Ditching Your Alarm Clock Is the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Sleep
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
Your body knows better. Let it guide you
How painful is it to wake up to a beep every morning? Irritated, you force yourself to open your eyes. You convince yourself that the day will not be as bad as your alarm. And you push through sleep inertia to get going. Worse, you probably have multiple alarms at ten-minute intervals to drag you out of bed.
You do all this, without wondering if there’s a better way. You think your body would sleep twenty-four hours if left to whim. You think you’re smarter than the complex biological structure that has evolved over thousands of years.
You’re not, trust me, I’ve been there. Your body knows better.
I had five different alarms at one point. I kept my phone far away to force myself to get up. I even told my mom to throw water on my face if I don’t.
I look back only to realize how stupid I was.
Two factors control your sleep — homeostasis and circadian Homeostasis makes you feel tired the longer you’re awake and the circadian rhythm regulates your sleep cycle according to light. It does not work according to your watch or work hours.
Most people though are not even aware of what their natural sleep cycle is anymore. They wake up strenuously to a cacophony of alarm sounds. Then they try to catch up with sleep on weekends.
Research points out a metric to measure this — social jetlag. It arises because of differences in our biological time and our social time. If you sleep between 11 p.m and 7 a.m then your midpoint is 3:30 a.m. Now, if on weekends, you sleep between 1 a.m and 10 a.m, your midpoint is 5:30 a.m. The difference between these two numbers is your social jetlag; two hours in this case.
The lower the number is, the better. This also points out that it’s not a zero-sum game. You cannot catch up on sleep during the weekends.
Even if you sleep longer on the weekends, you can still feel fatigued since you’re not in sync with your circadian rhythm.
Perhaps, you already know what happens when you don’t get less sleep — lower cognitive performance, high stress, anger, irritation, etc. In short, life becomes a state of chronic jetlag.
The best way to counter this is to let the body do its thing. Rediscover your natural sleep cycle and reduce your social jet lag.
Or if you’re not into research-backed arguments, here’s a good one — our ancestors managed to wake up without an alarm clock, you can too.
Here’s how to.
Wake up and Go to Bed at the Same Time Each Day
Yes, it’s that easy and that boring. You’ve been hearing it since childhood, and so am I. But it’s time to take it seriously.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s impossible. But that’s what you have to do in order to reap the benefits. Training your circadian rhythm is easy if you just follow this one step.
It is also a good prevention against overwork. When you know you cannot set an alarm, you’re forced to go to sleep early. It requires** **you to shut your laptop off, get a nice book, and head to bed.
Oh and by the way, here’s a bummer. For this to work, you need to follow it 99% of the time. Which means no staying up late watching Netflix on weekends and vacations. Unless it’s an emergency, protect your bedtime like it’s sacred.
A point of caution here. If you’re already sleep-deprived, you need to clear your debt to start fresh. For the first three-five days, you may find yourself sleeping longer than you’d expect. That is natural and your body needs it. You’ve been forcing it to get up regardless of whether it’s rested or not. Now is the time to repair the damage done.
Aim for seven to eight hours and you’d be fine in most cases. In any case, after a couple of days, you’ll know how much sleep you exactly need.
A Bedtime Ritual
By ritual, I don’t mean a twenty-three step process to fall asleep. It can be three to five things you do to wind down after a long day.
A bath, followed by a change of clothes, and reading a book is a good bedtime ritual. For me, it’s reading a book, doing a few yoga postures, meditating for two minutes, and then staring at the roof. Solid.
Chances are you already have a ritual. Perhaps it consists of scrolling social media, watching Netflix, or staring at a screen to numb yourself. In that case, you need to swap it for a healthier option like reading a book, listening to music, or playing chess — anything that helps you relax.
There are a few things to keep in mind though.
Remove blue lights from your environment as early as possible. If you can’t, use an app like f.lux to regulate your screen as per your circadian rhythm. There are tons of such apps no matter which device you’re on.
These blue lights significantly suppress the production of melatonin, the brain’s sleep-chemical. Since the screens are designed to mimic the sun, it signals your brain that it’s not the time to sleep yet.
Pro tip: The night mode pre-installed on your device doesn’t do anything. Apps like f.lux are way more effective — you’ll know when you use them.
Cover the small blue-light emissions from your air conditioner, your desktop, etc, with a small piece of paper of cardboard. Though they’re small, they quickly irritate the hell out of you.
Write Down Your Tasks and Arrange Your Possessions
The brain is surprisingly good at worrying about unfinished tasks and to-do lists. This is the Zeigarnik effect.
It produces needless stress which gets in the way. Fortunately fixing this is easy. Write down all the tasks for the next day, arrange your clothes in order, pack your bags for school or work, and anything else you need the next morning.
Free your mind from the burden of remembering everything and you’ll sleep like a baby.
What If I Wake up Late?
“Okay, I get that Shiv (my friends call me Shiv)! But what if I wake up late and my manager beats the heck out of me?”
In that case, change your job today.
But otherwise, jokes aside, I used to be like you.
I was afraid to ditch the alarm. Even though my day job starts five hours after I wake up, I was still anxious to give it up. And this anxiety was counterproductive to falling asleep.
Here’s how you do it. Don’t go all in. Take a small step.
Try it on a weekend. Don’t set an alarm for this Saturday. If you find yourself crossing your ideal wake up time by a huge margin, adjust your bedtime, and try again.
For me, one weekend was enough. I was waking up pretty much at the same time with a fifteen-minute margin (up or down). You might need more. But that’s the easiest way to test the waters without diving in.
If your schedule allows it, I’d advise you to go all in. Don’t set the alarm for tomorrow morning. Go with the flow and keep adjusting until you achieve the best sleep window.
A Quick Recap
Okay, we spoke about a lot here. Here’s the TL;DR.
Your body has a circadian rhythm that works according to light and not according to your schedule. To be the best version of yourself, you need to live in sync with this. You cannot escape this fact and catch up on the weekends for the sleep you lose on the weekdays.
To get started:
Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day,
Have a bedtime ritual that helps you relax,
Prepare for the next day to free your mind of lingering tasks, and
If you fear waking up late, then try this only on weekends to see where you stand.
It’s finally time to give your sleep the importance that it deserves.
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