Experiment: Sleep Less, Do More

If there is a “holy grail” for those obsessed by productivity and time-management, it is conquering sleep.  It is easy to think of the time spent sleeping each night as wasted time.  If only we could sleep less without any ill-effects!

 

You’ve probably tried going without sleep once or twice and know what a painful experience it can be.  Coffee and energy drinks help for a time, but their effects are temporary and crash-inducing.  Maybe you’ve even heard of a more extreme idea like polyphasic sleep and have tried it (or decided not to).  Oh, woe be to us who have so much to do and so little time!  How are we to fit more into our day with 8 hours stolen right away by Queen Mab?

 

It is possible to leverage simple tricks and sleep better.  I experimented with a lot of different techniques and tools over the course of 4 weeks and can definitely say that I found a combination that works for me.  At the very least, by becoming aware of your sleep cycle you can anticipate and prevent problems using some of the following tricks. Read on for details or skip to the hard data or what worked and what didn’t.

 

Update from 2 months after the experiment: the tricks I discovered from this experiment continue to serve me well and have become an irreplaceable part of my daily life.  Where I once required 8 and 1/2 hours of sleep each and every night to feel good, I now sleep an average of 6 1/2 hours per day (even without an alarm).  I reduced my required sleep by 2 hours (25%) and I truly feel more alert than ever.



Experiment Overview

 

 

Goal: To sleep for less total time per day without a decrease in sleep quality, as well as to fall asleep quicker.
Techniques & Tools

  • Zeo Personal Sleep Coach.  This handy device includes a headband to be worn whilst sleeping – sure it looks a little odd, but the data it provides is amazing.
  • Huperzine A: Reported to improve the % of time spent in REM sleep (considered to be “good” sleep).  I took one 200mcg tablet about 1 hour before bed 2 days per week maximum.
  • California Poppy: Reported to improve the % of time spent in deep sleep (considered to be the “best” sleep).  I took one dose about 1 hour before bed 2 days per week maximum.
  • Philips Golite: Used to treat SAD, this device helps your body by producing natural (“full-spectrum”) light.  The body reacts to this sort of light by adjusting its internal clock.  Many chemicals and hormones are produced by the brain as a result of its perception of when the day starts/ends, which is based largely upon light.  Using it every morning trains your body to wake up, and some folks claim it can be just as effective as coffee or other stimulants.
  • Biphasic Sleep: Simply put, an afternoon nap.
  • Pre-Bed Snack: a small handful of nuts or a tablespoon of peanut butter (1/2 serving) within 1 hour of bed due to the high fat/protein content.
  • No Caffeine: I quit my coffee addiction before attempting this experiment (and waited for the headaches to subside…) because coffee is known to interfere with sleep quality
  • No Alcohol: I did not drink while performing the experiment because alcohol is known to interfere with sleep quality
  • Exercise: I debated a bit on this one, but ultimately decided to maintain my normal exercise schedule (about 1 hour/day, 6 days per week).
  • A warm shower before bed
  • “Lights Out”: I tried turning out the lights 20 minutes before sleep (the body bases much of its sleep chemical production on light cues)
  • No alarm clock: Being forcibly woken up (especially in REM/deep sleep) can have a negative impact on wakefulness and general attitude, so I chose not to employ an alarm clock.  Instead, I made sure to go to bed at a similar time each night and woke up naturally at about the same time each day (the Philips Golite helped with this, which I’ll explain more later).

 

Measurement: I chose to use the total daily “ZQ” score provided by the Zeo personal sleep coach as my single quantifying value.  This value is calculated by a simple formula which assigns a greater “worth” to REM and deep sleep, and subtracts points for waking up.  Obviously there’s a lot more to consider here – I kept a detailed log in my journal of how much time it took me to fall asleep, how easy it was to get out of bed on waking up, how I felt that day, etc.  These are all somewhat subjective, but it quickly became apparent that they did in fact correlate to the ZQ score (generally the higher my ZQ, the better my mood etc. the following day).  The actual number of the ZQ itself is not important, but rather the delta (change) of the score.  In other words, I first recorded 1 week of data sleeping on my normal schedule, and then compared my results during the experiment to this data.

 

Timeline: 4 weeks.

 


Results

 

 

Before: During the control or baseline phase my ZQ was in the 70-85 range and I was sleeping about 8 hours per night average.

