Throw away your alarm clock.

Stock photo of the sun rising

(I was going to use a stock photo of an alarm clock from wikicommons, but I’ll take any excuse to show a sunrise)

Early rising has bothered me a lot over the last few years, and I’ve really wanted to get the hang of it. I see a lot of people who change the world for the better are early risers (there’s a nice article on that subject at the Guardian) and it’s, certainly within UK culture synonymous with getting the best out of life… (“You’ll have to get up very early in the morning to get the better of me”).

I tried various approaches, some of which worked better than others (including a year of a sleeping contest with an anonymous stranger) and felt like I got the hang of a fairly solid regime. I was getting up when my alarm went off. I was pretty solid.

At this point, I found myself on StackExchange, giving my opinion about something. In response to a question on ‘how sleep debt decays’ I wrote the following:

Very little research exists and [over a long period of time it may not even be possible…][1], the model I work under is this. If you sleep less than your body would like to, then you pay for it, either you pay for it in terms of more sleep the next day, or you pay for it in terms of lost alertness, creativity, or mood. Here’s the thing – if we were cattle, and all we had to do was eat and stand, then sleep deprivation wouldn’t make that much difference to everyday life – similarly if the thing we have to do in a day is travel, then being sleep deprived might not make a difference when all you are doing is sitting on a plane seat for 15 hours. But if you work in a creative, intellectual, or life-or-death trade, then being 10% off your best can have serious long-term implications (junior doctors working on very little sleep are the classic case). I suspect that the trade-off isn’t this simple but consider it as a question – you can wake up an hour early every day of your life, but you’ll be only 95% percent of the person you could be – would you take that choice? [1]:

After I wrote that, I thought about it. Then I thought about it some more. Maybe I had a point.  I could imagine that I really was forcing myself out of bed an hour early than I should have been, and I strenuously objected to the idea of being 95% of the person I could be.

So during 2013 I tried an experiment: No alarm clocks. If I had a meeting and I didn’t get up in time, then I missed the meeting (the exception being if I had to be on a train/plane by 7am, in which case the special ‘oh god it’s still night time’ alarm was fine – this was necessary no more than a dozen times over the year). If it turned out I already was getting the right amount of sleep then there would be no difference, and if I found myself blinking at noon then that was probably a sign I should have done this sooner right?

For the first month there was a bit more sleeping, but not by that much (I should say that I didn’t miss any meetings due to oversleep in the year) and waking up naturally was very much prefered to waking up with blaring noise…

After that something very strange happened. I started waking up, fully refreshed earlier and earlier… getting up a good hour before I would have done with the alarm clock (I have a fairly solid 11pm bedtime generally), and more to the point, opening my eyes and being *awake*, no messing about with snoozing. I have no explanation – people have suggested silly things like sleep cycles, vitamins, daylight, and fear of it being noon – but it was very welcome for all that it was counter intuitive.

It’s not all good news – this early alarmless waking worked fine until about September but then, perhaps triggered by later and later dawn, I started waking later and later and later. Until I was getting up maybe an hour after my normal alarm time. But the point is that I think I was needing that sleep – I wasn’t getting any less work done, or leaving things unreplied to (feel free to check the stress graph for this), and I certainly wasn’t having any less fun, or missing out on time with friends (there is a slew of birthdays and parties and wedding anniversaries around that time and I find that Autumn/Winter is starting to take the brunt of my social calendar…)  I can only presume that the extra sleep was helping, and that I really was more refreshed, got thought work faster, and was more lively the rest of the time.  It may be that I was sleeping more (it’s receded a little bit now) *because* I was so busy.

This has been something of a leap of faith for me. It’s been something I’ve doubted, and I don’t know for sure if it really did help. But I’m glad I did it.

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