How to Master Polyphasic Scheduling for Sleep
Most of us look forward to that glorious moment at the end of the day when we can crawl into bed and forget about the world. But there’s a subset of people who are very committed to spending the least amount of time in bed as humanly possible. These people often follow a sleep schedule called polyphasic sleep.
Unlike the traditional singular block of sleep at night, polyphasic sleepers practice an alternative method of rest that involves breaking up their snooze time into multiple smaller sessions throughout the day and night. While this might sound like a recipe for disaster—and in schedules that only allow for as little as two hours of sleep, it is—some polyphasic sleepers claim that judiciously arranged naps can actually lead to more productive, better-rested days.
So, how does one go about setting up a polyphasic sleep schedule? Here’s everything you need to know.
Factors to Consider in Your Polyphasic Design
Sleep is largely individualistic. We all have different preferences for factors like noise, temperature, light, and bedsheets. Even our genetics may play a role in determining how much sleep we need. While more research needs to be done, scientists have identified a gene that’s common in people who seem to need only six and a half hours of sleep versus the recommended seven to nine.
All of this is to say that when you’re designing your own polyphasic sleep schedule, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You’ll need to experiment to figure out what works best for you. You’ll also need to loop in your doctor to make sure any sleep schedule you choose is safe for you and to avoid sleep debt. With that in mind, here are a few factors to consider.
The BRAC Gap Rule
BRAC—the Basic Rest and Activity Cycle—is an ultradian rhythm proposed by American physiologist and sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman that suggests that we have a natural inclination to feel high and low energy in 90-minute intervals. While science has yet to validate this claim (with some researchers being very adamant that BRAC doesn’t exist), polyphasic sleepers often use the BRAC theory to inform their nap schedules.
The “BRAC Gap Rule” posits that your sleep blocks should be spaced out at least 90 minutes apart, or the length of your individual BRAC if it’s longer or shorter. Otherwise, your body might not distinguish between the two periods of sleep, and you might end up feeling groggy.
Amount and Timing of REM Sleep
REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is a crucial stage of slumber. While we’re most likely getting lost in a dream, our brains are getting to work consolidating and processing new information, regulating our emotions, and storing things in our long-term memory. Without enough REM, our immune system suffers, and we’re at a higher risk for sleep disorders like insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea.
We spend about 25 percent of our sleep in REM, which equates to around 90 minutes if you’re sleeping for a full eight hours. Polyphasic sleepers tend to get much less than that (which enters into dangerous sleep deprivation territory) and, as such, have to be very strategic about when they schedule their naps in order to get at least 90 minutes of REM.
Studies have shown that sleeping between midnight and midday yields higher amounts of REM than sleeping during other times of the day. So you’ll want to plan your naps accordingly if you’re aiming for a higher concentration of this important sleep stage.
In a perfect world, you could design your sleep schedule however you want and then just stick to it. But, alas, most of us have jobs, school, family, and other obligations that get in the way of our sleep.
When you’re first starting out, it’s best to design your polyphasic schedule around your current work or school hours. That way, you won’t have to worry about falling asleep at your desk or during a lecture. Maybe that means sneaking in a nap during your lunch break or scheduling your classes to allow for a midafternoon snooze. It’ll take a little creativity and some trial and error, but you’ll eventually find a schedule that works for you—and your manager.
Your social life is another important factor to consider when you’re designing your sleep schedule. If you’re the type of person who likes to go out clubbing or to late-night concerts, you might want to rethink your sleep strategy. It’s going to be pretty tough to stick to a polyphasic sleep schedule if you’re constantly putting yourself in situations that make it harder to sleep.
That’s not to say you need to stay home—just be mindful of how your social activities might impact your ability to stick to your schedule. By being proactive and planning around your calendar, you can still have a robust social life and get the sleep you need.
Length of Core Sleep
Most polyphasic schedules have a core sleep, or a longer period of uninterrupted sleep. This is usually scheduled for the early hours of the morning when our bodies are naturally inclined to sleep more soundly.
How long your core sleep should be depends on a few factors, the most important of which is how many hours you’ll be sleeping outside your core sleep. For example, if you’re only taking three 20-minute naps throughout the day, your core sleep should be at least six hours to make up for the lost sleep. Calculate how much sleep you’ll be getting with naps, and make sure your core sleep is long enough to make up the difference.
Not sure? Check with your doctor.
Is a Polyphasic Sleep Schedule Right For You?
If you’re someone who struggles to fall asleep during the traditional nighttime hours, you might find that a polyphasic sleep schedule is more conducive to your natural patterns. As long as you’re getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each day, you should be able to function well.
There are risks associated with polyphasic sleep. Many polyphasic schedules advocate for less than seven hours of sleep, which is considered sleep deprivation. This can lead to a host of problems, including cognitive impairments, irritability, and an increased risk of accidents.
While it may be tempting to see how little shuteye you can get away with, cheating sleep is a fool’s game. Your body needs sleep, and skimping on it will only end up causing more problems in the long run.
No one can go without sleep. And yet, many polyphasic schedules skirt—or totally cross—the line of sleep deprivation. Breaking up your snooze into segments throughout the day isn’t a crime (and it won’t necessarily hurt your energy levels), but getting less than seven hours of sleep per day is risky for your health.
So if you do decide to design a polyphasic sleep schedule for yourself, be sure to allow for plenty of sleep, plenty of REM, and room to socialize and work as you normally would. Otherwise, you might find that your new sleep strategy is doing more harm than good.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best polyphasic sleep schedule for students?
Every student’s sleep needs are different. Biphasic sleep may be the best option for students, as it involves a long period of sleep at night and a shorter period of sleep during the day. This allows students to get the sleep they need while still being able to attend classes, study, and socialize at night.
What is the best polyphasic sleep schedule?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The best sleep schedule for you depends on your individual sleep needs and patterns. That being said, the Everyman schedule is a popular option for people who want to try polyphasic sleep.
Is it okay to sleep for 4 hours twice a day?
Yes—as long as you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep per day, you should be fine. Always check with your doctor whenever you change your sleep schedule drastically or if you have any side effects.
Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (and How Much You Really Need a Night). https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/
Endo S, et al. (1981). Persistence of the circadian rhythm of REM sleep: a variety of experimental manipulations of the sleep-wake cycle. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7302463/
Hirshkowitz M, et al. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/
Lavie P. (1992). Ultradian Cycles in Sleep Propensity: Or, Kleitman’s BRAC Revisited. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4471-1969-2_13
National Sleep Foundation. (2020). What is REM Sleep? https://www.thensf.org/what-is-rem-sle ep/
Shi G, et al. (2019). Gene identified in people who need little sleep. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31473062/
What Are Polyphasic Sleep Patterns?
Most people sleep for one long stretch at night. However, there is another way to snooze—and it’s called polyphasic sleeping.