A few years back I decided to play with polyphasic sleeping. I gave up after two weeks, because I wasn't well rested enough to have access to my best cognitive output and it didn't seem to be getting better, but I'm pretty confident I could have sustained it at that level if I had wanted to. The remarkable thing was just how painless the entire process was.
Everything I've ever seen about adapting to polyphasic sleeping is that it's supposed to be hard and miserable. In particular, it's a will power intense process and it's difficult for people to wake up. Common advice is that you need someone there to wake you up — preferably someone that can be insistent even when you're a jerk at them and want to keep sleeping. When my friend tried to transition without someone to wake him up, he got an alarm that required him to shut if off by scanning a QR code he kept in the kitchen — only to wake up and find that his phone had been disassembled and he had no memory of doing it. I've read similar stories of other people doing the same thing. This was not my experience at all, and I can explain why.
The plan was to try the "naptation" method. The basic idea is that you don't sleep the first night and then start taking 20 minute naps every two hours (uberman-12) and then over the course of a week taper down to naps every four hours (uberman-6), and then from there switch to everyman-3 which includes a three hour "core sleep" at night and three naps spaced out throughout the day. Until it got hard, at least.
The plan wasn’t to make it work, just to try and see what happens. I didn’t really plan things out and the experiment was just kinda thrust upon me when my friend asked if I wanted to try adapting to polyphasic sleep with him when he readapted. I was not at all confident that I’d succeed and I wasn’t even prepared to the point where I’d expect failure to mean much about whether it was a doable thing for me. But I figured it’d be worth doing just to learn how to nap, so I decided to give it a shot, and if at any point it got hard I’d just quit — and maybe try again some other time with some actual preparation.
It turned out to be a lot easier than I had anticipated. It didn’t really feel like I had “slept” during my first few naps, but on the first afternoon after missing a full night of sleep I felt 100% as well rested as normal. I normally felt like shit on seven hours, but I was getting by great on a total of one. For the next several days I felt pretty damn normal while awake, and waking up was always super easy. My alarm starts gradually, and by the time the alarm was barely perceptible I’d be up and alert with zero temptation to keep sleeping — that is, if I wasn’t up the minute before my alarm went off.
It wasn’t completely smooth sailing, because there was this two-hour section where I have no idea what happened or whether I slept or not. I just sorta came to sitting on the couch, cross legged and confused, with a couple hours of memory missing. Still though, I was pretty functional even after that.
Going along with “not taking it seriously”, I ended up deciding to go to a three day music festival which started on day five of my adaptation. I ended up breaking all the rules. Naps not consistently timed, napping in the car in loud conditions, consuming alcohol and other substances, etc. The funny thing is that with as much as everyone else’s sleep was messed with, I was often one of the least tired in the group. "How the hell do you have so much energy!?". It really looked like I was just a lucky guy for which polyphasic sleeping just works out well. I was a pretty smug bastard.
That is, until the night before getting my first core sleep.
After a long day at the festival I was exhausted. That morning I had that confusing loss of memory and possible unintentional sleep. There's just no way I was going to get by on more uberman. I took the marked increase in difficulty as a sign of slow wave sleep deprivation and decided that I needed core sleep. But I wasn't sure that'd be enough.
For the first time in the adaptation I wanted to sleep. I craved sleep. Naps alone weren't cutting it anymore and three hours of sleep is just woefully insufficient even under normal circumstances — let alone when I was that exhausted and already sleep deprived. And I had no one to wake me up (unless I were to be a dick and have my alarm wake them up first). I didn't think I'd even wake up for my alarm, and I knew it'd be difficult to get myself out of bed. I knew I'd be fighting nodding off the next day.
And I think that's why it's normally so damn hard. You already know what happens when you get sleep deprived — you get tired and want to sleep but can't. You have to keep fighting it and fighting it and hope you can hold out until it gets better. It doesn't even really feel like it will — just promises peddled by system 2 with no tangible evidence for system 1. If you expect to be tired and miserable, then you'll be tired and miserable — especially if you're using sleep deprivation to help you get there. Nocebo is a hell of a drug.
The first half was different for me though. I wasn't facing a week(s) long challenge that I didn't know if I could last through. I wasn't expecting to push myself against what I wanted to do. I just wanted to learn to nap. If it got hard, fuck it — I quit. I can always try again with more preparation. I had no real pressure because "failure" was totally acceptable to me.
And besides, I didn't want to sleep. I've never really liked sleeping. If I could be awake and full of energy 24/7 I'd do it — probably why polyphasic sleep piqued my interest. Heck, I had always struggled getting to sleep at a reasonable hour because deep down I wanted to be awake and the tiredness had to build until it could overcome that urge. Because of that I saw the 20 minute naps as a concession. It wasn't "I wish I could sleep right now", it was "I wish I didn't have to sleep at all... but I guess 20 minutes is a good compromise". Napping was easy for me not because I wanted to sleep so bad but because I knew it meant I didn't have to sleep as much — and I knew I could wake up and get back to what I was doing in twenty minutes. And sleep dep? That's the point! That's how you learn to nap! Can't really be against that. It's not permanent or even long term. It's a day or few or until I'm sick of it.
So of course I wasn't tempted to oversleep. I didn't want to be sleeping in the first place — and I was okay with being tired. And I had a pretty easy time falling asleep too because I wasn't worried about not falling asleep — heck, I know I suck at napping and that's why I'm doing this. If I get sleep deprived enough I will fall asleep, so I'm not all that worried about never falling asleep again or going from "unable to fall asleep" to "unable to stay awake" in only two hours — and if it throws off my adaptation, so what?
