Sleeping well

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I've been talking about psychological productivity tricks for a few posts, and I have a thing or two more to say on that next week. However, on the outside view, a vast portion of my productivity comes not from the psychological side, but from a bunch of other environmental factors.

For example, I happen to eat pretty well, exercise at least minimally, and get enough sleep. Given how many people struggle with these things (they can be very hard!), large chunks of my productivity can be attributed to these three factors alone.

I don't have a lot of advice for diet and exercise that you haven't already heard, but I do have a bunch of tips for getting enough sleep, mostly due to some experimentation that I did as a teenager. This post is a rough brain dump of what I learned, and might be helpful for those who can't regularly get enough sleep.

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First, some caveats. My tips are mostly useful for people who often get enough sleep, but then occasionally have to take a late night (for one reason or another) and whose sleep cycle is then thrown off for days. My tips help me avoid the underslept zombie-mode that comes from small sleep-cycle disturbance. I don't expect anything here to help insomniacs or people with other sleeping disorders.

Also, note that my ability to consistently get good sleep is probably mostly due to biological luck and/or non-sleep factors such as diet, exercise, and stress management. Also, I'm young and physically healthy, and I'm often told that people lose sleep flexibility as they age.

Furthermore, these are things that worked for me, but I am only one person. These are anecdotes, not data. People are different. Take these tips with a grain of salt!

Finally, it is much easier in my experience to get good sleep under a flexible schedule. Many of my tips are inapplicable to people with rigid schedules. Sorry about that.

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All that said, I do seem to have some experience and information that many lack. I tried polyphasic sleep for a while as a teenager, and had some moderate success with triphasic and biphasic sleep cycles. I eventually stopped due to the hassle, but I learned a few things that are still helping me out to this day: mostly, it taught me how to nap effectively and gave me a good feel for REM.

I spent the same period of time learning how to lucid dream. I don't go lucid on purpose very often any more, but I had some decent success. This, too, taught me a few tricks that are still useful today: lucid dreaming also helped me get a better feel for REM sleep and helped me have more effective naps.

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Time for a brain dump. This will be a bit disordered, as I'm low on time this week.

Get enough sleep. As in, actually be sleeping for an appropriate amount of time each day. This is the obvious advice for people who are trying to get enough sleep, but it's often good to remember the obvious advice. Most people will tell you that the trick to doing this is to have a regular sleep schedule: go to sleep at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning. I think that this advice is only half correct:

Wake up at the same time every morning. If you hold the "wake-up" time steady, the rest will follow. (Haha, puns.) I suggest a wake-up time that follows the sun (see below) rather than a wake-up time which follows a specific minute according to the alarm clock, so a bit of drift is necessary. The goal is not perfect consistency, rather, the goal is to make the waking-up part habitual. That way, your body will automatically wake up at roughly the same time every morning, no matter how much you slept the night before. This has a number of good effects: you don't need alarms, you automatically wake up at the same time even when in really strange environments, etc. I have also found that I have less overall grogginess upon waking when I have been consistently waking at around the same time (not to the minute, but to the hour). That is, if I've spent the last two weeks going to sleep at midnight and waking up at 8:00, then if I slip a day and go to sleep at 4:00 in the morning, I still wake up at 8:00 in the morning feeling fine. How does this square with "get enough sleep"? I'll come back to that, but first, I want to talk more about waking up. In fact, most of my sleep tips are "figure out how to wake up right," as you'll see.

Wake up to light. I have found that it is far easier to wake up to sunlight. This means that my "wake-up time" is not a fixed time throughout the year, but follows the sun (and changes with daylight savings time). I'm a fan of never "forcing" myself to wake up, but instead putting myself in situations where my body naturally wants to get up at the times when I want to be up. If you don't have an east-facing window, or if you live in a cloudy climate, a wake-up light might help. I have one, but it's not nearly as effective (in my experience) as an actual dawn. (I will also note that, on cloudy days, I tend to sleep in a bit, although this effect is reduced when cloudy days are rare and I've been holding my wake-up time steady.)

