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.
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.
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).
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).
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: