Managing Sleep Deprivation


Short-term sleep deprivation during adaptation is unavoidable, especially when adapting to more extreme sleep schedules. While a proper adaptation methods can help with decreasing the total sleep deprivation during adaptation, this article focuses on managing sleep deprivation and is based on experiences from previous successful adaptations. As introduced in Adaptation, sleep deprivation typically peaks in stage 3 around week 3-4 in most schedules. Occasionally, sleep deprivation symptoms can immediately overwhelm you during the first week, which is common when entering the adaptation period with pre-existing sleep debt. It is best to start adaptation fully rested in order to minimize weeks of struggle.

Sleep Deprivation and Symptoms

During the adaptation period one expects to experience sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a fundamental type of stress on the body, that naturally leads to several different symptoms. More severe sleep reductions will result in more severe symptoms.

Here is a range of sleep deprivation symptoms that one can experience

  • Severe headaches, likely the worst ever experienced1
  • Severe eye ache, dry/red eyes, blurred or double vision, and constant eye closing which requires heavy concentration to avoid
  • Brain fog that makes it extremely hard to think straight
  • Shivers2 or hot flashes caused by the body failing to properly regulate temperature3
  • Dizziness4,5
  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness6, stiffness or cramping
  • Repeated yawning
  • Reduced reflexes7 and strength
  • Microsleeping8 (falling asleep suddenly without consciously realising, for seconds or minutes at a time)
  • Mood swings and an increase in negative moods including irritability, anxiety, confusion, helplessness, despair and depression9–12
  • Auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations13
  • Paranoia12
  • Tinnitus
  • Acid reflux
  • Aggravation of pre-existing nosebleed risk
  • Weakened immune system14
  • Appetite changes15 (increased or decreased)
  • Balance issues or vertigo4
  • “Zombie mode”. Similar to sleepwalking, any memory of being awake is lost. Evidence of the consciousness will become apparent as there are noticeable changes in the room, your location in the room, or alarms being turned off without recollection.
  • Seizure (this predominantly applies to people suffering from Epilepsy16
  • Blackout
  • Memory loss17

Sleep deprivation symptoms will typically come and go during adaptation. On average from onset, it is normal for them to appear several times per day and last 1-2 hours at a time. The severity of the symptoms is increased when the amount of sleep reduced is greater.

Methods to alleviate symptoms

Eye ache or pain

It is very common to experience eye pain while looking at electronic displays, such as computer monitors, tablets, phones, or the TV. This subsequently leads to constantly closing eyes due to exhaustion or dryness. Suggestions to help include:

  • Using software to reduce blue light, such as f.lux, Redshift, Twilight, Night Shift especially during night.
  • Having something very cold that you can rub against your face or eyelids (for example: a towel dunked in ice cold water, ice packs, ice cubes).
  • Taking regular breaks or avoiding long periods in front of screens altogether.


If you are experiencing headaches the most common cause of these is dehydration. Make sure you are drinking enough fluids.

Recommendations to fight sleep deprivation

While adapting to a polyphasic sleep schedule, it is necessary to stay busy at all times. Having nothing to do or working on repetitive, dull or unengaging tasks can lead to lapses in attention and, ultimately, oversleeping. One way one can prepare is by creating  a “Big Fat List”, which was introduced by Puredoxyk in her book, Ubersleep. Prior to adapting, create a long list of things that you might plausibly be able to do while sleep deprived. While being sleep deprived it can be very hard to come up with these things. When tiredness hits referring to the list and picking something that occupies your time is advised. This way, you avoid getting bored, and the mind can be kept off the intense sleep deprivation.

Include on this list:

  1. anything that can be done at night (when you might have to be quiet or operate in a low light environment)
  2. anything which doesn’t require much brainpower to do (because when extremely sleep deprived your brain will likely not be working properly)
  3. anything which helps you to move around (because sometimes when very sleep deprived, moving around is the only viable way to stay awake)

If you can come up with some major task to work on which will keep your mind or body active but which doesn’t require a lot of brain power to execute, that is a particularly good candidate for inclusion.  An example is completely reorganizing and cleaning your home.

The more items you can put on this list, the better. You should avoid putting anything on the list that you’re unlikely to be able to do while sleep deprived. Below are some ideas for activities for staying awake:

  1. Walk to the store
  2. Wander around downtown (leave most/all of your money at home, since impulse control is low!)
  3. Shop online (ideally logged out of an account and on a browser that doesn’t remember your password)
  4. Go to a club and don’t drink alcohol
  5. Work on a home improvement project that doesn’t involve power tools, like constructing a bookshelf
  6. Take the dog to a park
  7. Run and use a running app like “Zombies, Run”
  8. Laundry
  9. Cook something, safely, one dish at a time
  10. Blend things in a blender
  11. Call someone
  12. Tell people to call you randomly during certain hours
  13. Organize shelves, papers
  14. Do standing yoga (with an upbeat yoga video)
  15. Pushups, jumping jacks, other calisthenics
  16. Social media (that’s engaging and truly social)
  17. Fix broken things you’ve been putting off
  18. Make a pile of every object you haven’t used in 6 months and organize into piles to trash, donate, or sell
  19. Watch dance videos and try to imitate them
  20. Vacuum, shampoo the carpet
  21. Clean the dishes by hand
  22. Sip ice water constantly, see how long it takes to drink a liter
  23. Deep clean the bathrooms or garage with solvents, rags, and brushes
  24. Enjoy energetic music while doing any other tasks
  25. Walk around your home envisioning new floor plans or décor options
  26. Tear up magazines and make a collage (like in gradeschool, of goals, fashion, ideas…)
  27. Play with any energetic pets
  28. Play with friends, family, or neighbors’ pets
  29. Watch a very dramatic, terrifying, or exciting TV series

