Being Polyphasic, Month 1: Adaptation

One of the reasons that polyphasic sleep is less well know is that many of the people who try it fail to adapt. It’s supposed to take around a month to fully adapt (get to the point where you have consistent energy and alertness levels) and can have 1-2 weeks of zombie-like hell where you need ridiculous amounts of willpower to keep going.

Because that sounds like it sucks a lot, I decided to try a hack called a “naptation”, or “exaptation“.

The basic idea:

  • Don’t sleep the night before the adaptation
  • When you need to go to bed (after the not sleeping the day before thing) only sleep for 20 minutes ever 2 hours for the next 48 hours.
  • After 48 hours start sleeping your planned schedule

The theory is that after missing one night of sleep, your brain goes into massive sleep deprivation mode. This forces it to  reset quickly and it learns to use the 2o minute naps as a reasonable source for REM sleep. After 48 hours of sleeping every 2 hours, you actually have more than enough sleep, so will not have any sleep debt left.

Here’s what my adaptation looked like:

8AM Wednesday: Wake up.

Thursday: Don’t sleep.

Friday: Felt great. “All nighters” are pretty easy if you are excited about what you are doing. I was able to work just fine all of Friday.

Saturday: Sleep at 1AM for 2o min and then again every 2 hours for 2o minutes.

Sunday: Sleep at 1AM for 3.5 hours and then again 20 min at 6, 8, 12 and 6.

Monday: My planned polyphasic schedule:         12:30AM – 4:00AM, 8-8:20AM      12-12:20PM,        6:00-6:20PM

Tuesday: One extra sleep to counteract any residual sleep deprivation (idea is to put in sleep to get rid of the deprivation, while still keeping the brain on a tight leash).

 What happened:

The Saturday was tough, between 3am and 11am was hell. I was cold all the time and had to fight to find things interesting enough to keep awake. Video games worked for a bit, so did some shows and movies, but I would get bored of each one relatively quickly. I was just counting down the minutes to my next nap.

Then when I woke up at 11:20 I felt better. I made myself a half a cup of coffee and the rest of the day went quite well. I was even awake enough to code a bit. I was feeling so awake at 11pm that I skipped that nap entirely.

Sunday morning I was super tired when I got up at 4AM and after the 6AM nap. By 8 I was feeling more myself and the rest of the day was fine (about the same as a normal day where I’ve slept 6 hours.

Morning coffee setup From then things have been working well. Most days, getting out of bed at 4 is really hard (I feel like i will never wake up) but after making my cup of coffee I feel good and ready to work. The fact that my coffee ritual involves manual labor and math (I use a manual grinder, Chemex and scale to make sure I pour the right amount of water) helps a bit with the waking up I think. It’s amazing how hard the problem of  (13g of coffee / 2 ) * 30ml of water can get at 4AM!


Most days since then I’ve felt perfectly functional with only minor bouts of tiredness. Meditation became very hard to do without drifting to sleep, so I use it as a measure to see how well I am adapting. There have been 2 days where throughout the morning I felt almost as sleepy as that very first day. I just resorted to napping every 2 hours on those days and was fixed by 10AM. I think that probably slows down the adaptation, but it means that I can be fully functional for at least 16 hours of that day.

Tips and things I’ve learnt by going through it myself:

Keep a list:

As per PureDoxyk’s suggestion, have a list of things that you can do when tired. There were times when I thought that nothing could keep me awake on the first adaptation day and only rapidly cycling TV shows, Movies and video games allowed me to pull through. As soon as I felt bored with one (which happened really quickly) I would switch to another.

Get two sleep masks:

One for home, one for the office if you are going to be napping there. It really helps with getting to sleep and being able to leave the lights on is a big bonus for waking up. I love this one. It even fits nicely with my Zeo headband and makes me feel like I am wrapping my world in a cozy cocoon of sleep.

Don’t feel guilty if other things slip:

This is a one month test of willpower. Willpower is a finite resource, don’t waste it on keeping other good habits that you could start again after adapting. If ever contemplating “to snack or not to snack…” go make some food. Write a blog post or play video games? Just play the games. After you have adapted, you will have time to put your house back in order!

