Less is More: Polyphasic Sleeping & The Pareto Principle

Disclaimer

All information displayed in this blog post serves to demonstrate how polyphasic sleeping is related to the Pareto principle with regards to its overall sleep mechanics and shed light on how polyphasic sleepers can make use of the Pareto principle to achieve more with less work. Thus, the comparisons are not 100% clear and only to a certain extent. Since there is no research between the Pareto principle and polyphasic sleep, only indirect correlations can be drawn between these two subjects. 

Introduction

Vilfredo Damaso Pareto was a well-respected Frenchman of Italian heritage who had an illustrious academic career in Engineering, Economics, Management, Sociology and Moral Philosophy combined1. He was then known for the widely applied “80-20” principle in various fields (e.g, economics, wealth distribution, equality, and even in nature)1,2. This principle originally suggested that “20% of Europe’s population now owned 80% of its wealth”2. This inequality in outcome was then derived and interpreted in many different ways. The Pareto principle is the approximation that 20% of the causes often result in 80% of the effects.

This blog will attempt to explain polyphasic sleep’s overall mechanics with the Pareto principle and how polyphasic sleepers can learn to improve their productivity by applying this principle in their daily and long-term objectives. However, more research about polyphasic sleeping’s mechanisms is necessary to fully determine whether it is a healthy and long-lasting example of the Pareto principle. 

Real World Application of the Pareto Principle

The Pareto principle sees widespread application in the physical world. The most commonly seen examples are: 20% of staff contribute to 80% sales, 20% patients use 80% hospital resources, 80% profits are generated from 20% items1,3,4  or 20% of tasks yield 80% results2. These examples serve to stress on the importance of some of the most valuable assets – in a workplace setting, there are always top-notch workers that contribute to the majority of the profit; roughly speaking, patients in critical conditions will require a lot more resources to save their lives than patients with only mild conditions. Likewise, on a large scale, most of the activities humans choose to partake in are not important – only a small percentage of them actually matters.

However, the Pareto principle does not always reflect the 80-20 premise and at times contains dilemmas that have to be resolved. One paper demonstrated that the Pareto principle can clash with freedom, individual rights, autonomy and cultural values if preferential satisfaction (e.g, welfare, privileges that benefit certain individuals in society) is prioritized5. It is also important that making the Pareto principle work should not compromise the efficiency and stability of decision making principles5.

Applications in Polyphasic Sleeping

Some aspects of polyphasic sleeping bear certain resemblance to the Pareto principle, although only to some extent. This section will put forth some comparisons between the two to demonstrate how polyphasic sleeping can be related to the Pareto principle.

1. Sleep efficiency – less is more

There are 2 systems of polyphasic sleeping, one that reduces total sleep time in bed and the other that focuses on personal productivity without reducing total sleep time daily.

A. Reducing Schedules:

At first, a polyphasic schedule (e.g, E2) that gives only ~5h of sleep each day can pose serious questions of whether it is a healthy choice to sustain health and performance. However, the mechanics of repartitioning is what makes polyphasic sleeping a viable lifestyle option at least for a short term (e.g, a couple months or 1+ year). The primary source of motivation behind this category of schedules is to gain some more waking hours for those who wish to spend those hours on their desired activities.

The concept of repartitioning allows the sleepers to retain vital sleep stages (REM and SWS) while sacrificing NREM1 and some NREM2, both of which are deemed a lot less significant. Thus, by spending less time in bed, polyphasic sleepers can now focus on the more important sleep stages. Put another way, NREM2 mostly contributes to the total sleep in humans each night (about ~60% of monophasic TST is spent in NREM2 on average), but on adapted polyphasic sleep much less sleep is required to maintain well-being. The consistency in scheduling of polyphasic sleeping enables repartitioning to finish during adaptation as long as there is little or no oversleeping involved in the process. A lot of adapted sleepers now thrive with only 5-6h of sleep (in some cases even lower) and report better sleep quality and even personal productivity than on their monophasic schedule. The SWS and REM peak hours are also one of the ideal ways to make use of timings of sleep to get the most vital sleep stages. Coupled with sleep hygiene (e.g, dark period, cooling down before sleep, a proper diet and meal time), sleep reduction is possible and can be achieved to some degree in different individuals.

NOTE: It is also worth noting that repartitioning and the preservation of vital sleep stages may not apply to every polyphasic sleeper, even after the adaptation phase. This depends on a lot of individual factors (e.g, sleep compressibility, sleep genes, susceptibility to stress, current medication use, sleep hygiene practice).

B. Non-reducing Schedules:

There is usually less incentive to choose schedules in this category because rather than aiming to reduce total sleep time, they aim for consistency of bedtimes and a better distribution of sleep stages into different sleep blocks. The most common non-reducing schedule is non-reduced Biphasic sleep, whose daytime nap serves to improve mental clarity, learning and recalling of materials and overall an energy boost for the remainder of the day. Flexible extended siesta schedules that are common in countries like Italy can fall in this category. A sacrifice of some wake time for a nap is traded with hours of productivity upon awakening; this also appears to be the primary premise of this category of schedules. Those who are naturally biphasic or have a tendency for napping during the day with a consistent pattern of daytime sleepiness can place a nap during these hours while no important event is in the way.

