Maximizing The Effectiveness Of Your Sleep – So You Have More Time For Life’s Activities

The human body needs seven or eight hours of sleep per day – that’s a largely accepted fact that we’ll use as a premise. Most people get their sleep during one stretch in the night, mostly because that’s the time when they’re not working or in school.

For me, though, I realized that this sleeping pattern may not be the most optimal. What I actually found is that spacing out the sleep worked much better for me. I still get seven hours or sleep or so in a twenty four hour period, but I moved my sleep periods apart to provide breathing space for all of the activities that I accomplish.

On an average day, I have four sleep periods. I take a one hour nap around noon (during my lunch break at work – I requested and received a longer lunch break in exchange for coming in a bit earlier), a one hour nap around five in the afternoon (directly following work), a two hour sleeping period between ten in the evening and midnight, and another period between three thirty and about six thirty in the morning. I’ve only recently adapted to this sleeping routine because it has freed up that patch in the middle of the night to write.

What’s the logic behind this pattern? For the most part, I discover that after I’m awake for about six hours, I hit a strong groggy period. When I would sleep a normal eight hour period at night, I would have a period in the early afternoon where I would be hit with incredibly intense grogginess, almost falling asleep when I should be productive.

I then implemented the noon nap, but then I found that the groggy period would hit in the middle of the evening when I’d want to be playing with my son, around six or seven o’clock. Thus, I figured out that I could come straight home from work and take a brief nap before he arrived home from daycare. This enabled me to be wide awake during the evening hours, then give me a few hours of alertness after he goes to bed to take care of household tasks.

Very recently, I’ve been actually waking up at midnight and working on writing for three hours. I tried, for a time, waking up early to write and this worked well, but then I would get groggy about ten in the morning at work.

Why do this? It enables me to get a lot of things done that I wouldn’t ordinarily have time to do. The two periods where I nap were often unproductive – the first one was usually around lunchtime, when there’s a lot of water cooler talk, and the second one was during that post-work vegetative time where I would normally “unwind” from the day, which I’m just doing more intensely now. This has freed up a block of time in the middle of the night where the house is quiet and I can focus on my writing.

Doesn’t this interfere with other activities? On the weekend, the only part of this that interferes with a “normal” day is the five o’clock nap, which I sometimes skip if the situation calls for it and head to bed early. During the week, this pattern rarely interferes with anything at all.

Defining your own napping schedule Look for regular patterns during your day where you’re low on energy or when you always do something vegetative, like watching a television program right after work or getting drowsy right after lunch. Maybe for you it’s watching an hour of television in the evening before bed.

Whatever the case, when you identify those periods, look carefully for opportunities to nap at that time or just before it. Request a longer lunch break, for starters, to take a nap during lunch. See if you can go home before picking up your child from daycare for an hour and get a nap in there. Go to bed when your child does, then rise early and take advantage of the quiet.

The purpose is to sleep short periods more often, where the regular flow of life sees a valley. That way, you’re alert and ready for those times when there’s things to do and you’ll not find yourself getting behind. By converting to this, I found hours of alertness that enabled me to really chase my writing dreams.

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  1. Elaine says:

    Did you do any research on sleep patterns? Yours closely mimics what was most common in medieval Europe – well up until the advent of artificial light, actually. I’ve read a few articles about it lately.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Segmented_sleep
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/opinion/19ekirch.html?ex=1298005200&en=7a2362011318c171&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

  2. story says:

    What a clever and reasonable system. I’m impressed with the simplicity of this. I’ve often wondered how you managed to be so productive – incredibly prolific while working full time! I’m going to try to emulate at least part of this system.

  3. Trent Trent says:

    There is one little problem with this: if you have a few days in a row where you can’t do this schedule because of other commitments, you feel utterly exhausted. Hint: I do right now.

  4. Andrew says:

    I try to do this since it’s been incredibly helpful.

    Thing is, I’m more of an on-call thing at work where sleeping during events would get me fired.

    Then I’d have all day to sleep!!

  5. Beth says:

    Where do you nap at work?

    Half of me thinks you’re crazy, but you DO make a good argument for your system :)

  6. guinness416 says:

    Noted online nutcase Steve Pavlina had a system similar to this a while back. Seemed to work for him too.

