Ramblings from my waking hour: how I’m making "second sleep" work for me

Did you notice the timestamp on this post? That’s right, I am indeed posting this at 3:36am. This Monday and next, I have 5am flights out of Newark Airport – requiring a 2:15am wakeup call to get me to the gate on time (and that’s pushing it). While this might have driven me crazy just a few weeks ago, today I’m actually feeling pretty good about it. Here’s why.

I recently read an article in BBC News called The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep. Basically, back in the days before electricity, people use to sleep for four hours, wake up for one to two hours, and then sleep another four hours – reason being that there wasn’t much to do in the dark hours in the days before electricity. And when a study was conducted in the 1990s, participants who were put in a dark room for 14 hours every day for a month adapted a similar second sleep schedule – further cementing the evidence that the human body was bred for segmented sleep. Sleeping in one big eight hour block? Pshhhh… that’s for hibernating bears.

The article is incredibly interesting, and despite reading it several weeks ago, I can’t stop thinking about it. Meanwhile, my body seems to be obsessed with the idea too – ever since reading it, I’ve woken up around 2am or 3am every night, indicating that my body seems to want me to start segmenting my sleep too. Unfortunately, when you don’t plan for segmented sleep, it’s hard to make it work, which is why some days I’ve woken up at 3am, stayed up till 4:30am, and then only been able to catch another 90 minutes of sleep until my 6am alarm. Not good!

But today, I am making it work. I went to bed at 9:15pm, giving me exactly 5 hours of sleep before my 2:15am alarm. Unlike the people in the 16th Century, I’m not spending my waking period reading, praying or having sex (three of the most popular activities for the waking period), but showering/getting dressed, taking a taxi to Newark Airport, going through security, and hanging out at the gate. But once I board my flight to Charlotte? Second sleep is ON.

What do you think – could you make “second sleep” work for you? And now that you’ve heard about this, let me know if your sleeping patterns change as your body begs for what the advent of electricity has taken away. Am I the only whose body apparently yearns for the days before electricity and indoor plumbing?


  1. Anonymous says:

    It says that the first sleep started about two hours after dusk. I think that part is key, because in the winter, dusk is typically around 4:30, so that means people went to bed around 6:30. Sleeping for 4 hours (until 10:30), being up for 2 (until 12:30), then back to sleep for 4 hours (4:30) made sense – once it got dark, there was not much to do, people went to bed early because they needed to wake early to take care of their animals, and they still got 8 hours of sleep. Also, if you have even gone to sleep at 6:30 p.m., you will find it is impossible to sleep through the entire night into the morning.

    I don’t think it makes sense in modern times. You just end up being sleep deprived.

  2. I think a lot depends on whether you can go to bed early or not. For example, I typically go to bed very early on Sundays because of my early morning flights on Mondays, and the hours between 6pm and 9pm are usually spent packing, taking care of email, etc. If I just went to bed at 6pm but woke up later in the night to attend to those things, it would just be time shifting, since I have electricity to do whatever I want at night. In some ways, it would be great to get things done in those odd hours when I’d have fewer distractions!

  3. Hey there! So just discovered your blog through seeing you tweet with some of my online friends over the weekend! Then, I read Theodora’s post that said you’ve done 68 marathons! Okay, I thought, I have got to start reading this girl’s blog! Anyway, just wanted to say hello and let you know you have a new reader in DC!

  4. Very interesting! Sometimes I do wake up at 2am and can’t get back to sleep but often it is rare because I am a very sound sleeper.

  5. This just reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld when Kramer decides to only sleep in short intervals throughout the day. Good luck!

  6. This was how I got through college: sleep between 3am and 7am, and then take a second sleep between 4 or 5pm and 7pm. It was awesome – I was productive and had enough sleep. Now I don’t get enough sleep and / or also am not getting all the things I need done. If I could change one thing about my body, it wouldn’t be better hair or better abs (those would be nice too) but it would be the ability to feel rested on 4-5 hrs sleep. Instead, I am one of those poor souls who craves 8hrs.

  7. I think it would be difficult, at least for me, given how work dictates your sleep during the week. If I want to run before or after work, but also stay up to watch tv later at night it would make it extremely hard I think to try to do segmented sleep, although if possible I think it would be great.

  8. Viper – you and the Seinfeld episodes. Weren’t you the one who made fun of me when I was cooking in my hotel coffee pot?

    Fiona – I’m with you on wishing I could still get by on less than 8 hours of sleep :(

    Chris – DVR does the trick! Or maybe try running during your waking period? Would definitely be a different crowd out there at 2am!

  9. I feel like this is something I would read on Greatist. Just saying!

  10. I’ve done running at 4am for a few years before switching to mostly afternoon runs this year…2am would sure make for some interesting interactions in this city!

  11. SO INTERESTING. To answer Jocelyn, we did write something similar…:http://www.greatist.com/health/news-study-shows-four-hours-of-sleep-may-be-enough-for-some/

    And to answer your question…yes…i think you are the only body that yearns for days before electricity and indoor plumbing ;)

  12. I read that article and was fascinated! I often find myself waking up in the middle of the night, checking twitter/email on my iphone, maybe having a snack, and then going back to sleep for a few hours. It’s interesting to hear about other people’s experiences!

  13. This is very interesing. I must admit that I occasionally have insomnia (a few days every few months) where I am awake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. I think it is related to age. In any event, I had a bout of it in October. Night #1, I went to the gym at 3 am. Night #3, I tried meditation. Night #2, I chose a different path…and here I am 6 months pregnant, suffering from insomnia every single night.

    I am getting used to it though. Unfortunately, it means I am only getting a total of 6 hours of sleep. I should probably just get into the habit of going to the gym or working on a quilting project every night at 2 or 3 am, but I usually try to go back to sleep, unsuccessfully, for an hour or two. If I go to the gym, then I can sleep in an extra 1.5 hours.

  14. It is like napping. I like to get up early in the morning to go to the gym and then shower, eat and then take a nap when I get home.
    What about REM sleep? Doesn’t that occur after about 4 hours of sleep. Don’t we need our REM?

  15. Marcia, I agree with you about trying to go back to sleep. Lately I’ve just started accepting that I’m up after about 10 minutes, and I feel like I’ve been a lot more successful by doing so!

    Barb, the key with it is that you’re breaking your regular eight hours up into two four hour sessions – so you’re not messing with REM cycles at all.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’ve ‘fought’ this sleep pattern much of my life. Several months ago, now being retired, I decided to just let it be and ‘go with the flow’… and boy, does my brain flow in the wee hours. So when I read the article, I grabbed it as justification for my ‘crazy’ sleep schedule.

    What I have found is:
    1. If I’m not concerned about it, and just DO whatever strikes me in the wake period, I tend to fall back to sleep easier.
    2. For the last week or so, I’ve been falling asleep in the late evening and basically sleeping through for roughly 8 hours.

    It seems like the not worrying and just letting it happen is allowing my sleep pattern to find its own natural rhythms rather than a life time of trying to force it and ending up very unhappy, off kilter with the rest of the world, and often sleep deprived.

    I like this much better.

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