Get your best sleep

Snooze smarter by discovering your perfect sleep equation. From polyphasic sleeping experiments to methods endorsed by science, optimize your Zzz's and create a sleep pattern that fits your needs perfectly 🌙💤
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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

Just like many of you, I’m a late-night crusader, binge-watcher, and revenge bedtime procrastinator, sacrificing sleep for another precious hour of life. Sticking to a schedule doesn’t come naturally. So I really didn’t want to hear the following advice:

“What is the single most important piece of advice for achieving your best sleep? Pick your wake-up time and stick with it,” says the sleep researcher and neurologist W. Chris Winter M.D. in his book The Sleep Solution. Strangely enough, you can get better slumber if you start with a little deprivation.

“I think sleeping was my problem in school. If school had started at four in the afternoon, I’d be a college graduate today.”

George Foreman

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It’s a universal, parental instinct (or a defense mechanism) to protect a child’s sleep. One skipped nap and the day unravels like a ball of yarn. Sleep scientists tell us that even though we are (usually) able to keep a meltdown at bay as adults, sleep loss affects us just as deeply.

Quick Facts (with links to studies)

  • Eating kiwi fruit and drinking unsweetened dark cherry juice can improve sleep quality according to this and this study.
  • Pot and alcohol: THC shortens the time it takes us to fall asleep but inhibits REM, so it’s not conducive to a good night’s sleep. On the other hand, CBD doesn’t affect REM and lowers core body temperature, which enhances sleep quality, Alcohol inhibits REM and increases core body temperature, leading to low-quality sleep. Peter Attia MD and Matthew Walker PhD offer a good explanation here and if you use a sleep tracker, you might have seen the effects first-hand.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination.” It’s that sneaky tendency to snag those coveted nighttime hours—hours meant for sleep—to play catch-up on enjoyable activities we missed out on during a busy and demanding day (movies, hobbies, and such).
  • After a rough night, sleep experts suggest a “do-nothing” approach. No extra coffee, no daytime naps, no early bedtime, and no sleeping in. Instead, establish a steady sleep schedule and stick with it.
  • When you’re aiming to lose weight without enough shut-eye, you might end up saying goodbye to muscle instead of fat. Just a single missed night can throw a wrench into the gears of muscle protein synthesis.
  • Irregular bedtimes and wake-up times are the body’s version of hopping time zones. You’re in a perpetual state of jetlag, minus the vacation vibes. This phenomenon, also called “social jet lag,” occurs when we skimp on sleep during the week and then overindulge on weekends. And guess what? It’s not the healthiest of habits. Our body clock doesn’t play well with irregular sleep.
  • When you find yourself awake in the dead of night, skip the temptation to peek at the clock. Clocks tend to ignite a flurry of thoughts, and a racing mind is not what you need as you strive to drift back into dreamland.
  • Let’s now put the spotlight on the upsides, the marvelous ways to boost your well-being. A good night’s sleep can:
    • Elevate your mood and sharpen your thinking
    • Fortify the immune system
    • Assist in weight management
    • Reduce the risk of chronic ailments
    • Ignite creativity and boost cognitive function
    • Supercharge memory and learning abilities
    • Maximize physical performance and speed up recovery
    • Turbocharge productivity and efficiency

Crazy Polyphasic Sleeping Schedules I Tried

I’ve given many forms of segmented (polyphasic) sleep a shot, a blend of sleep experiments, moments of thinking I’m going crazy, the wildest dreams, and big changes to my routine – all in the quest to figure out the perfect rhythm for making the most of my waking hours, with plenty of failed attempts along the way. Here’s the rundown:

  • Biphasic: A 5-hour night’s sleep plus a 1.5-hour nap during the day (almost doable even with a normal job)
  • Triphasic: Three 1.5-hour power naps dispersed throughout the day (this was a real challenge)
  • Everyman: A 3-hour nighttime “core” nap followed by multiple 20-30 minute naps during the day ((this juggling act was extra tough regardless of daily responsibilities)
  • Uberman: A 20-minute nap every 4 hours (even more demanding)
  • Free-running: Sleep whenever the fatigue hits (a personal favorite, though it only suits those on flexible schedules and is not recommended by science)
  • Monophasic: Return to the trusty 8-hour nighttime slumber (my current top pick, backed by research).

