Lots of people set the alarm with the best of intentions, knowing that’s the time they need to get up to meet the day’s demands. But then the alarm clock seems to ring far before they’re ready to rise, so they’re hitting snooze and, eventually, running late. Something’s got to give. The key lies inside your body. “An important factor in being able to wake up easily at the desired time in the morning is the timing of one’s circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock,’ ” says sleep researcher Leon C. Lack, Ph.D., a professor in the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. Much of what you need to do to wake up on time starts by planning your sleep schedule the day and the evening before –- and by making your mornings count.
Know Why You Want To Wake Up
Michelle Segar, Ph.D., a healthy living expert and motivation scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that to make any change in your life stick, including waking up on time, you need to clearly define why it’s important to you. What’s your motivation? Do you want to get up in time to have breakfast with your family, get in some exercise, or just have a few moments of reflection to be better prepared for your day? Maybe you’re just tired of the stress of running late every morning. Once you crystallize your reasons, take a second step and tell your family or roommates about the change you want to make. Accountability helps as much as an alarm clock.
Now that you’re clear about what you want to do when you wake up and what it takes to get more sleep, consider trimming down your morning activities. This could let you set the alarm clock for a few minutes (or more) later. If you’ve decided you want time to have breakfast with your family, save some time the night before by setting out clothes, shoes, and bags. Are you spending 15 minutes in line to get coffee? That’s a quarter-hour more you could be sleeping by buying a coffee maker with a timer –- another wake-me-up device that will brew your favorite hot drink on your schedule.
Get To Know Your Body Clock
If you’ve been riding the sleep deprivation roller coaster for a while, you might not even know how much sleep your body naturally would want if you weren’t staying up late and slapping around the alarm clock in the morning. Lack explains that, in general, your body makes changes in anticipation of your going to sleep, such as dropping in temperature and heart rate and secreting melatonin into your bloodstream one to two hours before your regular bedtime. This cycle peaks at about 3 to 4 a.m., and then your body starts a gradual morning waking-up process. One way to figure out what might work best for you is to set a consistent bedtime that starts about 8 hours before your alarm is going to go off. Stick to that for several weeks (including weekends) to get a feeling for how well your body responds. Lack notes that some people are naturally night owls and will still find it hard to go to bed early (at least what’s early for them), even if they have to wake up early as well.
Your body naturally makes melatonin to stimulate your sleep. You can take a melatonin supplement to help re-orient your body clock. Try a low dose of 0.5 to 1.0 milligrams five to six hours before bedtime for a few days. Lack says that, “after several nights, this should result in an earlier timed body clock, earlier sleep onset, and earlier easier awakening in the morning.” Melatonin doesn’t work well for all kinds of sleep disorders, however, and can even result in drowsiness the next day for some people. People with autoimmune disorders or diabetes, those taking birth control pills, blood thinners, sedatives, or some kinds of blood pressure medication should not take melatonin without first discussing it with a health care professional.
Power Down Before Bedtime
Part of getting up on time is getting enough sleep the night before. And getting ready for bed is a process of winding down. Segar warns that spending time in front of “screens” (TV, laptop, etc) right up until bedtime doesn’t lead to restful sleep. Use the alarm clock in your favorite gadget to set a reminder to turn everything off at least an hour before you slip between the sheets — no excuses.
Get Bright Light First Thing In The Morning
The bright lights of your flat screen TV before bed can make it hard to go to sleep, but bright light for an hour or two once you wake up can help set your body clock to accept your wake up time. “This can be from sunlight, especially in summer, or artificial bright light if it is cold, dark, and rainy outside,” says Lack, who is part of a research and development team that has developed bright light devices for this purpose. If your schedule allows it, a walk in the morning sun or a restful breakfast on the patio would be good for both your mood and better sleep.
Reorganize Your Evening Schedule
To figure out what’s interfering with your sleep and therefore your waking up, take a look at your day and how you spend your evenings. You might have to reorganize some of your activities. For example, even if the only time you can get to the gym is after dinner, this time slot can result in poor sleep. Segar suggests finding another time to work out earlier in the day. According to a National Sleep Foundation Survey, about one in four adults believe their work schedule makes it impossible to get enough sleep. If you’re overburdened on the job and constantly work late into the evening, try to find ways to share the load with a partner or colleague.
Get A Sleep Evaluation
Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or health issues such as allergies or depression could be leaving you with poor quality sleep. No matter how hard you try to get to bed on time and wake up on time, you’ll still be tired in the morning and sleepy during the day. Talk to your doctor about testing to find out if you have an underlying condition that’s making sleep difficult.
Make Hitting “Snooze” Harder
Now that you’ve identified the obstacles to going to sleep on time, it’s time to create some obstacles to staying in bed. If your alarm is right next to your bed and the big “snooze” button is easy to reach without raising your head off the pillow, you’re probably going to try to sleep in longer. Put your alarm clock at the other end of your bedroom so that you’re forced to get up to turn it off. And consider setting a second alarm (also far away) if you’re having a lot of difficulty getting up. When you’re trying to reset your sleep and wake times, you might also ask family members or roommates to help you get up until you’re in sync.
Keep Your Sleep/Wake Schedule On Weekends
If you’re running on empty by the time Friday night rolls around, sleeping in on Saturday could sound like heaven. But compensating on the weekends actually feeds into your sleepiness the following week because it interrupts your natural body clock, which doesn’t have a weekend setting. Whatever your set bedtime/wake time is for the weekday, you’ll have to stick to it on the weekends. According to research in Chronobiology International, a consistent bedtime on the weekends seems to lead to better sleep and easier waking during the week. Plus you get to spend that weekend morning time any way you’d like.
Keep A Log And Evaluate It Weekly
Keep track of all the better sleep efforts you’re making and write down how you feel, suggests Segar. Do you have more energy? A peppier mood? Are you more patient with your family? Are you still sleepy or slapping that alarm clock snooze button? After you’ve tried a new strategy or two for a week, take a look at your journal. If the steps you’re taking are working, keep it up. If not, take another look at the obstacles and other strategies you could try. Segar advises going through this weekly experiment-and-evaluate cycle for 6 to 12 weeks. “Don’t expect perfection,” she says. “That’s another setup for failure. Instead be self-compassionate as you learn how to make this important lifestyle change.”