 

After: Below you can see my sleep for a decent night (though a bit better than average) near the end of the experiment.  Notice that my ZQ was 90 despite the fact I only slept 6 1/2 hours… and this doesn’t even include my afternoon nap (usually about 20 minutes long)!  I was averaging a 100-115 total daily ZQ score, for a sleep quality increase of 45% without sleeping any more than before the experiment!  Finally, I also managed to reduce the time it took me to fall asleep to less than 2 minutes to fall asleep every single time (including naps).


 


What Worked and What Didn’t

 

 

As you can see from the experiment overview above, I experimented with a lot of different things.  The two drugs (Huperzine A and California Poppy) I employed only twice a week each in order to closely examine their effects.  The rest of the changes were general lifestyle changes.  Choosing not to consume alcohol or caffeine was simply to avoid allowing outside drugs to interfere with the experiment.  That said, based upon my phased implementation of these different items and very detailed journal entries, I believe I can say confidently what did and did not work.

 

The biphasic schedule, exercise and pre-bed snack I all consider to be essential to my results.  Having switched to these habits, I doubt I will ever go back if I can at all avoid it.  The biphasic schedule meant I was more rested than ever and had more consistent energy levels throughout the day.  I find that without exercise I have far too much excess energy, and likewise without a pre-bed snack my sleep can be disrupted.

 

The warm shower and “lights out” were effective for decreasing my time to fall asleep, but did not appear to have any impact on the sleep quality itself.

 

The nights when I had the most deep sleep were, in fact, the nights I took California Poppy…  however, taking the supplement did not guarantee higher than average deep sleep.  On the other hand, Huperzine A consistently showed a higher-than-average REM time (in terms of a percentage of total sleep time).  Since the experiment ended I have continued to employ the drugs at certain times when I felt that they might be useful.  For example, I’ll take Huperzine A immediately before a 30-minute pre-sleep study session when learning a foreign language due to its impact upon memory and retention (and the fact that reviewing before sleep is effective).  Likewise, I will sometimes employ California Poppy on a day when I worked out harder than normal due to the fact that deep sleep is “physically restorative” sleep.

 

Finally, the Philips Golite did not appear to have any direct impact upon sleep quality.  However it did make my sleep schedule more regular.  By turning on the light at the same time each morning, I found that I woke up naturally and easily at the same time each day after a few days of use.  I can see this being very useful for traveling and adjusting to different time zones… even more so in places like Alaska or northern Sweden, where the days are very long/short (which is, in fact, one of the primary uses of such artificially created natural light).

 


Additional Observations

 

 

Scary Sundays: After this experiment ended I spent a weekend at Mardi Gras with some friends in New Orleans (where, for the first time in many months, I drank to excess).  When we woke up Monday morning I observed that I had experienced extraordinarily vivid dreams.  I was surprised when my friend was very familiar with this phenomenon and even had a name for it: “scary Sundays.”  It should be no surprise that alcohol messes with our sleep schedules.  As a result of the body attempting to compensate, it turns out we have a lot more REM sleep the following night – which naturally leads to more vivid dreams.  Thus, after drinking heavily on a Saturday night you, too, might have a scary Sunday night.

 

Circadian Rhythms: Going to sleep at a regular time each night may not have been vital, but it certainly improved my ability to stick to my schedule.  I strongly believe that the biphasic (napping) schedule was the single most effective thing I took away from this experiment, but napping can be difficult if you just haphazardly fit it in wherever you can.  Better is to choose a specific block of time for the nap!

 

 


More Sleep Hacks

 

There is simply far too much information to fit into a single blog post.  Hopefully this provides a good overview and gives you some ideas on what to try (and what to avoid).  There were some other tricks I employed to decrease my time to fall asleep to under 2 minutes every time, for example, but these tricks are more of mind-hacks which I’ll cover in their own post.

 

Other websites with sleep hacking information:

The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss
The Experiment Driven Life – Zeo results

 


About the Author

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Zane Claes
I post twice-weekly about using self-experimentation in order to find out what can improve your life the most. If you liked what you just read, why not subscribe via RSS, Facebook or Twitter?You'll find plenty of charts and data from my own experiments, handy resources to start your own, and general findings to boost your quality of life.
  • Jay

    Very interesting. I know the ideal nap time is around 2-3 pm, however due to work i cannot implement it at that time. I have now started doing it around 7 pm. Sometimes i fall asleep, sometimes not. However i do notice a decreased need for night sleep.