Don't sleep in after a late night. "But wait," you may say, "how does getting enough sleep square with always waking up at the same time? What if I get a late night, what then?" My general policy is "make up lost sleep with naps." I have found, personally, that if I'm waking up at roughly the same time each morning, then even after a very late night, I wake up at the same time. In these cases, I may have only managed 2 to 4 hours of sleep, but the habitual wake-up time combined with waking-up-to-light puts my body into habitual "morning mode," and I don't actually feel the effects of sleep loss. (It's quite possible that this ability was developed when trying polyphasic sleep, but I actually expect that a fair bit of it comes from having a habitual wake-up time that coincides with natural sunlight, so I think it's replicable.) Ignore the narrative that you're supposed to be really sleepy after only getting 3h of sleep, that is (in my experience) a harmful expectation. Get up, take a shower, have breakfast. When this happens to me, I can usually get up feeling pretty chipper, sometimes more wakeful than usual. It's not all roses, of course: when I have a big sleep deficit, I tend to crash shortly after lunch time (between, say, noon and 14:00). This is when I make up for the lost sleep: not by sleeping in, but by continuing a day until I crash and then napping.

Sometimes, you just want to sleep in. That's fine, go for it. However, you don't have to sleep in after a late night. It's easy to wake up at your normal time after a late night and say "wait, but I don't have enough sleep, I had better go back to sleep," despite the fact that their body is ready to go. Listen to your body! It may well be able to run half a day on very little sleep, as long as you're able to nap after lunch.

Learn to nap. "But I can't nap," you protest. "Naps just leave me feeling grainy and even more tired than I was when I started." Yeah, I know that feeling. The ability to get good naps doesn't come for free. But it can be learned (at least in my experience), so growth mindset! I have a few tips for learning how to nap that I'll go over below, but of course, these tips are going to add up to "make sure you're waking up right."

Be able to nap. The first step of napping is being able to nap when you start to crash. Yeah, I know, most of you won't be able to do this because your schedule isn't flexible enough. You have my condolences. But many of you may find that it's easier to catch a midday nap than you think: even in my government contracting jobs, I found that saying "dang, I'm crashing, I need to go take a nap" was surprisingly well received. This is of course difficult in the service industry, but in most other industries, you might be surprised how well your boss/manager/whatever is OK with napping on the job.

(It's all about the delivery, of course: if you're able to pull off "I'm a responsible adult who is taking care of their productivity" it's much more likely to work. It's also much more likely to work if you need it only rarely.)

Practice napping. Most people are bad at napping when they start. When one is bad at napping, naps don't help remove a sleep deficit. However, in my experience, learning how to have effective naps is a very useful skill (and has increased my sleep flexibility manifold). Unfortunately, I learned how to take effective naps the hard way: I spent a few weeks depriving my body of anything except naps, and let me tell you, my brain figured out the trick real quick-like. There are a few tips I learned that I'll relay below, for anyone who wants to learn how to nap in a less brutal way, but I expect the best way to learn is just practice: go biphasic for a few weeks, be prepared for your naps to be ineffective for the first few days, and soon enough I expect you'll be napping like a pro. For me, at least, learning to nap was a very worthy investment.

Get a good feel for REM sleep. People will tell you many things about human sleep, and which sleep phases are important and which aren't. The polyphasic rallying cry is that only deep sleep and REM sleep are necessary, whereas many people spend most of their time in light sleep. I'm not sure whether this is the case, and if it is, it's probably glossing over a number of subtleties. However, I can tell you that when I learned to nap, the character/internal experience of both falling asleep and waking up changed drastically. I postulate that this corresponded to an improved ability to notice REM cycles and a shift in when my brain goes into REM sleep, but I also have an "anti special snowflake" heuristic which says that if you actually tested my sleep cycles then you wouldn't find anything abnormal, so take the next few tips with a grain of salt.

Going directly into REM. When I first started trying polyphasic sleep, my naps were ineffective. Early on, I'd lie there for 30 minutes and nothing would happen. Next nap, I'd be even more sleep deprived and so I'd fall asleep the moment I hit the mattress—only to be jolted awake after what felt like a few seconds, feeling groggy and grainy: I was slipping directly into an unconscious state, and then being wrested from it feeling even more tired than before. When naps started working, the effect was entirely different: I would lie down and slip directly into a dream state, have fairly vivid dreams, and then jolt awake at the end of the dream feeling alert and refreshed (and often a little suspicious of reality for a few seconds as the dream faded). I postulate that my body learned how to go directly into REM during a nap, and this is when my naps started becoming effective. If you're trying to learn how to do this yourself, keep an eye out for this phenomenon; this is (in my experience, at least), what you're shooting for. The following tip may help speed up the process:

Experience hypnagogia. Hypnagogia are the "sleep hallucinations" that sometimes happen as you're drifting off to sleep. "Hallucination" isn't really the right word; the experience (for me) is more one of a meandering mind and "threshold consciousness." In my experience, effective naps are almost exclusively preceded by hypnagogia; I postulate that this signals an ability to go directly into a REM state. Fortunately, in my experience, if I'm not experiencing hypnagogia before sleeping, it is possible to induce. There's a mental motion when falling asleep that feels like "hey wait don't fall asleep yet:" not the feeling of fully keeping yourself conscious, but the feeling of trying to stay awake in a boring class. If I maintain that "try to stay awake while falling asleep" state for long enough, I tend to get the hypnagogia.