At the end of the week though, I found myself at the point where the expectations coming from my frame were not nearly as nice. “If I'm not rested this weekend, I don't have fun. If I'm not well rested this weekend, I've wasted time and money and I've missed out on an neat experience”. All of a sudden it mattered — and I know how miserable I get after only six or seven hours of sleep — let alone three. It feels like things will suck if I press on, but it doesn't really feel like it's my fault — just that that's how the territory is. As if there's nothing I can do about it.
But fuck that.
Brienne Yudkowsky has a cool post about using Lob's theorem to cure her social anxiety. It's an interesting post overall, but this part in particular stood out to me.
During the conversation in which I described my plan to him, we meandered to the topic of a meetup of professional hypnotists he’d recently attended. He told me they talked in passing about what it’s like to change their own behaviors. They all knew they could use a long, draw-out induction (or series of inductions and post-hypnotic suggestions) to self-modify if they wanted. But that takes time and energy, and it turns out that if you’re sufficiently confident it’ll work… you don’t have to bother with the hypnosis.
Think about that for a minute. They treated it as a perfectly normal, every-day occurrence. Basically they were saying, “Yeah, when I don’t like what System 1 is doing, I just tell it to do something else instead. No biggy.” They seem to have this available as a primitive action.
Yep, that's basically it. I like that part so much because it's completely true and it makes it look like I have superpowers. I had kinda lost track of how cool it looks when it's not obvious.
But just because the action is a "primitive action" doesn't mean it's easy. Taking steps forward is a "primitive action", but if you're at the edge of a cliff the fear can make it genuinely difficult. That's why there are still fat hypnotists out there. There are still prerequisites that need to be there before you can "just do it". If I were to use her framing for example, "will it work if you believe it will work?", the answer clearly is not "yes". It's "maybe" at best. I was strongly leaning towards "no". You can't just hypnotize yourself to not need sleep.
So you have to do a bit of homework to find out what you want to self suggest and what is potentially doable. You also have to figure out how to get your attention in the right place when you're by no means sure of success.
So forget "will it work" and ask "is it possible that it will work?". If you find a solid feeling argument against it working, it's game over in the first case. In the second case that don't mean shit. Sure, that's evidence against it, but I'm looking to see if it's possible. Maybe that objection only affects 99% of cases and we're lucky. Maybe we can find a way around it. Conditioning on it working, what does that look like?
After all, I had just stayed up five freaking days on 20 minute naps — two to four hours of sleep at most . That blew my freaking mind. What if, for some unknown reason, I responded to this new thing of short core sleep the same way I responded to this new thing of short naps? Could I imagine it actually happening?
Well... yes, actually. I could imagine that. It is possible, in the "I can't see why it can't happen" sense. That's all we need. We don't have to believe it'll work. We just have to focus our attention on the possibility we want so as to covertly condition our desired outcome.
But that's the bare minimum. Why might it actually work that way? The more clear and entangled-with-everything-else our explanation is, the more stable our frame. So if it works, how is that? Well, just like the naps. I'm sleep deprived but doing well. A bit of sleep that my body and mind fully intends to make the most of is way better than nothing. And heck, I've been getting by on days with 20 minutes at a time. I'm giving myself a solid three hours. And an opportunity to get slow wave sleep which I have had none of. So of course it might work. It makes total sense. The only question is "then how the hell do I do so poorly on seven or even eight hours of sleep normally!?!?"
Which.. although mostly irrelevant here, is a fascinating question, and thinking about it has changed how I relate to sleep in general. I'm not going to go into my specific failures to hold a good frame about sleep, but after experiencing uberman working it really opened the door to actually seeing sleep as something I have specific needs for that I can just treat almost like hunger. It's what I've thought it should feel like for a while, but now with that experience, I get it. And since then I've been getting seven hours occasionally and doing just fine.
So now to return to Brienne's preferred framing: Will it work if I believe it will? Still unsure. More likely, but unsure. I find more flexibility and resilience to uncertainty in the framing "I intend for it to work". I don't know that it will, but that's ok. When I picture "what's gonna happen", I picture the result I want. Not because I'm deluding myself. Not because I actually think that it's the most likely option. Just because that's what I want. That's what I'm aiming for, and in order to make it happen I need to see it working and anticipate how to handle it. For extra stability I might want to even picture it not going quite right and how I'll respond to that in order to make it work as well as possible.
With my mind focused on getting the most rest possible in three hours and then waking up alert and refreshed with no temptation to stay in bed, I collapsed onto the air mattress exhausted and fell asleep.
Three hours with the faintest hint of my alarm starting to go off, and I was up and alert. This alarm really was set for only three hours? Yep. I was a bit tired, but only in the "do I have things to do or can I enjoy going in and out of sleep for another hour?" kind of way. I didn't get quite the result I was hoping for in the ideal, and that's alright. The slight deviation from ideal doesn't have to break the spell — if the spell is designed right. For all I know that's the best I could have felt, and it's a far far cry from "I'm severely sleep deprived and I only got three crappy hours of sleep" and the three crappy hours of sleep that would have resulted from it (And it sure sounds like the right approach "do I actually need to not sleep more? More sleep would be beneficial").
So I got up and enjoyed the rest of the festival and kept at it for another week. Still zero willpower involved, and no more explicit thinking needed once I figured out the appropriate framing.
The first week went fine because I automatically had a very good mindset. Walked right into it from the start. There's a sense in which this is part "luck", but that doesn't mean you can't work to stack the odds in your favor.
The second week didn't go fine on autopilot, and that's where studying this stuff pays off. It gives you a chance to notice when your frame is suboptimal, and what you can do about it.