Pictures by mattressnerd.com

If you’ve tried any polyphasic sleeping schedule, you’ve tasted the sweet nectar of superiority. You’re a Time Wizzard among mere mortals. Your to-do lists get checked off at rapid speed and you finally don’t have to pick between yoga, meditation, and morning pages,, you’ve completed them three hours before the world even stirs. You refuse to waste “your one wild and precious life” on sleeping like the rest of them.

But there is a dark side. Skip or overdo a single nap, and suddenly it’s a days-long game of catch-up. Lunchtime naps at work? Not convenient. Catching Z’s in your car during a lunch break at work is a reality of the polyphasic path. The dreams are extremely vivid, and sometimes they don’t quite stop when you open your eyes, which can be quite unnerving. Deep down, you’re asking yourself if you’re damaging your health and engineering your premature demise. Your friends and family just add oil to the flames of doubt.

I always find my way back to the reliable Monophasic sleep routine. There are no studies warning about the dangers of a solid 8-hour night’s rest. In fact, doctors and scientists applaud this habit. I like synchronizing with the rest of the world’s rhythm, and that blissful, luxuriant feeling of a full night’s sleep.

Sure, I’ve tweaked things. Ten-minute yoga, quicker meditation, and breakfasts prepped for days ahead. And those mornings when I pass on my ideal morning routine? Surprisingly, no major harm done. I’ve started making friends with the unchecked boxes of my to-do list and the fact that there will never come the day when I say: “There. I’ve done everything!”. No more battling with time. If you’re up for a deeper dive, I explored this very dance in Time Management for the Rest of Us.

Don’t Let Your Sleep Rule Your Day

The monophasic sleep schedule isn’t a walk in the park either.

This is the Grand Plan: I craft a Zen-like evening ritual complete with cantle-lit journaling and relaxing reading. A gentle stretch ushers me into the realm of dreams by ten, and I rise up after 8 hours, before the alarm does, refreshed by the peaceful sleep. My morning ritual will be a sweet mixture of leisure, productivity, and self-care. Think yoga, morning pages journal with a side of early morning sunlight on the patio, followed by green tea and a wholesome breakfast.

And then, there’s the Real World: Midnight online rendezvous with insomniac gremlins (or people on the other side of the world who just woke up), scribbling down my latest “brilliant idea”, binge-watching videos on productivity apps for visual thinkers (I swear, it’s all vital research). Revenge Bedtime Procrastination at its fullest. And the classic move of staring at the phone screen until it’s lights out – no wonder my sleep gets a little muddled. And voila, I find myself wide awake at 3 am again. How do I know it’s 3 am? Of course, I checked my phone. And what if someone wrote to me while I was sleeping? Gotta find out, right? Suddenly, my leisurely morning agenda morphs into a snooze-a-thon. Who made the alarm the boss around here? Nobody’s going to tell me when to get up!

Dr. Winter calls it “the tail wagging the dog.” Yep, I’m guilty. Sleep quality, or the lack thereof, scripts the rest of my day. Time to tame this beast.

Sleep-training the Adult

Regular wake-up time is the main lesson I took away from diving into sleep optimization research. Decide on the hour you want to wake up and stick to it every day of the week, every week of the year. It sounded very simple in theory but harder to implement. I didn’t want to wake up to an alarm on Sunday morning or feel sleepy all day if I went to bed late the night before. Luckily science offers a nifty technique for that. You need to trick your brain into producing better-quality sleep with the help of a bit of deprivation.

I tried it and it worked beautifully. Now no matter when I go to bed, I wake up at 6:30 (you can pick any time that works for you), usually before the alarm sounds, and feel surprisingly fine. I also fall asleep quickly and if I do wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t check the clock, and I’m back asleep within a couple of minutes.

This program is based on W. Chris Winter M.D.’s plan that worked for me. It takes about three weeks (the length depends on your progress):

Stage 1: Get into a Sleep Routine

Before we begin this two-phase sleep training adventure, choose a low-key week where you don’t have to do much driving or decision-making. You might end up a bit sleep-deprived, so it’s good to have things easy.

