By Julian Morgans / Vice
According to his biographer, Nikola Tesla slept no more than two hours a night. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla explains that “by plugging the keyhole and the chinks around his door, he was able to spend the night hours reading volumes purloined from his father’s bookshelves. Frequently… he would read throughout the entire night, and feel none the worse for the loss of sleep.”
This is not a rare story. If you type “sleep habits” into Google you’ll be met with several thousand suggestions, all relating to famous people who didn’t sleep much. Leonardo da Vinci slept two hours a night. Margaret Thatcher slept about four, but then sometimes more on weekends. Mozart got up at 6 AM every morning and worked until after midnight. It’s suggested he usually got about five.
Stories like these are popular, I think, because they suggest there’s a recipe for brilliance. They speak to everyone’s belief in democratized success and the notion that hard work is all it takes. If we hear that Margaret Thatcher slept only four hours a night, it’s easy to believe her career wasn’t some lucky byproduct of DNA or education or happening to be at the right place at the right time. We assume she was successful because she worked hard late into the night, every night, and that’s something all of us can do. Because all of us can achieve great things, and that’s the darling fable of our age.
I love this fable more than anyone else. Sometimes I listen to The Strokes just to imagine myself playing “Juicebox” to a crowd in a soccer stadium. This despite the fact that I can’t play music, I’m 30, and I’m getting constantly older without any sign I’ll get better at either music or self-discipline. I get out of bed late. I prioritize beer over work. When I was 19 I started a t-shirt company that produced zero t-shirts. When I was 24 I shot a feature-length documentary that I never edited. Between 25 and 30 I half-wrote three film scripts now sitting on a range of variously dead laptops under my bed. There’s a novel that’s in a similar format. And there’s a veggie garden that I promise myself I’ll build every year for summer and never do. I guess this is how life will just trickle away, year after year, unless I do something drastic about it—which is how I came back around to sleep.
I first heard about polyphasic sleep via Seinfeld. There’s an episode in which Kramer tries to cut down his sleep by napping 20 minutes every three hours, which as he explains to Jerry “works out to two-and-a-half extra days that I’m awake per week, every week.” Of course, things end badly for Kramer, but the premise was solid. If you sleep less, you can do more.
There’s an entire Polyphasic Sleep Society providing info on how to shave off one to six hours of sleep using a range of different sleep cycles. The “Uberman” is its most famous, and typically consists of a 20-minute nap every four hours, amounting to a total of two hours of sleep every 24. Productivity guru Tim Ferriss is a fan, as is billionaire WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, who describes his experiment with the Uberman cycle as “probably one of the most productive periods of my life.”
Reading this I felt a strange flush of excitement. I didn’t really believe polyphasic sleep would allow me to magically start a company or become a better person, but maybe it could help shake off some lethargy. So I decided to try it.
Most of the first day was easy bordering on great. I wrote down a schedule that would see me taking a 20 minute nap at 11:10 AM, 3:30 PM, 7:50 PM and so on. I then set up a daybed in an edit suite, where my first two naps were spectacular. It wasn’t until after midnight that I realised what I was truly up against. Suddenly I had four lonely hours until my next nap, and the house was very quiet. I decided to head back to the office.
While blasting trance I found an unused whiteboard and used it to chart out a to-do list for the week. I was going to do all those things I never get around to doing. All the bullshit like “complete tax return from 2014” and “buy socks.” Then there were some medium-tier aspirations like “build veggie garden.” But at the very top I wrote “write a book,” thinking I’d dust off the novel. More on that later.
On the whole, the first night wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was depressing. I knew that if I was to have any chance at this I’d need some advice.
Advice came from a woman named Charlotte Ellett. Charlotte has been on various polyphasic schedules for about nine years, working as a video game designer from her home in Alabama. I told her I was already feeling emotionally drained, and she explained that this was normal. “The first week or two is called the zombie period,” she told me over Skype. “You’ll get into a state where you won’t be able to rationalize why you’re doing this. Your alarm will go off and you won’t understand why it was even on.”
I asked Charlotte why she persisted, and she described a glorious sense of freedom. “If you have a lot on, you stop worrying about how tired you’ll be. You’ll feel clearer and faster, and suddenly you’ll have time to do anything.” But she warned I’d have to get through the zombie period. “You’ll know you’re getting to the other side when your naps improve,” she said. “You’ll wake up feeling like you’ve been asleep for hours but it’s really just been 20 minutes.”