In addition, individuals who often cannot afford to sleep a full monophasic duration at night may find adding a daytime nap beneficial, without reducing total sleep. The nap acts as a means to relieve homeostatic pressure built up from the shortened nocturnal core sleep. However, since non-reducing schedules have equivalent total sleep time as monophasic sleep, the Pareto principle does not specifically apply to this sleep category – there is no reduction of NREM2 or any other sleep stages and the efficiency of sleep stage distribution resembles that of monophasic sleep. Light sleep still accounts for a huge portion of total sleep time, and only ~30-40% of total sleep is spent in vital sleep stages.

2. Prioritization of activities on a polyphasic lifestyle

Less sleep and the prioritization of activities while on a polyphasic schedule.

Figure 1. Three priorities on Tri Core 1 (Example 1)

Example 1:This is an illustrative example on how an adapted TC1 sleeper is preparing to sort out their priorities in the upcoming 3 days. The final decision is that Exam Revision is the most important activity that requires a lot of focus; in the same vein, the Coding activity is less important followed by the Lab Report, the least important yet presumably takes as much time as Exam Revision. The next question is whether this sleeper should sacrifice some amount of sleep on his adapted schedule to finish all these activities with the maximum possible efficiency.

Depending on personal goals, there are a lot of ways to approach this common prioritization problem. Roughly speaking, if the TC1 sleeper only aims to pass the Lab Report assignment with a score of 80-90/100, then pouring in roughly 20% effort is theoretically enough to achieve that score, using the Pareto principle. The learning method with only 20% effort can be done via the use of mnemonics to ease up information processing, or any other personally preferred method that is not overly time-consuming. This will open up more time needed for the much more important Exam Revision task that demands special attention. Depending on skills, possibly a bit of luck and grading policies, the final grade for the lab report may be higher or lower than expected. The key point of applying the Pareto principle is to allocate more resources and time for very important tasks, while learning to apply a reasonable amount of effort to achieve the desired goals for lesser tasks.

Less sleep and the burden on work and social obligations.

Figure 2. Social Obligations on Triphasic (Example 2)

Example 2: This situation details a Triphasic sleeper who wants to keep both his career responsibilities and a good relationship with his lover, a monophasic sleeper that loves sleep. She supports his polyphasic sleep regime, but only demands that he spend time with her at certain hours that work best for him in the day in return. This dilemma is something rather common in the community that polyphasic sleepers very often have to face. Living side by side with a monophasic sleeper and especially those who support polyphasic lifestyle little to none is a challenge that is tough to crack. Oftentimes, either adaptation has to be compromised (via transition to a simpler sleep pattern like Biphasic), or the relationship collapses. Not to mention the prospect of losing the job from the SWS crashes during adaptation. Triphasic as a schedule is rather intense in nature, so no easy adaptation is granted in this situation. The adapter is now faced with several outcomes that he needs to consider:

  1. Adapt to Triphasic and maintain every other quality of life aspects (job and lover)
  2. Failure to adapt to Triphasic, risk losing the job but can still maintain the romantic relationship
  3. Work hours extension (shown in brown in the napchart) may clash with time spent for lover
  4. Lose everything

A clearly defined set of goals and priorities is absolutely necessary for real world situations like this. If social obligations (including both sustaining the relationship and the career) are prioritized, then the Triphasic schedule becomes much less important, despite the enticing extra waking hours it promises. Staying awake during graveyard hours does not serve to improve the relationship, considering that the girlfriend is a monophasic sleeper who sleeps at those hours. In addition, the customer assistance activity may be extended and violate the relationship time. As a result, the Triphasic schedule is likely to be relegated, saving more evening hours for commitment with the girlfriend. Adapting to an easier schedule in terms of structure also lowers the chance of oversleeping and losing the job and lessens the chance of mood swings showing up (as a result of intense sleep deprivation) that can affect all types of relationship.

If the romance is the most important thing to the sleeper, then he needs to make sure that nothing else can get in the way of those most important hours. The Pareto principle’s recommended use states that “no demand of lesser importance ever usurps a time slot already reserved for a task of higher importance and greater risk”2. This recommendation is also in line with the Eisenhower Matrix [insert link to Eisenhower Matrix blog], whose approach is also to prioritize the most important task, whatever it may be1. In this scenario, planning to secure these hours is one of the most important tasks that yield 80% of the results (stable and happy relationship, fulfilling career life and overall well-being) and these long-term effects are definitely worth considering. Working less hours to accommodate for this most important objective is likely necessary.

Conclusion

In sum, the Pareto principle is widely applied in the real world and sheds light on how the majority of decision making and prioritization is key to a content life. The most remarkable strategy to make use of the Pareto principle is through defining the most important personal goals and outlining a detailed plan to achieve them. Similarly, the nature of polyphasic sleeping is also partially to “sleep less but focus on most vital sleep stages”. With the 80-20 formula, by focusing on the highly significant tasks while spending much less time on the trivials, polyphasic sleepers can learn to manage their time better and have to decide their most important objectives to work toward without having to make undue sacrifices. As a result, the Pareto principle is an interesting puzzle of decision making that can be a useful tool to maintain productivity and well-being if used correctly.

Main author: GeneralNguyen
Page last updated: 29 June 2020

  1. Kumar, Prabhat. “Pareto Principle: the 80-20 phenomenon.” (2015).
  2. Mackenzie, Alec, and Pat Nickerson. The time trap: The classic book on time management. Amacom, 2009.
  3. Mancini, Marc. Time management. The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003.
  4. Ivančić, Valentina. “Improving the decision making process trought the pareto principle application.” Ekonomska misao i praksa 2 (2014): 633-656.r
  5. Farber, Daniel A. “The Problematics of the Pareto Principle.” bepress Legal Series (2005): 698.

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