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Matthew Wolf-Meyer, Ph.D.

Matthew J Wolf-Meyer Ph.D.

Give Your Alarm Clock a Vacation

Get better sleep by learning when and how you should sleep -- without alarms

Many of us have the week off between Christmas and New Year’s – both workers and students. Take this opportunity to give your alarm clock the week off too. But make sure this is a vacation with a purpose: take the time to figure out when your body wants to sleep and when it wants to be awake. One of the best things you can do for yourself in the New Year is start it with a clear sense of what kind of sleep is most restful for you.

In sleep medicine, one of the ways to figure out whether or not a patient is experiencing disordered sleep is to have that patient ‘free run.’ What this means is that the person sleeps and wakes for a week or two without any scheduled bedtimes or waking times. It can be incredibly difficult to fit this kind of sleep experiment into the lives of most individuals – and their families – but what it tends to show is when a person is inclined to be awake and asleep. If you’re regularly going to bed at 10 p.m. but you can’t fall asleep until 11 or later, that’s not insomnia – that’s just going to bed before you’re tired. And if you routinely find yourself falling asleep on the couch watching TV while your family chatters around you, you’re clearly not getting the amount or kind of sleep you need.

One of the ways that our urges for sleep become masked is by being exhausted by the time we get to bed. If we’re waking every morning at 6 or 7 a.m. to be at work or school, by the time we get to bed at 10 or 11, we’re often so tired that we fall right asleep. What usually happens for most people is that over the course of the week, they sleep in later and later, and try to go to bed around the same time. And if they’re waking up later and later, they might be going to sleep later and later. What results is a mounting sleep debt, as each night they get a little less sleep. And then on Saturday, they sleep in until noon to catch up on the missing sleep. But then the cycle begins again the next week, until, by the weekend, they’re exhausted all over again.

This kind of exhaustion is relatively new. Until the early 1800s, most people didn’t work long days without a substantial break – which you can do if you work on a family farm or in a trade where you know your boss. With the advent of industrial labor, people moved from their villages and towns to the city and were suddenly working in factories and for managers who were strangers to them. Midday naps all but disappeared. And since industrial factories were structured around the consolidated workday – long days of work to take advantage of sunlight – it also meant that workers needed to be sleeping in a consolidated fashion. It might be a little hard to imagine going to bed and not being totally exhausted, but it seems like for many of our ancestors this is exactly what they did. That’s not to say they weren’t sleepy – they surely were – but they weren’t chronically deprived of their sleep in quite the same we are today. (You can read more about this in my book, The Slumbering Masses.)

If you do give your alarm clock a break over the next week, try and keep a sleep diary – which is just a recording of when you go to sleep and when you wake up. And if you’re sleepy midday, try and take a nap rather than drink tea, coffee or soda. Over the course of the week, you should begin to see some patterns emerge around when you’re tired and when you aren’t. It should also help you figure out how long your sleep cycles are; most of us sleep in sleep cycles of about two hours, but some people sleep in much quicker cycles. If you sleep for eight hours or so, just divide the amount of time you slept by four, which should give you a pretty good sense of how long a cycle is.

The trickier part of this project is to then fit this sleep schedule in with your normal sleeping and waking times. It might be impossible to sleep from midnight until 8 a.m. due to work or school demands, but you can do better by sleeping according to your sleep cycles. Go to bed when you’re tired and figure out how many cycles you can get in before you have to wake up – and never sleep only half a cycle. So, for example, if your sleep cycle is two hours long and you have seven hours to sleep, sleep for six hours, not seven. You’ll get through three cycles of sleep and awake feeling more rested than if you slept for seven hours.

If you’ve ever had the experience of waking up and feeling sleepy all day, it’s probably because you woke up in the middle of a cycle. It might seem a little counterintuitive, but sometimes less sleep actually makes you feel more rested – as long as you’re waking up at the end of a cycle instead of in the middle of one. And if you’re consistently sleeping less than you need to, it’s entirely likely that your sleeping cues will move earlier in the night, or you might find a way to start napping regularly.

Our sleep is both flexible and inflexible. Some people are born owls, and others are larks. And for many of us, we live in a lark’s world – school and work times that start early in the day and privilege the early-to-bed set and make it tough for late risers to be well rested. If you’re a late riser, you might never fit into an early starting school or work day, but you can find a way to feel less tired throughout the day by better managing your sleep. And, along the way, you might end up sleeping a little more like our ancestors than contemporary everyday life conspires to allow us to do.