    Do you know of any data regarding optimal nap time?

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Jay. I started to reply to your question and found that I had far too much to say! Please see the full response in this new blog post: http://lifebyexperimentation.com/2011/04/productivity-hack-do-something-at-the-right-time/

      I would add, though, that a few of the sources I read indicated that a late nap time is potentially detrimental to the quality of your night’s sleep. Also, keep in mind that the important bit is “time after waking” not “time on the clock.” Eg, the optimal nap time is about 8 hours after waking – which might be 7pm if you wake up at 11am ;)

      • Jay

        Hey zane,

        Interesting article i read recently about naps: apparently they also promote longevity:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21403883

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane Claes

          Very nice, thanks Jay. I’ve read a bit about the so-called “Blue Zones” but I’d like to do some more research and perhaps set up a related experiment…

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stealthanugrah Fiel Mahatma Sahir

     Hey Zane, I’ve been doing this experiment for myself, it’s going great. I do have a question though, 
    remember this article I showed you over at fi3m? http://madisonjazz.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/practicingandcurrentbrainresearchbygebrian.pdfabout practicing and musicians etc, well here they recommend sleeping for 8-9 hours, and that the brain only/best processes music at the 7th/8th hour of sleep… am i screwing myself over from sleeping 6 1-2 hrs with a 20 min nap during the day? i can’t sleep for 8-9 hours because each time I try, when I want to get up, i just can’t unless i put my alarm on my desk (I have a loft/bunk bed) if not i’ll sleep for 10 hours or so, it’s ridiculous, and it completely kills my productivity for the day, i’ll do things slower and with less quality than if i sleep for 7, since you like neuroscience, what do you think? I think it’s time they redo their research to accommodate this part in haha

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

       Hm, I am a bit skeptical of the “full night of sleep” statement in this document.  First, it is added almost as a footnote with no citations or information to back it up.  Second, there is no reason I know of to believe temporal locality of a sleep cycle could be relevant.  What I __DO__ believe is the basic statement that “sleep quality is important in learning.”  The point of my experiment, here, was to achieve the same quality of sleep in less time.  In other words, to have a higher percentage of REM and deep sleep (thus my use of ZQ).

      Every experiment which I have read suggests that it is the stage of sleep we are in that determines the benefits to us.  I have no reason to believe that REM sleep near the end of the sleep period is necessarily better than during the beginning.  Basically, this document seems to blithely take the “quantity over quality” point of view.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stealthanugrah Fiel Mahatma Sahir

        alrighty there’s my answer, u’ve saved me a lot of worries and time for college next year, all my buddies are going to be busy sleeping in and taking 4 hr naps haha, nah I’ll tell them about this. I’ve told quite a few ppl on facebook, good reception from all of them, idk if people have actually tried it though. it takes a little to be extraordinary and actually do something these days haha. 

        I wish I had connections to a sleep scientist or someone who could reconduct these experiments with yours in mind and all that, I have a feeling it’d be very interesting! 
        Thanks again Zane!

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

          One day I’ll have access to a sleep lab and a FMRI and a research team… one day… *drool* :)  

  • http://www.remotepcaccess-software.org/ remote desktop

    Zane,
    Looks like you really do your home work on each experiment.  I don’t think I want to sleep less though, just focus on doing more fun stuff each day. 
    Thats my take on it and I enjoy your blog.

    Laters!

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Thanks!  I try to make sure that I’m not just another proverbial wagging chin on the internet.  It is great to have advice and things to say, but as a reader I know I much prefer seeing things that are supported by data.  I’m very glad you’re enjoying the blog and I hope to see you drop me a line from time to time when you find an experiment interesting :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/stealthanugrah Fiel Mahatma Sahir

    I’ve been doing this for quite awhile just so I could have more daylight hours, I really adore this. I’ve been using your w/o alarm clock idea, but I still use the alarm clock just in case. I usually wake up before whenever I tell myself to though, which is frustrating, and if not, I don’t wake up at all, my alarm does it for me. I’m still working on applying it. 

    Anyways, my mom always told me since I was young, that I would get sick easily if I didn’t sleep enough. This holds true til today. Not that this experiment has made me sick (meaning a cold or something), but I just start having stuffy noses quite often. For some reason when AC’s around me are on full blast, or when I’m exposed to cold, my nose plugs up, do you have an explanation for that? 