The days became one long, grey continuum, but I got a lot of stuff done. By day three I’d sorted my tax, consolidated my superannuation, cleaned the house, called my grandparents, bought new socks and jocks… and re-started writing my book. And let’s be clear: I’ve been writing a rubbish book that I have no intention of ever showing to anyone, but it feels spiritually important that I finish. Just to finish something. I decided that if I could get to the end of a first draft through polyphasic sleep, then the experiment would be a success. So I kept at it every night, usually managing around 3,000 words.
There was something else I started thinking about: Why try? Why try anything? It’s a peculiarly human thing, to try. I sometimes think about my housemate’s cat, and how she’ll never try. Is that because she doesn’t think about death? Because for me, ambition and fear of death are very much entwined. It seems to me that success—career success, spiritual success, whatever you’re into—is the only means of carving out some little corner of meaning in this giant godless universe. It’s for this reason that I find the idea of trying a comfort, and why I had to finally get something done.
While up at night I had a lot of time to read, and I learned that the modern incarnation of polyphasic sleep was pioneered by two philosophy students in 1998.
Marie Staver lived with insomnia most of her life, and decided to simply embrace fatigue by living off 20 minute naps. Her friend, who didn’t suffer insomnia, offered to do the same as a kind of control, and they ended up spending most nights studying together at a 24-hour Denny’s. Marie later wrote a blog describing the first two weeks as an “absolute unholy monstrous biyotch,” but claimed they gradually adjusted to a brave new way of living. And what came after the adjustment period was surprising. “It was the most amazing thing I had ever discovered and I felt the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” she told Motherboard.
Staver later wrote her own explanation of how she came to feel better. According to her, the human brain spends a total of 1.5 accumulated hours in REM sleep, while the rest of the time is spent on cellular growth and repairs. She seemed to consider this second bit optional, and dedicated herself to only getting the REM component through napping. As she says, “After about three to five days, the brain begins its workaround. It starts jumping right into REM sleep as soon as you close your eyes for one of those naps… and you’ll wake up feeling really, really rested.”
Reading this I wished I could fast forward to feeling really, really rested. It was day four; my appetite had totally disappeared, and I could never get warm. I felt fragile too, and simple social interactions seemed overwhelming. If my phone rang I’d ignore it. If the person making my coffee seemed chatty I’d excuse myself and go wait outside.
But the hardest hours were always between midnight and dawn. These were the quiet hours. Just me with lots of time to convince myself that people who write books and achieve life goals are just smarter, better people. Moreover, the notion that hard work is all it takes is just wishful thinking. And it was in these hours that my housemate said he could hear me wandering around the house, sighing.
Days Five and Day Six
My now I’d developed a solid routine. I went to work during the day, then I’d come home, eat dinner, work on my book, and then spend the hours post 2 AM doing physical things while listening to podcasts. I went to the gym, I went jogging, and I started work on my backyard veggie patch. Sitting down after 2 AM was inviting trouble so I learned to keep moving. Then I’d get a morning nap before work and start the cycle again.
The hardest thing was having nothing to look forward to. Life without sleep has no circuit breakers, so if you have a stressful day at work, it doesn’t get better at night. It all just becomes one monotonous cycle. Sun comes up and people emerge. Sun goes down, people disappear. Repeat.
On day seven I started coughing. My brain also got stuck on this weird feedback loop involving a TV jingle from the 90s. Everytime I lay down for a nap my head came alive with this ad that used to be on TV when I was about 12. It was an ad for a trucking company and it went like this:
Fletcher’s! Interstate since ’48, the only way to move your freight. Across the city, across the town, Fletcher’s will never let you down. Fletcher’s!!!
FLETCHER’S!!! INTERSTATE SINCE ’48… and so on, louder and louder.
By evening my head was swimming and I knew I was getting sick. There was no way I was going to battle illness into the night, so I clambered into bed and surrendered to 48 hours of sweaty, high-tension sleep.
When I was feeling better a few days later I contacted Charlotte Ellett from Alabama and told her what happened. She told me she’d never got sick while polyphasic sleeping, although she admitted that the stress of her ultra-productive schedule sometimes wore her down. No one else on the various forums seemed to have dealt with that problem either, so I guess it was just me. I briefly considered trying polyphasic sleep again, but then decided not to. Fuck that.
I’m done now. When I look back it seems strangely fun, simply for the way it broke up the routine. And I really did get a lot done. Probably half the stuff on my whiteboard got crossed off, if only because I had absolutely nothing else to do at night. And as for the book, the first draft is finished. I’m reading through it now and although it’s thoroughly average, at least it’s done. And at least I’ve now got something to polish.
Related Article: How to Program Your Mind While You Sleep