I’m a light sleeper – it takes a while to get to sleep and I’m woken up easily during the night. Plus I wake up at the time I was born – 3:15am most nights. If only I’d been born at 3:15pm! 

Like many people, I’ve often wondered how to make my sleep routine better. This has ranged from not using machines to nighttime tai chi. Other people look to the routines of famous people; especially successful ones – like Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci used a polyphasic sleep routine to structure his day. That is to say da Vinci’s daily schedule involved multiple sleeps – specifically, he slept for 20 minutes every four hours of the day.

This article is going to examine da Vinci’s routine and how it worked for him. It will also consider feedback from others who have tried it. I will state upfront that I have not tried the da Vinci schedule and no intention of it.

What was Leonardo da Vinci’s daily routine?

Leonardo da Vinci slept for only 20 minutes every four hours. There was no long nighttime sleep for him. This meant he managed six sets of 20 minutes slumber per day or a grand total of 2 hours every 24 hours.

This means that da Vinci never really ended a day. We think of a day as an awake period between long sleeps. Each sleep resets us, but da Vinci never reset himself. Instead he refreshed himself somewhat every four hours.

What was da Vinci’s schedule?

“Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death.”

Da Vinci, like a lot of modern people trying to take charge of their lives, wanted a work-life balance. He wanted one which optimized his work time. Clearly he felt a good, productive day would lead to a good sleep.

Mixed in with his schedule, da Vinci had three other daily habits which were beneficial to him and can be to us (I’ll cover them in later posts):

  1. Journaling: He wrote down notes, doodles, ideas, and jokes. These included observations of the world he encountered. These covered all aspects of his life.
  2. Self-affirmation: Da Vinci was filled with self-doubt, and so he would write down positive notions about himself and his achievements in his notebook. These included “I shall continue” and “obstacles do not bend me.”
  3. Athleticism: His interest in the body meant he took his own seriously too. Da Vinci understood that his mental power and ability to create rested on a healthy, fit body. 

Leonardo was able to combine his unusual sleep routine with these three habits to boost his productivity. Or rather, they allowed him to do 6 to 10 times more work.

The Da Vinci diet

A daily routine or schedule also requires an organized diet. The da Vinci diet was designed by Leonardo to optimize his work and research. His diet rested on these principles:

  1. Moderation
  2. Dining discipline
  3. Savoring flavors, textures, smell etc…
  4. Minimal fat, sugar, salt etc…
  5. Water rich foods
  6. Vegetables and fibre rich foods

It’s clear that da Vinci’s routine required not only a set sleeping pattern but right habits and good eating. If we eat too much, we need to sleep more and for longer. Eating small, moderate amounts allowed him to boost his energies.

Leonardo the unfocused polymath

Painter, sculpter, architect, scientist, mathematician, geologist, cartographer, engineer, inventor, and biologist. I could go on. Da Vinci found interest in most areas of life. They ranged from how the body worked to the universe beyond the Earth. He is most famous for his paintings like the Mona Lisa and for painting the Sistine Chapel, but his interests were more widespread.

Dividing the day into 4 hour blocks with 20 minute resets, allowed da Vinci to split his day into different areas. I do not know if he did this, but it’s possible that he would allot parts of the day to different areas and interests. If he didn’t, this is one possible use of the routine.

What is a polyphasic sleep cycle?

Most people follow a monophasic sleep cycle where they stay awake for most of the day then attempt to get 8 hours of sleep at night. Eight hours is supposed to be the optimal amount of sleep for our long-term health.

I’d argue a large number of people follow a biphasic sleep cycle where possible in which they include a midday siesta or nap. Most of the time I’m monophasic, but there are times, where I need a quick siesta to get away from the computer. 

Polyphasic sleep cycles are ones where a person regularly sleeps more than once per day. Perhaps it should be the cat cycle – more frequent, shorter sleeps. 

These sleeps do not have to be at the same length each time. They also do not have to be regularly spread out.

Is the Da Vinci schedule doable?

Leonardo da Vinci’s daily routine has been tried – a bit. In 2019, Nathaniel Drew attempted to only sleep for 20 minutes every four hours. He then recorded how it affected him. Here’s his video recording it:

As you can see, Nathaniel struggled to first get to sleep at each allotted time. This led to him slowly losing the ability to concentrate on his work. Eventually he felt unwell and could only manage it for a day and a half. It’s impossible to imagine him taking it on forever as da Vinci is supposed to have done.

Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. UK studies covering 1.3 million people determined 7-8 hours to be the optimal amount.

This is required for appetite management, mental health, immune system function, and so on. If this is true, it’s hard to imagine how the da Vinci schedule will do anything other than impair them.

How did the uberman schedule affect da Vinci’s work?

For all of his fame and genius, Leonardo da Vinci is famous for not finishing anything. Perhaps his famous proclamation that a piece of art is never finished, but is merely abandoned, is a slice of self-justification for not finishing things.

Did da Vinci really sleep using this schedule? It’s impossible to know if he really did it or not or if he was theorizing something. What we can guess though, is that his schedule might have given him more time to work, but may have affected the quality of his work.

Did da Vinci sleep at night?

It seems clear to me that a total of 2 hours sleep spread over the whole day is impossible for most people if not all. I know Tesla claimed to have done the same as da Vinci, but it seems improbable.

While out walking just now, I pondered the possibility that we’re looking at this wrong. What is da Vinci did sleep at night and that this schedule was his daily awake-time schedule?

In this scenario, he’d have a night’s sleep – possibly a relatively short one and then he’d take 20 minute power naps every four hours until bedtime. 

By doing this, da Vinci would have got the REM sleep he needs including the boosts to his mental and physical health, while not overdoing himself during the day.

The power naps would then have acted as a kind of reset or refresh, so he could gain focus on the subject/activity of the day or would allow him to change focus. 

Managing multiple tasks is quite impossible – we never truly multitask, but switch between parts of tasks. It is better for us to focus on one task then do another. In taking a nap, you can reset your mind ready for a new task. I may try this version of the da Vinci schedule.

Relating da Vinci’s schedule to the Way of the Runari

For self-improvement topics and health in general, I’m trying to apply these to my Way of the Runari philosophy. This philosophy is still growing and developing. Perhaps like a da Vinci artwork it’ll never be finished, but it’ll arbitrarily get stopped.

The natural area for your daily routine is the Way of the Body and the Way of the Mind. These two are interlinked. In finding your best sleep pattern or cycle, you can maximize both. Furthermore, when these are in sync, you can optimize other ways and you can better live out principles such as creating.