  • Decide On Your Wake-Up Time: The magic isn’t in whether you get up at 5 am or 2 pm; what matters is consistency. Select a wake-up time that suits your lifestyle and responsibilities, and commit to it seven days a week, including weekends. Use multiple alarms if you need to. I went with 6:30 am.
  • Calculate Your Bedtime: Count six hours back from your wake-up time to find your new bedtime, in my case, 12:30 am. This is your new bedtime. Stick to it like glue, even if you’re tempted to veer slightly. If you occasionally find yourself hitting the hay later, make sure you still get out of bed at your designated wake-up time. While “The Sleep Solution” recommends 5.5 hours, I found sticking to 6 hours easier while still reaping all the benefits.
  • No Napping Allowed: Say no to all naps, and resist the temptation to linger in bed past your wake-up time. I completely avoided my bed during the day so I didn’t doze off while reading or watching a movie.
  • Expect to be Tired: You’ll likely feel groggy during the day and find it hard to stay awake. Hang in there. Your brain is learning that better sleep quality must make up for the shorter hours.
  • You’re ready for stage 2: Once you are able to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply without any sleep aids or relaxation exercises and the only challenge you face is daytime sleepiness, you’re ready for the next step.

Stage 2: Refine and Conquer

  • Same Wake-Up Time: Keep your wake-up time the same, but head to bed 15 minutes earlier than in Stage 1. This gives you 15 extra minutes of sleep.
  • Gradually Adjust Bedtime: Every few days, move your bedtime earlier by 15 minutes. This lets you get more sleep and reduces daytime sleepiness. Keep adjusting your bedtime in 15-minute increments until you get enough sleep to feel refreshed for the duration of the day.
  • Discover Your True Sleep Need: Discover Your Sleep Needs: When you’re enjoying good nighttime sleep and feeling energetic during the day without any daytime sleepiness, you’ve arrived. This is your official sleep requirement for this stage of your life. It might change over time depending on your health and age.

My Results

After a week of experimenting with sleep deprivation, I found that I could fall asleep quickly and enjoy a full night’s rest. After another fortnight of adjusting my bedtime in 15-minute increments, I discovered I needed around 7.5 hours of sleep to feel great during the day – not the 8 to 9 hours I used to believe. It turns out, those extra hours in bed were because my sleep quality wasn’t up to par.

Final Tips

  • Flexible Night, Firm Morning: Stick to your new schedule, but don’t stress if you need to tweak your bedtime slightly. The key is waking up at the same time each day.
  • Nap Strategically: If your nighttime sleep is solid, consider a brief nap – less than 25 minutes – earlier in the day. Avoid longer naps, as they might affect your nighttime slumber.
  • Use Movement and Sun: After you wake up, get some sunlight and exercise. Apart from being good for you, it’s a great way to set your inner clock.
  • Boost Your Sleep: Foods like kiwi, tart cherries, and magnesium can supercharge your sleep. Also, turn off screens (including your phone) a couple of hours before bed, and make sure your sleeping space is cool and dark.

Update, 11 Months Later

Eleven months have flown by, it’s time for an update! The verdict is in:

Waking before 7 am is now a breeze, and I’ve shifted my focus to prioritize those 7.5 hours of shut-eye. As a recovering night owl, I can now enjoy both sunrises and sunsets. When I’m knee-deep in a project, I occasionally dip into a biphasic sleep schedule (for just a few days): burning the midnight oil (around 1 or 2 am), rising with the sun (before 7), and squeezing in a siesta nap of about an hour around noon. Then it’s back to my 7.5 because nothing beats the glory of a full night’s sleep.

And let’s face it, if my 90-year-old, life-long smoker of a mother-in-law can age like a fine wine with the help of ample sleep (and modest eating), I’m all in.

So there you have it. No more guilt trips for getting the sleep you need. And as for those self-proclaimed 4-6 hour sleep champs? The reality check is in: you’re probably not escaping the effects of sleep deprivation. It’s like thinking you’re all good to drive after a few drinks, but everyone else sees that you’re not.

Food for thought: two iconic short-sleepers, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both faced Alzheimer’s in their later years. Prioritize sleep, folks!

If you want to dive deeper, listen to this excellent 3-part interview on sleep with Matthew Walker Ph.D. on Peter Attia M.D., or to this 3-hour one on Rich Roll podcast (with excellent time stamps to find the parts you’re most interested in).

Learning meditation can calm your nervous system and help you sleep (and live) better. I wrote about the 10-day silent meditation retreats that Mark and I have done.

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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

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