As you may know, I recently attempted a 30-day polyphasic sleep challenge.
On day 10, I gave up. Here’s why:
1. Lack of focus
First and foremost, focus was at an all-time low. I could hardly maintain focus on a task if it was boring.
In particular, I found this difficult with the PVT (reaction speed test). I’d find myself zoning out by the time the next timer popped up, and I’d have to use all my energy just to keep paying attention.
Multi-tasking was completely out of the question, and I would sometimes just forget one of the tasks I was trying to maintain. (This happened once with a video game I was playing — I started browsing the web while on a loading screen, and forgot to go back.)
Ability to focus is something we normally take for granted — I mean, sure, it can be difficult to avoid distraction, but normally we don’t think of focusing as something that requires a lot of energy. In this case, each act of focus was difficult, as if I was straining myself just to pay attention.
Your results my vary, and my ADHD might have played a role, as well. But, frankly, it sucked.
2. Insidious treadmill of productivity
This is the scariest of the reasons I quit the experiment — during the experiment, I hardly knew that things were off.
My subjective measures of focus (rated from 1–10 each day) were mostly inline with how they would have been before the experiment — but that can’t be, because objectively I was far less focused.
The lack of focus came out in a variety of ways: I got less work done each day, I had less ability to plan my day in advance, and my problem solving ability was hampered.
Priya (who was performing this experiment with me) even had a colleague say that her work was sloppy compared to normal, with more simple errors.
Despite all that, we both thought we were only slightly less productive than normal for the first week. It wasn’t until I was basically unable to perform my basic work functions that I realized my productivity was way down.
3. Lack of flexibility
From what I’ve read about polyphasic sleep, it’s very important to maintain a strict schedule (always nap at the same time, always sleep at the same time).
I’m not sure if this is based on any real science, but frankly it’s unrealistic for most people, myself included.
I simply couldn’t go to bed at 11pm every night. April 17th was my birthday, and I went to bed earlier than I would have before the experiment, but it was still just after midnight.
These sorts of schedule changes happen all the time. Any sleep schedule that requires me to remove all of my flexibility just won’t work.
4. Significant cognitive impairment
This is the real reason I gave it up. When I finally noticed just how poor my cognitive performance was after 10 days, I immediately ended the experiment.
Here are some examples:
- Forgetting names
- Forgetting keyboard shortcuts that I use everyday at work
- Forgetting basic commands that I use everyday at work
- Unable to recall song lyrics, or artists that I frequently sing
- Unable to remember what I was trying to do
There were certainly times in the experiment where I was functioning just fine, but none of this behavior is normal for me, and it was worrisome when it started happening.
The one exception here is that I seemed to function pretty well from about 2:30–7AM every morning.
Despite all the difficulties, there are a number of things I learned from polyphasic sleep. Perhaps enough that I would even recommend doing an experiment of your own.
For one, I’m much better at napping now — forcing myself to sleep is pretty easy. I didn’t expect this development, as I’ve always been a poor napper. I also connected a lot with past sleep-deprived versions of myself. In particular, I remembered a lot of flashbacks from high school, and remembered how it felt to be sleep deprived in high school. Students deserve more sleep.
In the end, I don’t know how to feel about the experiment. I’m pretty bummed that I failed to complete it. With so little data, I don’t know if my data is any good, and I won’t know if there was secretly some “next level” of polyphasic sleep. But personally, I doubt it.