    I’m trying to decide whether I’d be laughed out of the room or fired if I asked for a longer lunchtime “in exchange for coming in earlier”. Are you paid by the hour?

  7. DJ says:

    Doesn’t the lunchtime napping cut into possible networking time?

    And I would think with a new baby coming your schedule probably won’t work anymore :)

  8. Geron says:

    This sounds like an interesting approach to sleeping. A while ago, I read something about requiring 4 hours of continuous sleep to get the most effect. It said that if you must nap, keep it to about 15-20 minutes at a time. I don’t know the reason why, however. Can anyone confirm this?

  9. Hoffmann says:

    It sounds interesting

    I will try it on myself

  10. Mitch says:

    Does anyone have any tips on not being incredibly groggy for hours after taking a nap? I can’t sleep during the day for more than 20 minutes without becoming a zombie. The only time it’s worth it is when I’m sick/extremely sleep deprived and already feel really crummy.

    Beth, my employers once let me have a 2-hour lunch and to sleep in an empty office for a couple weeks. I’d had pneumonia for a few months and didn’t have sick leave or vacation yet, but was pretty exhausted. Kept a couple of small blankets and a very loud kitchen timer. They made a similar accommodation for a coworker two cubes down who had to pump breastmilk. I just talked to them and they were willing to work with me. Depends on your workplace, I guess.

  11. Vincent says:

    Actually, Steve Pavlina wrote about this a couple years ago. His was a bit different—about a half hour of sleep at a time throughout the day—but he documented the whole thing and it’s a pretty interesting (if long-winded) read.

    http://snipurl.com/1ouvz

  12. lorax says:

    How on earth can you fall asleep during the day?

    I’m wired all day, as long as I got enough sleep the night before. Even if I didn’t sleep well the night before, I’ve tried to sleep in the daytime, but it just doesn’t work.

  13. Jeanne says:

    Trent, I’ve been reading your blog for about two months and I’ve found it to be full of practical, useful advice. This was the first post that prompted me to write, however, because your assumptions about finding time to nap left out a large chunk of your readership.
    Many of us may not have the flexibility you do at work; what about teachers, for example? I don’t see a lunchtime nap in the cards for them during the school day (although maybe the kindergarten teachers could pull this one off!). What about those readers who don’t have the luxury of childcare – where do they find the spare hour after work to snooze? What about those working two jobs to reduce debt? When’s their nap time?
    I realize finding time to sleep is an individual pursuit; I wish you had provided more realistic ideas for those trying to embrace napping.

  14. Louise says:

    Trent I know you’ve written about this, and recently, but it annoys the hell out of me every time it happens, which is at least a few times a day…

    Fellow readers and commenters, Trent is NOT telling you what to do. He is not going to solve your problems for you. Something perfect for him may be the ruin of you. Something disastrous for Trent might be a lifesaver for you. Do not expect this blog to be a how-to for your own life. It’s not. So don’t criticize Trent for failing to tailor his ideas to your life. If you want a personalized post, send him an email about your situation and you might get lucky. Just stop getting so crabby about generalized posts that (by definition) don’t conform perfectly to your personal circumstances.

  15. Teresa says:

    thank you louise. :) very well said. i would like to applaud you trent for finding a solution to your situation. i am in a somewhat similar situation, and enjoy my lifestyle immensely. smaller blocks of time sleeping work much better for me than the large 6-8 hour block of time.

  16. rob says:

    Interesting, I think the main idea the author is trying to get across is to do what works for you. In Trent’s case, it’s taking naps when groggy.

    In my case, during those times when I didn’t need to be awake at a certain time (during weekends or when on vacation), I would gravitate towards sleeping longer, 8-10 hours, and staying awake longer too, 18-20 hours. So my natural cycle would be more conducive to a 30-hour day.

    For a contrary opinion on the whole sleep/health/work thing, I really enjoyed the book ‘The Joy of Laziness’ by Peter Axt. Recommended.

  17. Sounds like an interesting sleeping system. It also sounds like a forced sleeping system when you have kids! As they are not necessarily sleeping regular hours, you might end up having this kind of sleep!

    Aren’t not lost when you wake up after only 3 hours of sleep? Each time I do it, I wake-up and feel like I am on another planet.

