What my friend got wrong about her sleep schedule

May 9, 2021

Can you accurately assess your own performance?

Can you identify your strengths and pinpoint your weaknesses? Can you objectively measure how well you’re doing? Can you judge yourself correctly?

I reflected on this question earlier this week, when a friend told me she’ll be experimenting with “polyphasic sleep”. That’s when you divide your sleep in multiple chunks a day, rather than sleeping once per 24 hours (at night). It seemed like a bad idea to me, so I did a little research.

As it turns out, polyphasic sleep is rather bad for you. It usually causes chronic sleep deficiency. What’s worse, people who experience chronic sleep deficiency don’t know it:

Multiple studies have also shown that the self-reported impairments of those who have chronic sleep deficiency do not align with objective performance: they fail to accurately assess how impaired they are by their sleep deprivation.

That’s from a meta-study by sleep experts from a variety of institutions—it’s the first link in the section below.

When I shared this article with my friend, she thanked me for sharing it, but said that she would still experiment for herself with polyphasic sleep. To me that sounds like, “thank you for telling me cigarettes cause cancer; I will experiment for myself to see whether cigarettes will give me cancer”. But I decided not to press the point.

I’m all for experimentation. In fact, my productivity philosophy rests on trial and error: take a reasonable guess at what workflow, technique, or app might work for you, and then try it out! Really, properly try it out, for at least a few weeks. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Sometimes you’ve got to listen to the science though. Sleeping less is bad for you. Breaking your sleep up into multiple chunks is also bad for you. That’s only a slight simplification.

But even when you experiment frequently and read up on the relevant science, you might still struggle to perform maximally—if you try to do it all yourself. There’s a reason why professional athletes have coaches. If you’re struggling, if you’ve already tried different things, and if you’re taking care of yourself, but you’re still not getting results—just hire help.

And now that we’re on the topic, where might your performance be suffering without you knowing it?

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