Bad ways to stay awake

In general any method to stay awake is considered ‘bad’ if it doesn’t require much concentration and you’re just sitting around and not moving. High-stake activities are equally undesirable as you can cause harm to yourself or others. Examples include:

  • Sitting (even without a backrest)
  • Lying down
  • Reading silently
  • Watching TV
  • Browsing the internet passively (e.g. scrolling Facebook,  browsing articles)
  • Playing monotonous video games that do not require a lot of attention
  • Taking a warm shower (it will just make you feel drowsy)
  • Closing your eyes without standing up first
  • Going to a movie theater
  • Getting a massage
  • Listening to soothing music or nature sounds
  • Driving a vehicle (dangerous if microsleeping)
  • Multitasking around heat, sharp objects, or machinery
  • Doing any drugs (unless doctor prescribed)
  • Going to boring events or parties
  • Looking at your bed
  • Cuddling with anything


Essentially, microsleeping is when you uncontrollably start to fall asleep, for seconds or minutes at a time. During periods of extreme sleep deprivation it is likely you will have sudden bouts of microsleeping at any time. Most polyphasic adapters experience them at least once.

If you are starting to experience microsleeping you should AVOID DRIVING because you are likely to fall asleep at the wheel and may cause an accident. (Driving while sleep deprived is generally a very bad idea18,19).

Ways to combat microsleeping if you notice you are dozing off:

  • Jumping up and down
  • Stamping the ground
  • Punching something like a punching bag or a pillow
  • Splashing yourself repeatedly in the face, arms and neck with ice cold water
  • Having an ice cold shower
  • Chewing on ice cubes
  • Holding in a mouthful of water
  • Going for a brisk walk
  • Putting yourself in a really uncomfortable situation

Again, it is necessary to keep in mind that some of these activities may be dangerous under severe sleep deprivation. For example, if you decide to go for a walk, be mindful not to walk into traffic or obstacles.

Zombie mode

Zombie mode usually occurs if you try to wake from slow wave sleep (SWS) or while extremely sleep deprived. This state is characteristic in being able to sleep through alarms regardless of how loud they are. The mind will subconsciously want to give up the battle because of  the sleep pressure you will be under, and it will do whatever it can to convince you to stop.

You cannot trust yourself in zombie mode, because you will eventually try to sleep extra or fail to wake up. If you provide any avenue at all by which you could mess up and not recover, your subconscious mind is bound to take it and you will fail.  To prevent this, you have to go to extra effort to stop your subconsciousness from sabotaging your schedule.

Good tips include:

  • Sleep somewhere uncomfortable such as on the floor.  Avoid being ‘comfy’ when zombie mode kicks in, and then you’ll be happier to get up. (Also, the advantage of this is that once you’re happy to sleep in an uncomfortable place, you should be able to fall asleep and take your nap anywhere, which can be extremely useful for polyphasers).
  • Have multiple alarms on different devices that are dotted in different places in your room so you have to shut them all off
  • Have automated alarms that will repeat themselves daily, so you don’t have to turn any of them on
  • Make use of phone alarm features such as  disable by solving maths problems or QR code or barcode scanning (Alarmy for example) and place a code in the shower (so you go take a shower), or the fridge (so you drink a glass of cold water). Make sure to set these on separate devices in case one of them fails
  • Have a human to watch over you and force you to get up and stay awake
  • Set up NMO, along with a sound system set up in such a way that you’ll always be able to hear it no matter what (e.g. speakers you can’t turn off)
  • Make use of NMOs’ Discord Integration and webUI so members of the NMO Watch Group can supervise you in real time and remotely set off alarms or any device you set up to help you avoid oversleeping. This is not as effective as having a physical supervisor, but can still improve chances of adapting.

You are most likely to be successful if you have a human supervisor to watch you during the adaptation, especially with extreme sleep schedules with total sleep time of less than 4 hours. They should keep you awake during waking blocks and ensure you only sleep on schedule. The human supervisor should physically be in the room with you because they will probably have to drag you out of bed at least once. Many people who successfully adapted to very hard schedules were only able to do so because they had a partner who did it alongside them.

Things you should absolutely NOT do (that make failure extremely likely)

  • Sleeping somewhere super-comfortable, such as in your bed.  You’re really likely to just want to stay there when the time comes to get out of bed, because it feels so good. Try sleeping in an uncomfortable environment, like on the floor, while sitting, in a car etc. to counter this problem.
  • While being severely sleep deprived (usually stage 2 forwards, but especially stage 3) should you under no circumstance at any point sit down for a rest, lie down or close eyes unless it is time to sleep. By doing so you risk an instant failure.
  • Failing to combat microsleeping is likely to make your body just keep trying it as a cop-out method instead of adapting. You must fight it when it comes.
  • Getting bored and having nothing to do is a death sentence. You should try to make your Big Fat List as long as you possibly can, to avoid running out of things to do while sleep deprived. When you run out, you might not have the brainpower to think of more when you need it the most.
  • If you are using NMO (No More Oversleeps desktop program) then you should not pause it unless you are going out. If you do pause, then you should pause for the minimum time length viable only and give a legitimate reason for pausing.


Sleep deprivation is inevitable during adaptation. Effective alarm systems, time management, task lists and plans can all help you alleviate the struggle. In stage 4 of adaptation, you progressively gain relief, but continue your successful strategies until completely adapted. Sudden waves of bad symptoms or sudden oversleeps of multiple hours have been known to catch people off guard even at stage 4.

Your reward for some weeks of sleepiness and a period of struggle, with few and minor oversleeps, is hundreds of waking hours and improved sleep quality in the long-term.

Main author: Crimson

Page last updated: 9 April 2020

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