Feeding the Elephant: Leverage the Power of Habit
We are wired to find and love shortcuts. Who doesn’t love the thrill of finding a significantly faster way of doing something? If you use Google Maps during rush hour, it has probably suggested an alternate route to you in real time, saving you five minutes or more. The brain releases a small amount of pleasure-inducing chemicals when it identifies patterns it wants to reinforce. With a strong feedback loop in place, the brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy and maximize goal achievement. In other words, the brain loves habits. As a friend of mine used to say, if you’re going to form a habit, might as well be a good one! Easier said than done, though, right? Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves why.
If the brain is wired for habits, then why don’t we choose the good ones? I think it’s because we allow our “elephant” brain to stumble its way to habits. Jonathan Haidt in his excellent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, calls our unconscious drive our elephant. The conscious mind he calls the monkey. The monkey essentially is not very good at getting the elephant to go in the direction she wants. Sound familiar? Here is a two-minute YouTube video that explains the concept quite well.
Let’s shed some light on habit formation to increase our odds of forming good ones. Traditional research shows habits require three things: a trigger (sometimes called a cue), a consistent behavior (or routine), and a reward. Habit theory suggests that if you know the components of your habit loops, you can experiment and document your findings. This process of experimentation and observation can help unlock the secrets of breaking bad habits and forming new ones. If this analytical approach appeals to you, I suggest you check out this author.
But I have happened across another way to change habits. I call it “feeding the elephant.” I was staying in Kauai for an extended period to recover from a boogie board accident. During this time, I had an unusual amount of time on my hands. Between polyphasic sleeping, no family members around and a limited work schedule due to my physical injury, I had between 12–15 unstructured hours a day for a week. I did a lot of thinking, reading and experimenting. During the course of this week, I found I could speak the language of my elephant and coax it to new behaviors. I made a short video of my first attempt at speaking the language of the elephant. Six months later, I am happy to report my relationship to sugar (and ice cream) has fundamentally changed. The funny thing is that I didn’t use willpower in this transformation. Something within me changed that day when I ran hot water and scooped out by hand my favorite ice cream.
I have since experimented with this technique and found it effective to rewire the brain chemistry at some fundamental level. The more shocking and symbolic the act, the more effective it tends to be.
How can you apply all of the above to polyphasic sleep? I have a few suggestions.
Stick to a routine. The way to harness this naturally occurring tendency to form habits for polyphasic sleep is to stick to a proven schedule. As the research shows, routine matters. The best resource for schedules is the Polyphasic Society blog. My first schedule was the Everyman. I practiced this schedule religiously for 8 months in 2016. I always went to bed around 10 or 10:30 PM. I set an alarm for 1:30 AM. I took my first nap at 5:30 AM, my second one between 10–11 AM and my third nap whenever I needed it most between 2–6 PM. Over time, I was able to flex the schedule. However, in the beginning I followed it strictly. I pass on the same advice to you as a beginner. The less thinking you have to do, especially during the adaptation phase when you will be sleep-deprived, the better. Pick a schedule, follow it and trust it. Let your habit-forming brain build this routine into its circuits so that following it takes less and less willpower over time.
Make napping a ritual. Another natural place to apply this concept is with the nap. There is no doubt in my mind that learning how to nap is the single most important step in effective polyphasic sleeping. I will cover napping in more detail in a later post, but for now let’s examine the nap in light of habit. While you may develop your own rituals for napping (I would encourage that), I will share what has worked for me. First, I carry one of two types of eye masks with me always. In fact, if I leave the house without one it feels the same as leaving without my wallet. I carry it in the same back pocket every time. I always nap with it on, even when I’m in a room of complete darkness. Second, I always start out on my right-hand side and place my right hand on my left shoulder. You don’t have to worry about what my exact position is, just know that it’s always the same. Third, I always look at my watch right before I close my eyes. I want to know to the minute what time it is so when I feel the impulse to open my eyes in a few minutes, I can check to see how long I’ve been asleep, or at least resting with my eyes closed. This series of steps has enabled me to become a very efficient napper.
Schedule your triggers. I used an app for polyphasic sleep that set alarms during the day. The app wasn’t that great, but in case it helps you, here is a link. You need reminders of when you are to sleep based on the schedule you’ve selected.
Enjoy your time. It’s important that the time you free up isn’t all used for work. Depending on the schedule you choose, you might free up two or more hours a day. If so, consider using at least 50% of the time for something entertaining. I watched entire seasons of the Netflix show Sense 8 during the adaptation phase. The reward component of the habit loop is an important one, so make sure you enjoy your extra time.
Feed the Elephant. You have identified a routine. You have set up triggers. You have your reward in place. This is all “monkey chatter” and will be almost useless unless you get the elephant enrolled in your vision. I can’t give you the magic solution because everyone’s elephant is unique. However, the guidelines I can share would be simply be:
1) Commit some act that is physical in nature, memorable and relates in some way to the subject matter (like using my hands to scoop out my favorite ice cream in hot water to bring awareness to sugar toxicity). For example, you might have had the same alarm clock for years. It has served you in the past, but it might not in the future because you’ll need more sophisticated ways of waking up. One idea would be to take that alarm clock and smash it with a hammer into bits. This violent act will certainly get the elephant’s attention! You can then replace the alarm clock with something new—an app with multiple alarms, a vibrating wrist watch so that you can wake up without disturbing your partner, or something else. My friend Tom created his own alarm that gives him mild shocks in the abdomen. Now this is very extreme, and I don’t recommend it. The closest I came to this was buying a neck massager, placing it under my pillow, and having it turn on based on an outlet timer when I wanted to wake up without disturbing my wife.
2) Set an intention with the act, announce it verbally and write it down on a pad of paper next to bed. Though I think the symbolic step of #1 is most important, it is good to record it in some way for future reflection (for me I did the Youtube video of the ice cream purge.)
3) Notice any changes in attitude or drive over the next several days. I’m always surprised how difficult it is to notice change in ourselves over time. Thus, be intentional about noticing incremental changes over the coming days, weeks and months.
Concluding thoughts. Review the various schedules and pick one you think works for your lifestyle. While you may want to experiment a bit, commit to any new schedule for at least a month. Come up with a creative way to feed your elephant and then do it. (Bonus points if you record yourself doing it and post the video! We could start a new trend on social media of people doing crazy things to break bad habits. I really need a first follower—that could be you!)
Research varies in terms of how long it takes to form a habit. I’ve read anywhere from 8 weeks to 18 months. In my experience, the adaptation phase for polyphasic sleeping lasts about 3 weeks. If you haven’t realized the benefits of segmented sleep in a month, perhaps it isn’t for you. Given the gains are so significant, however, push yourself and your elephant to give your chosen schedule a fair shot. If you do and are successful, the brain will reward you with habit-forming chemicals that will make polyphasic sleep truly addictive.