Don’t let your guard down:

The biggest mistake that I made was thinking that he adaptation would be a linear process. After I got over the first few days I had a couple of days where I felt great and woke up from all my sleeps easily. So I stopped setting extra alarms. The next day I turned off my alarm with a lame excuse of having left my glasses at work (and not wanting to put contact lenses into sleep-deprived eyes) and slept 6 hours. A few days later I overslept a nap by an hour because again I had been so good at getting up straight away from naps. There are going to be good and bad days, and you will not be able to predict them. No matter what, stay hyper vigilant for the first month.

No less than three alarm clocks:

Alarm clockEvery time you oversleep, you set yourself back. Your subsequent naps will probably be bad and you will end up feeling like crap the next day. I’ve never chosen to oversleep, have have a few times due to alarm malfunctions. Get three! I have one next to my bed (which at this point is useless after my core, I turn it off without waking up almost every morning) my iPhone alarm and (after the last oversleep) an extra loud one from RadioShack which I keep in the living room, so I have to run to turn it off before it wakes up all my neighbors at 4AM (I think the guy upstairs is a 240 pound boxer, not pissing him off is great motivation).

Schedule design:

Spend a lot of time thinking about it. Your schedule is your new brand new polyphasic life, so come up with something that really works for you. You should not change it in the first month, as part of the adaptation is creating a new circadian rhythm for yourself.For me I love having 4AM-8AM. Ideally you want to go to bed as early as possible as that maximizes deep sleep. My 1AM bed time was way too late, so I’ve changed it now, but I still had to wait a month to make the change.


I’ve been waking up with a cup of coffee ever since I was 6 years old (the idea that coffee is bad for children didn’t really exist in South Africa). Not just from a chemical, but from an emotional level (I love the ritual) I could not give it up.

I did cut down how much I drink, so now I’m doing 1 cup when I wake up from my core (the process of simply making the coffee, is the thing in the morning that brings me out of my 4AM haze). I also will often have a cup of caffeinated tea after I wake up from my naps. Because of my history with caffeine, it really doesn’t affect my sleep much at all though, so your milage may vary.  Cutting down the amount you drink is always a good idea, because that leaves you the option of using larger doses to boost mental performance when absolutely critical.


One does not get to sleep in on the weekends anymore. This is actually a great thing. Normally I have things to do on the weekend that I don’t want to do, and those can all be shoved into the graveyard hours before anyone else has started their day. Then you get to have the whole weekend to yourself to do whatever you want to do.


I haven’t noticed any particular extra hunger. I generally eat a very Paleo diet, so my body is less susceptible to blood sugar swings. That being said, I made the conscious decision to put away my scale and to not worry about how much I eat (as long as it is still healthy) during this adaptation. Again, the less other drains you have on your willpower while doing it, the better.


My Zeo has been invaluable. I have the bedside and the mobile pro. The bedside was great when monophasic, but for polyphasic sleep I like the mobile one as I can track all my naps and core sleep. Knowing what’s going on while you sleep is key to making the small adjustments necessary to good sleep (even if you’re sleeping normally). 18, 20 or 30 minute nap… which is better? It depends on your body and then only way you know what to do is to test it with the Zeo and see how your body reacts.

Where do I go from here?

Well, I’m actually well into month 2 already. While everything has gone well, the one degradation in performance that I saw in the first month was that my flexibility needed longer recovery periods after Taekwondo. I think this is because I wasn’t getting enough deep sleep during my core sleep (thanks Zeo). I’m playing with shifting my schedule earlier and taking some supplements (valerian root, magnesium and melatonin) to see if that fixes it. The other goal of the second month is just to guard against laziness, making sure I set all my alarms and that I don’t let my guard down and snooze longer just because I think I’m adapted.

I’ve got some cool statistics on the effect of all of this on my live, which I will publish as soon as I’ve made some pretty graphs and charts. Spoiler: life got way more awesome.

One thought on “Being Polyphasic, Month 1: Adaptation

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