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How to Wake Up When You Want — Controlling your sleep routine

Productivity, Psychology

“It hurts when someone you love says mean things like… It’s time to wake up”

We all have to sleep but it seems like everyone has a very personal relationship with it.

Some sleep more, others wake up easier and others wake up early in the day. This latter group seems to be praised by all for being the hard workers, the one that rise earlier to conquer the world and do amazing things.

But this is simply not true. Just because you wake up earlier don’t mean you will be more productive or accomplish more. It’s more important what you do while you are awake. My point is that you should adjust your sleep cycle to match your current goals and needs and not because successful people do it.

They do it because they want to do it. Because they have a purpose behind it. It is an habit developed out of necessity or simply discipline. They didn’t become successful because they wake up early. They wake up early because they found that it is what works for them.

The point of this post is to give you the tools you need to manipulate your sleep cycle to optimized it for your purpose and goals.

“Morning is wonderful. Its only drawback is that it comes at such an inconvenient time of day.” ― Glen Cook

A good place to start is by looking at different chronotypes. The two extremes are often called early birds and night owls and they refer to a predisposition to prefer to wake up at a certain time of the day. Meaning that if you don’t have any sleep schedule your body will tend to wake up earlier or later in the day.

But it is only that, a tendency. We have the power to control our sleep cycle. We do it during school time or during night shifts. But it usually is a not very pleasant process. The bigger the offset from your current sleep routine, the longer it will take to get used to a new waking up time. Just like jetlag.

Why we want to minimize these effects, it helps to know more about sleep, more specifically what allows the body to know when to go to bed and when to wake up.

The Circadian Rhythm

Our bodies have several cycle that map the 24 hour cycle of our planet. The collection of this cycles are called the circadian rhythm, sleep being on of those cycles. The body has several ways to keep track of time, the main one being the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located in the hypothalamus. This part of the part is also referred as the “master clock”.

But this clock is not perfect. It needs external cues so that it can exactly match the 24 hour cycle. These cues are called Zeitgeber and include variables like light, social and behavior routines, food, exercise and more. Today I will mainly focus on the main ones: light and routines.

Light and sleep

Light is obviously the most important variable. In our retinas we have sensors of blue wavelength that informs the “master clock” when is day and night. In the evening there is less blue light in the sky which signals the brain to start producing melatonin, the sleep hormone that makes us sleepy. In the morning the opposite happens, melatonin stops being produced and we slowly wake up.

What makes light such an important circadian rhythm regulator is the fact that these light sensors are directly connected with our “master clock”. We might not notice it but the sun is still what drives most of our routines. But it becomes quite clear when we look at blind people and their relationship with sleep. Almost 50% of blind people suffer from a sleep disorder exactly because their light sensors are compromised.

But this statistic odd right? If light is so important shouldn’t all blind people be affected by a form of sleep disorder?

Routines and sleep

It turns out that our body has many ways to sync itself to the day-night cycle. In addition to the “master clock” in the brain, there is also small clocks spread throughout the whole body called clock genes, which can influence and be influenced by the “master clock”. In addition to light, routines are also extremely important to maintain the circadian rhythm in sync with the day night cycle.

Routines like meals, exercise, social interactions, bedtime hours, they all help the body to find a relationship between these activities and the time of the day. The more routines you have the easier it is for the body to keep itself on an entertainment mode, a perfect synchronization between your circadian rhythm and the day-night cycle of the planet.

The practical advice

The simple most important take away from this post: Eliminate all blue wavelength light during the evening.

Computers screens and smartphones emits this type of light and if you use these devices at night (I’m sure you do), it can disputes your sleep cycle. Personally I use F.lux for my computer screen, Twilight app for my Android smartphone. If you have a Iphone, enabling the Night Shift mode will also block blue light.

The next step it to understand more about your chronotype. When your body prefers to fall asleep and wake up. Researchers use a survey called MEQ, the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire.

I scored 59 points which makes me a moderate morning type. 

Fun fact: Chronotypes are hereditary so if you do the MEQ, compare it to your parents sleeping routines. I’m curious to see how well it matches.

During the past 2 months, I managed to wake up around 7 AM everyday without any problems and be asleep around 11:30. In part is because I am a morning type but more importantly is because I forced myself to follow a schedule.

As we saw, routines helps our bodies to regulate its internal clocks. At night time, create a routine which signals your body that it is time to go to bed and sleep. Make yourself a tea, brush your teeth and read a book until you start feeling sleepy. The same thing in the morning. If you are trying to awake at 7AM, set an alarm clock and make sure you force yourself to get out of bed. Open the window to let some sunlight in and start your morning routine.

If you do thing enough times, you will notice that you will become less and less dependent of the alarm clock and naturally wake you around the predefined waking up time. If you which to advance or delay your sleep cycle, play with the two variable of light and routines until your body adapts to the new environmental cues.

Your relationship with sleep

These are the main ways to control your sleep cycle and optimize it to your goals and needs. But now I am curious about you:

  • Are you struggling with falling asleep?
  • Do you want to wake up earlier?
  • What are your morning or evening routines?

I will be down in the comments replying to your comments.

Road Delta is where I share my interests, experiments and creativity with the world. All blog posts and videos in this website are 100% made by me, which makes it difficult to define a theme. And all over the place. Nutrition, physiology, public speaking, travelling, fitness… You can find it all here.

Your opinion is welcomed :)