Lean into dreams. I think that the process of going directly into REM was sped up for me by the fact that I was learning to lucid dream at the same time. Once you have hypnagogia, you can sort of "lean into the dream." Many people have a lot of difficulty consciously recognizing hypnagogia (unsurprising given that, you know, it's part of the process of losing consciousness). Others, upon directly noticing the hypnagogia, boot up into "full consciousness" state. (You know that thing where you're almost in a dream and your knee jerks and suddenly you're fully awake? Kind of like that.) Both of these phenomena were common for me when I was learning how to lean into hypnagogia, but eventually I was able to develop the third motion, which allowed me to consciously note the hypnagogia without disrupting the sleep process, and in that state I'm able to amplify the hypnagogia and induce a vivid dream. (This eventually became reflexive, so that whenever I try to nap, I automatically slip into a fairly vivid dream.) This also happens to be a very powerful way to enter a dream lucid, and is known as the wake induced lucid dream (WILD) technique. If you want to practice "leaning into the dream", then practicing WILDs may help. Even without full lucidity, the ability to go directly into a vivid dream directly corresponded to more effective naps.

(Note: after learning how to do this, I have occasionally experienced very vivid hypnagogia when tired but otherwise awake. This occurs mostly when I have a new partner and we stay up all night talking: where others experience "sleep silliness," I start experiencing vivid dreamlike hallucinations while maintaining a much higher level of consciousness than I usually associate with hypnagogia. This occurs much sooner than most people report sleep-deprivation hallucinations, and only started occurring after I practiced WILDs, so I expect they're related. I personally enjoy it, but there are situations where this would be detrimental. Consider yourself warned.)

Wake up right. Learning how to have vivid dreams while napping drastically improved my ability to wake up from a dream feeling refreshed rather than groggy. The experience is one of snapping awake after (or sometimes during) a dream, rather than one of being wrested awake by an alarm. I don't tend to pop out of a dream at any sort of "narrative conclusion," but I do tend to pop out of a dream automatically, and this almost always corresponds to feeling alert and refreshed. This seems easier after inducing a more vivid dream (by leaning into the hypnagogia when the nap starts). If you're practicing dreaming, I suggest not only leaning into dreams from the front, but practicing waking up automatically at the end. It's kind of hard to explain how to do this, but I think that waking up at the end of a dream is a trainable skill. How do you do that? Well...

Nap without an alarm. There are a few important reasons to nap without an alarm, I think. One is that if I'm woken from a nap at the wrong time, I often feel groggy or grainy. And unfortunately, "the right time" can be a five-minute window, and (in my experience) the window moves around depending on many variables, so I usually can't target that window with an alarm. Instead, I just nap and let myself wake up at the end of the dream. Which you may think you can't do, because what if you sleep all day? But that's part of the point, and this is where the "wake up at the end of a dream" practice comes in.

No seriously, nap without an alarm even when you have important things to do. The way you practice waking up at the end of a dream is you take a nap, without an alarm, about two hours before something important. (Be a little careful here, of course.) The goal is to put your body into a state where it needs to wake up on its own, because the stakes are high and there are no safeguards. I have found that my body does have this capability, and many others seem to possess it as well. (Ever have an important interview/flight/whatever early in the morning, and then experience shooting awake and being fully alert 20 minutes before your alarm was scheduled to go off, panicking that you might have missed the thing?) Your brain has hardware for waking up naturally, and you can learn to use it.

The point is not "always have something important waiting after your nap," that would be silly. Rather, the point is to put yourself into a situation where you really need to successfully wake on your own from the nap, and then, right after you wake up, notice what it was like just before you awoke. I have found that there is a character to the parts of sleep where you can naturally pop out, and that it's possible to put yourself into a state where you will wake naturally at the appropriate time. You can practice waking naturally in high-stakes scenarios in order to learn what the "auto wake-up monitor" feels like, but the ultimate goal is to always go into a nap with the "auto wake-up monitor" running; this is what I use to make sure I wake up from naps at a part of the cycle when I'm going to feel alert rather than groggy.

