members.
Overall insomnia can lead to serious cardiovascular issues and shorter lives. At times I felt that I need to correct significantly more typing errors than usual. I gained 10 pounds. My wife and kids were not very happy with my sleep cycles not coincide with theirs.
But I was twice more productive… This is a serious issue to consider when facing stress, confinement, and pressing timelines.