    Also, I continuously sleep 6 1/-7 hrs of sleep, with the nap everyday, I am more alert :) But on my bus ride home from school I can’t keep my eyes open. This doesn’t happen at any other time during the day. I drink water, try to do hw, watch a video, or even move seats just so I can stay awake. Problem is half the time I don’t catch myself sleeping and when I wake up, it results in a jerk like that of a car accident so now my back is feeling weird hehe… 

    I think it’s time for me to reread and strictly follow your experiments a lot more. 

    Thanks Zane! 

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Well, sleep is the body’s natural time to repair itself (specifically, deep sleep).  I would really encourage you to not necessarily follow these experiments word for word, but invest in the Zeo sleep coach or other technology to monitor yourself.  We are each different and different strategies may work better, though I think these are the best/wisest strategies overall.  Remember that the goal is to get the same amount of restorative sleep in less overall time, and you can use these monitoring tools to tweak your techniques until they provide the results you want.

      About the late-day crash… how is your eating pattern leading up to it?  There’s no shame in a little sugar to keep you going through a tough part of the day.  Are you physically/mentally tired here?  Honestly it sounds like something I would consider either using as a study time if you’re not too tired, or going with what your body is telling you and make it a short nap time (set an alarm just to be safe).

      I’d love to consider being more active on my YouTube channel, but my problem is I don’t know what I would say differently than I do here on my blog.  It can also be a bit tough because I cannot shoot videos in public places (hostels, etc) while traveling like I can with writing blog posts.  It would be a fun experiment to try to become decent with YouTube too, though.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stealthanugrah Fiel Mahatma Sahir

        Ahhh, yeah yesterday I took a 10-11 hour sleep and i felt completely recharged and recovered, so that was good, but i wud get a zeo coach, problem is mullah mullah mullahhh, but that’s besides the point, 

        on the late day crash, hmm sugar wudn’t be so bad, i just don’t have any snacks ready, and i do recall eating snacks on the bus, but falling asleep regardless.. smh… haha, but it’s more like physically tired i guess since I don’t get as much as i should, plus that day I hadn’t eating in 15 hours due to fasting, but i still fall asleep fasting or not haha, i might nap during those rides, but it’s not easy cuz u can wake up often, and ehhh, ya know? i like a stable 25-40 min nap at home in a bed, not in a seat, and then having a wake up that gives my body the action of a car crash, haha, but it is worth a shot, haha i just gotta get the right seats
        about youtube, it’s np if what u say is no diff, and shooting in public places? all I gotta say is Benny Lewis does it, pretty often too, he may not post every week, but he does so and it accompanies his blog, and he vlogs about his travels and such, i’m sure u’ve seen some, but if you need a model, you got one haha he’s it :)  

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

          Yeah, sometimes it is not bad to sleep a lot… not necessarily because the body needs it, but it can be good for your state of mind.

          So I decided to give podcasting a shot, at least.  I just published the first podcast (you can see the new post on the front page), and it should  be going live in iTunes soon.  I think I’ll make an occasional YouTube video, but only when I have something to show rather than just say.  Anyway, thanks for the idea and I hope you find it interesting ;)

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  • Uli Krahn

    Meditating might be an option. Breathing control and the regular practice of letting the mind go fairly soon makes falling asleep a matter of choice (or unconscious habit). When you are in situations where sleep is limited, meditating for short or long or the rest of the flight can make you feel much more as if you’ve slept nicely. It might also reduce the danger of your sleep-reduction system suddenly turning against you when you’re stressed.   
    Personally I’d aim for best sleep, not least sleep … the neuroscientists are just coming up with a new wave of how- important- sleep- is research.  Not drinking alcohol or trying to do something exciting like socialising or working until just before sleep are by far  the strongest  cheapest sleep improvers. 

  • Andy Rosenbaum

    “Oh, woe be to us who have so much to do and so little time!  How are we to fit more into our day with 8 hours stolen right away by Queen Mab?”
    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve struggled with sleep difficulties my entire twenty-one year long life. Only in the last year have I gotten a handle on my sleep habits, and it’s made a huge difference in my enjoyment of life.

    I’m studying in Spain this summer, and my class schedule lends itself nicely to a daily 30-minute Siesta. I swear by it. As you’ve described, I have a more consistent energy level throughout the day.