It helps if you treat "having an afternoon" as fairly high-stakes/important, and then the wake-up monitor can still jerk you awake with a feeling of "oh gosh I hope I didn't sleep the whole day away." Long-term, though, the goal is to separate the "I need to wake up" state of mind from the "panic" state of mind so that you can go into a nap knowing that you'll wake up at the right point in the sleep cycle without needing to wake up panicked. It's very hard to describe how to do this, so I think the best thing to do is practice putting yourself in situations where you have to auto-wake, notice the character of auto-waking a few times, and then try lots of different things until you figure out how to wake up from naps at the "alert" points rather than the "groggy" points in the cycle.

More tips on napping. So the three big tips on napping are (1) practice, (2) lean into dreams, and (3) learn how to wake up at the end of dreams. Most of these take lots of practice. A few smaller notes on napping, though:

  • You don't need to go all the way to sleep. Often, when I nap, I don't feel like I fully went to sleep. Instead, I just experience vivid hypnagogia bordering on a dream (but never quite losing full awareness of my environment) for about 30 minutes. This is fine, and in fact it is often good and refreshing. You don't need to fully lose consciousness in order for a nap to work!
  • For me, I naturally exit the nap cycle at either ~30min or ~2h. Your times may vary. Be OK with varied nap-lengths.

Wake up right from core sleep, too. For me, it was easier to learn how to wake up at the right point in the cycle from a nap rather than from core sleep. However, the skill transferred: after I became good at auto-waking at the right part of a nap, I was able to learn how to auto-wake at the right part of core sleep.

How does this square with "wake up to light"? It seems possible to set up your "auto-wake" process to pop you out of sleep the first time when you're both at the right point in the cycle and when there is sunlight. Again, in order to practice this, I recommend going to sleep without an alarm when there is something important that you can't sleep through; this will give you an opportunity to observe the auto-wake process.

sleepyti.me is a tool designed to help you wake at the right part of your sleep cycle. I personally find that my "wake up and be alert" target is too small and mobile to reliably hit with an alarm, but you might find it useful. (It's probably less effective but more practical than training up a reliable auto-wake process.)

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Those are my big tips. Most of the tips are centered around waking up right: in my experience, the sleep phase I am awoken from has a lot of effect on how I feel upon waking. It's possible to train yourself to wake up at the right part of the cycle. Sunlights help.

Learning to nap was invaluable for me when it came to making up sleep deficits, and this ability made my sleep schedule much less brittle (and also helped me train the auto-wake process).

I personally did this by throwing myself at a polyphasic sleep cycle which forced my brain to figure out how to nap real fast. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that option, but I do think it's useful to undergo some short-term discomfort in order to figure out how to actually get good sleep from naps. Maybe go biphasic for a while.

(Note, of course, that this may just Not Work For You. Remember the earlier caveats about diet, health, luck, etc. But the fact that you can't nap well before you've really tried isn't much evidence about whether you will be able to nap well after practice, and it's probably worth checking. Just realize that naps might suck for the first few weeks while you're practicing.)

Now that I am able to nap effectively, I have much more flexibility in my sleep schedule. It helps that I've fixed the time that I wake up in the mornings: I can now go to sleep whenever I like, make up sleep deficits by napping, but also retain some regularity and rhythm in my schedule by waking up at the same time each morning. (I do find that rhythm is important when it comes to getting enough sleep.)

The rhythm also makes it easier for me to experiment with my sleep cycle. Let's say that my wake-up time is fixed at around 8:30 (given local sunrise time and the position of my window). Now I can try going to sleep at 2:00 for a few days, and see if I can run on 6h30 of sleep. If no, I just nap and make up the deficit. If yes, I can push it a bit further to see how little sleep I can run on.

Be careful with this! Cognitive degradation is often happening before you feel any of the effects of sleep deprivation. If you're doing this, I suggest tracking your reaction time as you go. I personally sleep +90min from the subjective "feeling pretty awake" limit. Nevertheless, probing that limit provides useful information, even if you don't plan to stay there.

Personally, I've found that my need for sleep varies between something like 6h and 9h per day. Having a fixed wake-up time and the ability to nap in order to reclaim a sleep deficit makes it a lot easier for me to experiment. And, of course, if you follow this strategy to its conclusion, you can push your core sleep down to 5h and reliably take a midday nap, and now you're following a siesta sleep schedule.

So there you go. I know it's not a very well-organized list, but hopefully you can extract something useful. I am of the opinion that good sleep is an important component of high productivity/motivation, so if you're currently lacking in motivation, it's definitely worth checking whether or not sleep is the bottleneck. Regardless, it's well worth experimenting: if you can save 90 minutes of sleep per night then you're saving over five hundred hours per year. This is one of those places where small improvements lead to large benefits.