  18. Rob in Madrid says:

    Well said Louise, my favourite is “your’s used to be my favourite blog but becuase you wrote some that offended me blah blah blah”

    If I have time I’ll have a 5 -10 min power nap in the afternoon and often the wife and I will have a half hour snooze before heading out for an evening.

  19. Trent Trent says:

    Louise, Rob: I get a lot of emails directly at me along those lines, too. If I sat and paid much attention to them, I’d never write anything interesting – it would all be incredibly bland.

  20. Suzanne says:

    This sounds like it’s working for you; you do get an awful lot accomplished! However, you are probably missing out on the rejuvenating REM sleep. REM periods get longer and longer through the night (or period of sleep–whenever that is). REM stands for “rapid eye movement” which occurs when you dream. If you look at the research you’ll find that REM is very important to your long-term health.

  21. Jeanne says:

    Louise, Rob, Trent: I was not saying Trent needs to dispense personal advice for everyone (otherwise I wouldn’t have written “finding time to nap is an individual pursuit”). Nor am I criticizing his advice. I was simply saying it would have been helpful for suggestions that appealed to a wider audience who may not have as flexible a schedule. I do not expect Trent to email me my own napping itinerary. Relax, everybody. It’s all good, really.

  22. John says:

    I was groggy during the day, but it was because of sleep apnea. I now sleep with a C-PAP machine and feel MUCH better during the day. And, of course, I don’t snore, making my wife a very happy woman! Perhaps Trent should look at having a sleep study done. Maybe he has sleep apnea or maybe he doesn’t, but a sleep study will confirm it or not.

  23. Joe says:

    Trent have you been checked for sleep apnea? Those intense sleep feelings in the afternoon or at odd hours during the day are a classic sympton of sleep apnea. I would contact the sleep center in the Des Moines area to get checked out. When it comes to sleep I think we are all the same give or take an hour or two each day. Splitting your sleep up like that leads to depression in my opinion.

  24. Trent Trent says:

    I’ve been checked for apnea. I am just a little more sensitive to changes in body chemistry than the average person, I think.

  25. SwingCheese says:

    In a nod to pop culture, I seem to remember Kramer doing something akin to this in an older episode of Seinfeld. If I remember correctly, he had to go back to sleeping on a regular schedule because he got bored :)

    @rob – I find that, over the summer, I do the same thing (sleep 8-10 hrs, up 17-18 hours). I never made the connection that a 30 hour day would be better for me. I just assumed that I was getting too much sleep! I’m going to have to check out that book – thanks for the recommendation.

  26. Anne says:

    Interesting approach, but there is something to be gained from several hours of continuous sleep.

  27. Mitch says:

    Pavlina’s doing only short naps every four hours. You would need to go through some sleep deprivation to move REM to the beginning of the cycle. This is a milder approach: same total amount of sleep, and a couple of blocks of longer sleep (more than one 60-90 minute cycle). 3, 2, 1, and 1 are the lengths of the sleep sessions, kinda Pareto-like with the different lengths.

  28. Tubaman-Z says:

    I live in MN where the days and nights are decidedly of different length during the summer and winter. I find that I sleep much more during the winter (shorter days/longer nights) than the summer. I lived in FL for 5 years where the differences were less dramatic and slept more equally year-round.

  29. vh says:

    Wow…this makes me feel a lot better about the chronic insomnia, especially after reading the Wikipedia article Elaine posted. Maybe it’s NORMAL to be awake for a couple of hours during the middle of the night. Now, if we could all persuade our bosses to give us a siesta break after lunch….

  30. Mitch says:

    Suzanne, IANA sleep expert, but I temped for one a few weeks about five years ago, and if I recall correctly if you don’t get enough REM you will start going into REM immediately upon falling asleep. I think this is why Most Significant Digit is reporting strange dreams lately (e.g. teaching harmonic analysis to a cat)–his insomnia’s acting up a little bit.

    I’d be more worried about the deep sleep–its role is even more murky. And I don’t think it starts to compensate for itself right away.

    Anyone who has temped for sleep experts more recently, please correct me.

  31. Interesting idea that I have not heard before. I have learned to do whatever works for me. That doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.

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