I would love to be someone who jumps out of bed with a spring in their step, but I tend to view leaving my warm, cozy sheets every morning as a necessary evil at best – and a complete struggle on days when I’m feeling especially groggy.
Those days happen with some regularity: I often find myself struggling to fall asleep at night, only to wake feeling fuzzy the following morning. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that I’m sleep deprived – like more than half of adults in the UK.
I’m trying to adopt healthier “sleep hygiene” habits to help me drift off, like reducing my alcohol intake and going to bed at (almost) the same time each night, but could changing the way I wake up make a difference, too?
From smart alarms and vibrating watches to sun-mimicking light clocks, there are options out there. I tried five different methods and asked Sammy Margo, author of The Good Sleep Guide, to share her thoughts.
This is my usual weekday method of waking up. I work three early shifts, one late shift and one remote shift per week and when I factor in a post-work social life, I’m terrible at sticking to a set bed time and wake time. As a result, I set my phone alarm at high volume to ensure I don’t sleep through it, waking up bolt upright each day with a minor heart attack. But at least I’m at work on time, right?
Margo is not impressed. “This is jarring!” she says. “And you may be woken up before your body is ready, in the middle of deep sleep, which could make you feel groggy even though you have had plenty of quality sleep.”
She recommends I switch to a gentler alarm tone. I give it a go, a little anxious that it won’t wake me up, but to my pleasant surprise, it does the job and I have a (slightly) more relaxing morning.
While I am reluctant to get up in the mornings, I am not someone who repeatedly hits snooze. This is often “part of the waking up ritual” for people who use phone alarms, notes Margo – but if you’re one of them, consider whether it’s really advisable. “The short period in between is not helpful or restorative sleep,” she warns.
I try this method on a Saturday, for obvious reasons – and I sleep until 11.30am. This happens almost every time I forget to set an alarm at the weekend, meaning I wake up furious for wasting precious time off. So what’s going on? “You could well be sleep deprived or just more of an owl than a lark,” Margo explains, noting that “it’s a lark’s world” with school and work to contend with.
You can train yourself to wake naturally at a time that suits you – but it takes a bit of commitment to get there. “It does mean going to bed and waking up at a similar time everyday,” she says. “A good time to do this is when you are on holiday as it’s a tricky experiment to fit into our busy lives.”
It’s worth sticking at it, because Margo maintains that waking naturally is the best method – well, it’s what we’ve done since the dawn of time. Although my next holiday is to Vegas, so I’m pretty sure a consistent bedtime will not be top of my priorities. Next!
Wake up lights work by gradually emitting light over a period of around 30 minutes, mimicking the morning sunrise. It’s reported the lights can help reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression linked to shortened day light hours and a lack of sunlight.
My boyfriend and I have a wake up light (Lumie Bodyclock Luxe 700, £158.99, Amazon) in our bedroom, which he loves and uses on weekdays (he somehow falls back to sleep after my noisy exit and wakes to the light an hour later).
“Light alarms offer a gentler way to wake up,” says Margo. My issue is whether this method is too gentle – I’m dead to the world. When I try to use the Lumie on a Sunday my boyfriend has to nudge me to break my comatose state.
Lumie lights have sold millions worldwide, so why don’t they work for me? “Clearly, you’re not that light sensitive,” she says. “A bit like diet and a bit like exercise, the way we wake up is all quite personal. This technique doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a try.”
“A bit like diet and a bit like exercise, the way we wake up is all quite personal."”
Sleep Cycle Smart Alarm
Humans experience five different stages of sleep. Simplified, these include two light sleep stages, two deep sleep stages and one REM sleep stage (when we dream), Margo explains. Sleep cycles are thought to last around 90 minutes and waking during a light sleep stage may make feel you less groggy than when you wake during deep sleep.
It is for this reason that Margo recommends I try the Sleep Cycle app, designed to monitor your movements and track your stages of sleep, then wake you during a light sleep stage.
I download the app (which offers a free trial) and pop my phone by my pillow as per the instructions. When setting an alarm, you select a 30-minute window, such as 8am - 8.30am, and the app will wake you up anytime within that window when it detects movement, signifying light sleep.
So if you like the idea of waking naturally but aren’t ready to fly solo just yet, an app like Sleep Cycle could be a good first step. It’s ideal to “learn how sleep cycles work and learn to work with your body,” Margo argues.
I’m a little sceptical but when I try the app at the weekend, I wake without my usual groggy feeling. I wonder whether this might be placebo and know a longer trial would help me decide either way, but I can’t face using the app during the week. I have to be up by 6.10am to make my train – and the idea of being woken 30 minutes earlier definitely does not appeal. If you have a more relaxed morning routine though, the free trial is definitely worth a go.
FitBit Vibrating Alarm
FitBit’s “silent alarm” feature wakes you with a vibration through the tracker on your wrist. Margo is a bit ambivalent: “It’s definitely worth a try, but I prefer one that helps to wake you up at the right time [like Sleep Cycle],” she says.
I give it a go, regardless. While loads of us have fitness trackers, I don’t – so I borrow a colleague’s watch (Fitbit’s Flex 2 Watch, £77.99) to give the function a try, setting my morning alarm through the FitBit app. Annoyingly, I wake an hour early and struggle to get back to sleep because I’m waiting (slightly worried) for the buzz to jolt me awake.
I must eventually doze off though, because I’m roused by a fairly gentle vibration that’s more of a soothing nudge than the electric shock I’d feared. The pulse is a calmer way to wake up and can be turned off with swift double tap.
This alarm is ideal if you share a bed with a partner who has a different daily schedule to you – for once I don’t feel bad about waking my long-suffering other half at crack of dawn. If you already own a FitBit (or another fitness tracker with a silent alarm) I’d definitely recommend giving the function a try. I’m tempted to put one on my Christmas wish list.
If you’re tempted to try a new alarm, do it on a day when you don’t have work or urgent plans – because you might fail to wake up at all.
FitBit’s vibrating silent alarm was my favourite method of those I tried – but not so life-changing I wanted to immediately fork out £77.99 for the Flex 2 watch I trialled. For now, I’m sticking to my phone alarm, but have chosen a soothing spa-like tune and set it to a quieter volume for a more relaxing start to the day.
The biggest takeaway is that your alarm method may make a difference to how you feel at the start of the day, but what’s more important is getting a quality night’s sleep in the first place. If you’re sleep deprived or have poor sleep hygiene habits, forking out on a Lumie clock is unlikely to solve your problems.
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