We are told that sleeping for eight hours straight each night is a necessary part of keeping our lives balanced and healthy. But what if the idea of one large chunk of sleep every night is new and what we really need is to look at history to find a better sleeping pattern?
As it turns out, some historians have learned that it only in the last century or two that one long section of sleep has become the norm. Before there were street lights and electricity in houses, people used to treat their sleep schedules very differently. They would wake up in the middle of the night. And not be stressed out about it!
In these times, people naturally functioned on a system known as a segmented sleep schedule, or biphasic sleep schedule. This means that, instead of sleeping for one long expanse of 7-8 hours, people use to sleep in two distinct phases, with a section of wakefulness in between. And a significant amount of references in literature show that this was a completely normal, standard way of living.
This ancient practice of going to bed early, spending an hour or two awake in the middle of the night, and then sleeping for another few hours until morning may be just what you’re missing in your life. Instead of viewing waking up in the night as ‘insomnia’, some people are planning out this type of schedule and finding that it works really well for them.
Can You Hack Your Sleep Schedule?
Dorveille is a French term that means ‘wakesleep’, used to describe this time in the middle of the night between sleeping segments. The idea of using a ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep to get the proper number hours of sleep in the night means that you have some time in the middle of the night to do, well, whatever you want. But it should probably be a somewhat quiet, peaceful activity. Normally, you wouldn’t want to plan your workout time for this interim.
Instead, people who function on a segmented sleep schedule find it’s a useful time to think, to read, to meditate, write in a journal, or even to make a grocery list. Many people find this a useful time to record their dreams. Whatever you do, it’s meant to be a sedentary time to keep the body and mind calm and relaxed so that when second sleep comes, you are ready to rest again.
If you’re interested in trying to get into a segmented sleep schedule, it is possible. But it may require some adjustments to your schedule and your life. If you’re a ‘morning person’ this type of schedule might be easier for you to adjust to since it requires going to bed earlier than most western adults do.
On the other hand, for people who just start getting energetic at 10pm, this type of sleep schedule may be a challenge. If you are a person who likes to go out late into the evening, spending time with friends, being social, and generally having a good time until midnight or 1am, a segmented sleep schedule will require you to change some habits.
How to Plan a Segmented Sleep Schedule
Many people who start on a segmented sleep schedule do so a bit accidentally. They may just be extra tired and fall asleep early one evening, only to wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to go back to sleep for an hour or two. Then, because of this they are tired the next evening and end up doing the same thing again. This can turn into a habit that actually feels very natural and restorative.
Planning out a segmented sleep schedule requires some self-awareness. Here are some things to consider and plan for:
- Decide what is the time in the morning that you must be up and out of bed? This will determine what time you need to hit the hay the night before. (Hint: it will be more than 8 hours).
- How much sleep do you need per night? If it’s 8 hours, add an hour or two in the middle for your ‘wakesleep’.
- Determine your bedtime. If your wakeup time needs to be 7am, back off by 10 hours to get 9pm to fall asleep. But you will also need a bit of time to prepare for sleep, so it would really be best to be in bed by 8pm.
- Reduce light exposure in the evening. Once the sun goes down, lower your lighting to one lamp, turn off the television, computer, or other blue light. Light some candles instead of using artificial light.
- Be prepared for low lighting during your waking period in the night. Use a low wattage light bulb or candle. Avoid using electronics during this time. Try to relax as much as possible during this time and let your mind wander. Have a pen and paper available for journaling.
- Get ready for bed at 8pm and try to be asleep by 9pm. Set your alarm clock for 1am until your body becomes naturally accustomed to the schedule. Spend an hour or two awake and then go back to sleep. Eventually you won’t need an alarm to wake up in the night.
- Set your alarm for 7am and get out of bed right away with the alarm goes off. Open the curtains and expose yourself to natural daylight, when possible, or use a daylight-simulating lamp to re-program your circadian rhythm.
It is recommended that this type of segmented sleep schedule adjustment be tried for a month in order to determine if it works well for a person. Just a week or even two is probably not enough time to reprogram your brain and body. And you need to do it every night, so your social life might need to begin including lunch dates rather than late night parties.
If you’re committed to this process, you may find that your body and brain function better on a segmented sleep schedule. Although it’s probably not for everyone, if you have a certain amount of flexibility in your life, you may find that this type of counter-cultural adjustment fits perfectly for you!