Most of us would like to squeeze more hours out of the day. Sadly, that often means cutting back on proper sleep and dealing with the unwelcome consequences - sugar cravings, grouchiness, low energy and exhaustion. So how do some people still vibrate with energy and productivity after 4.30am starts and a few hours' sleep? The answer, say experts, may lie in the increasingly common practice of sleep hacking - taking aggressive steps to increase the quality of your sleep while spending less time in bed.
"Sleep hacking is an art and a science," says Dave Asprey, sleep hacker, business coach and founder of The Bulletproof Executive blog. "Research shows it's not the hours of sleep you get that matters, it's the quality. Sleep hackers sleep for no more than five or six hours and wake up feeling great because the quality of their sleep is good."
Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, calls sleep hacking "learning to relax like a pro". His tips combine the satisfying - a snack before sleep to stabilise blood sugar - with the extreme: an ice-cold bath before bed to boost production of the sleep hormone melatonin ("It's like getting hit with an elephant tranquiliser, but don't expect it to be pleasant," he says).
Extreme sleep hackers win the battle of the snooze button by making their bedrooms less cosy, swapping soft pillows for folded bath towels and sleeping with minimal coverage on warm nights, allowing the chill of dawn to encourage them out of bed. You can choose to hack your sleep within a 24-hour period, or attempt the Silicon Valley favourite, "a polyphasic sleep", in which regular naps replace traditional slumber for long periods. Workaholic hackers also install a special program on their tablets that filters out the stimulating blue light that suppresses the melatonin necessary for sleep. This means they can work on their tablets right up until lights out without the quality of their sleep being affected.
My three-night sleep-hacking challenge
Night one If I don't have to work late and my two children sleep through until a decent hour, I'm in bed for eight hours, although asleep for about seven. But I rarely feel refreshed on waking (I'm not a deep sleeper and have struggled with insomnia).
At 10pm, I clip blackout material to our ineffective bedroom blinds. I also try to install the blue-light filtering f.lux software program on my iPad (I tend to catch up with the day's news in bed), but fail - it's a bit too techy.
Instead, I try out the advice of Professor Jim Horne, neuroscientist and founder of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre in the UK, and dim my screen dramatically.
A nice hot bath before bed, also recommended by Professor Horne, is a treat. I eat a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter (see checklist at right), take a 200g magnesium supplement and climb into bed at 11.30pm.
With the Sleep Cycle app installed on my iPad, I set a 30-minute wake-up window between 5.30am and 6am; the app alarm goes off during your lightest period of sleep within that window. Clever. I tuck the iPad under my sheet as suggested, but I'm hyper aware of its presence and spend 15 minutes worrying about cracking the screen or frying my brain. By the time I stop mucking about, it's after midnight. Does sleep come easily, deeply and restoratively? No, it does not. When the alarm goes off at 5.40am, I could swear I barely slept, though my sleep data is reassuring and shows periods of deep sleep.
Night two Night two also feels sleepless and, by 4pm, I am shattered. With deadlines and children to take care of, a nap is out of the question.
Night three But on night three, things change (likely due to extreme sleep deprivation) and I fall into a deep sleep the minute I get into bed. When Sleep Cycle wakes me at 5.30am after six hours' sleep, I'm refreshed and enjoy 90 minutes alone before the rest of the house wakes at 7am.
The verdict So which sleep-hacking tips worked? Analysing my sleep data was useful: the Sleep Cycle app said it was taking me 30 minutes to fall asleep, and I built that into my lights-out time. But much of the advice - the dark room, the hot bath, the wind-down, the no technology in bed, and the high-fat, high- protein snack - is simply good sleep hygiene, which should promote deeper rest. I'm encouraged by the experts' view that we don't need eight hours of sleep - Professor Horne says six hours will suffice. The catch? You need to disconnect from the day and feel untroubled before bed. I'll do my best.
Nine steps to sweet dreams
Take a bath before bed This makes your skin temperature rise and then cool to a lesser degree - it's the drop that helps aid a deeper sleep.
Avoid blue light Before sleep Install f.lux software to filter out blue light on your tablet, or buy blue-blocking sleep glasses. Alternatively, says Professor Horne, dim the screen and ensure the room is fairly bright to reduce contrast.
Invest in earthing sheets These are cotton sheets woven with conductive silver fibres. Plugged into the mains, they allow calming negative ions to flow over you, which help bring on sleep. Studies support their efficiency.* Visit earthingoz.com.au.
Know your cycle This is vital for quality sleep. The Sleep Cycle app uses a movement sensor to determine the level of sleep you're getting, waking you when you're in a light sleep to avoid grogginess.
Eat a high-fat, high-protein snack Sleep therapist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan recommends celery sticks and peanut butter, or simply peanut butter on toast, to ward off blood-sugar lows and prevent morning fatigue and hunger.
Take magnesium supplements Studies confirm that insufficient magnesium levels are associated with night-time waking. Take 200mg* before bed and it may aid sleep.
Make your room as dark as possible "If light leaks into your room, you're not sleeping as well as you could," warns Dave Asprey.
Wind down before you sleep Experts agree that deep, refreshing sleep is only accessible to people who are relaxed. "The most important thing you can do to improve the quality of sleep is to have peace of mind when you go to bed," says Professor Horne.
Use naps to re-energise An afternoon nap of no more than 20 minutes can be a very powerful sleep-hacking tool, states Professor Horne.
Give it a rest Make the most of your snooze time with Priceline Pharmacy's 12-week Sleep Wellness program, which examines everything from dreams and stress to breathing techniques and breaking bad habits. Visit healthtracker.priceline.com.au.