    I usually have a pre-bed snack as well. I always get those nay-sayers who tell me all those Calories will just get stored as fat while I’m asleep, but I don’t buy it. I find it much easier to get to sleep when I have something in my stomach, and if I don’t get my pre-bed snack, I wake up ravenously hungry.

    Exercise definitely makes a difference, too. I find that I sleep much better when I’ve worked out that day.

    Great blog. I found you from Start Google Plus. Thanks!

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  • Jamesmruth

    Hello and thanks for posting all of your info. I’m interested in maximizing my productivity and like most people don’t have much time.

    I’ve been reading your articles and I’m confused about the use of huperzine A and california poppy. Do you just take each of them twice per week on four different days and skip the other three days per week?

    If you aren’t able to work your schedule to get the nap in around 8 hours after sleep, is it alright to have it possibly as far out as 12-14 hours after sleep?

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Yes, I alternated in the huperzine A and california poppy, as you suggested. Now, I know some drugs are supposed to work after a sort of “build-up” period (eg, SSRIs, aka. anti-depressants like Prozac, require weeks of dosage to start working), but this was not my understanding as it pertains to these drugs (they are supposed to work immediately AFAIK).

      As for a late nap… I’d advise against it. What you’ll find, napping that late in the day, is you don’t get a full energy-peak cycle after you wake up from the nap. You’ll likely discover that you start going to bed later and later, due to the nap, because you then become awake and alert all over again late in the evening. The purpose of the nap is to give you this “second half of the day,” but you can’t divide the day into 3/4 and 1/4 (it’s just not how the chemical balances work).

      Is there any way you could tweak your schedule a bit? Maybe go into work an hour earlier for an hour longer lunch break?

      • Jamesmruth

        Wow! Thank you for the fast reply. My family time, kids’
        sports times, and school times are pretty unchangeable. It seems I could adjust
        it to get the nap at 8 hours 6 days a week, but the 7th day that time period
        would be in the middle of a lab class. Is it flexible enough to pull off that
        way without being useless in that lab?

         

         

        I’ve also read you shouldn’t take those two supplements for
        long periods of time. Do you take a week or more off from them every month or
        yr? Do you feel like it’s reasonable to take Hup A one night, take night off,
        take poppy, take night off, take Hup A, take night off, poppy, etc., and then
        take a week off between each semester of school?

      • Jamesmruth

        Also, a short nap may be all I could pull off with any regularity anyhow, but I’m curious why a short nap instead of two 3-4 hour sleep cycles

      • Jamesmruth

        Sorry, I keep thinking of things I’d like to ask. Do you have any advice on where to learn good meditation techniques (to help with getting my time to get to sleep down)?

  • Meh

    i want to post something more constructive (as in whether your tips worked for me (but im still figuring it out))
    but heres a modest ego booster for you, good work!

  • Dan

    Can I ask if the methods are still working? I used this program to reduce my sleep a while ago, 
    http://powerfulsleep.com/ , it has a cheesy homepage but it worked.  It didn’t require a nap and there were no supplement suggestions, im really curious to try huperzine and california poppy, are there any known side effects for long term use?

  • Nadine

    Zane, excellent blog! 4 months ago, I was travelling to italy for 1 month, an amazing trip. When I came back to my country, I noticed that my sleep cycle was changed completely. My sleep routine in Italy was about 6 hours of deep sleep , just to get 18 hours to travel and travel and travel (I think 1 month is very short je je). Now, back to my country, I go to bed around 23:00 but I awake at 3:00. First time I was terrified, what happened to me (2 months awakening at 3:00 am)? I tried going to bed at 20:00 and I awake at 23:00! 4 months later, I think my circadian rhythm was completely changed, I just need 4 or 6 hours of sleep to be fine and energetic. I take 2 naps: from 23:00 to 2:00 am and from 3:00 to 5:00 am and voila!

  • Mehoolio

    Hi, can you share what time you went to bed, woke up, took a nap, and exercised? Taking a nap or exercise too  close to your deep sleep time might not be effective?

  • http://www.deridder.nl/Merken/Auping Auping

     Extremely in teresting topic you choose. It is good to have a sleeping pattern but I think sleeping less will effect in less productivity. So my advice: just sleep the time you need. If you sleep 1 hour shorter, you will work longer but less!

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