Friday, July 19, 2024

How to use sleep tech to become an early bird

You don’t have to sell me on the benefits of being an early bird. I’ve seen dozens of articles and studies breaking down how getting up early is better for your health, productivity, and stress levels. But becoming an early riser isn’t easy. Speaking from experience, it’s much harder if you’re naturally a night owl and there’s no particular reason — like getting your kids to school — to be up before 7AM. Plus, alarm clocks and phone alarms don’t always work for the sleepiest of sleepyheads.

That said, there are other sleep gadgets and apps that can be a huge help.

If you’re an incorrigible night owl trying to masquerade as an early bird, good news. That was me for the past 10 years, and I’ve tried everything from melatonin to those alarm clocks that run away from you. But after a lot of trial and error (and experimenting with a ton of sleep tech), I’ve become one of those people who enjoys getting up well before I have to. It can be done! Though I won’t lie, you will mess up a lot. What worked for me may not work for you, and frustratingly, sometimes things that used to work suddenly won’t. So feel free to tweak and experiment, but here are some handy tips to get started.

Figure out your bedtime with a sleep tracker

An early day always starts the night before. This might seem obvious, but the key to waking up easily hinges on knowing how much sleep your body actually needs. The more rested you are when it’s time to wake up, the less tempting that snooze button looks.

The amount of sleep you need changes with age, but the CDC recommends that adults get at least seven hours per night. Some people will need less, and others will need a lot more. The best way to find out how much you need is to either download a sleep tracking app or invest in a sleep tracker.

Sleep tracking data is a good way to learn what your current habits are, and where you can improve.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The first step is to record a normal week of sleep. From there, you should be able to see how much sleep you’re getting and whether that’s good enough for your needs. If you’ve already got a smartwatch or fitness tracker, then chances are you might have a week or two’s worth of sleep data and can skip right to the good part. Otherwise, apps are the easiest and most cost-efficient route.

I’ve tested several sleep tracking apps over the years and recommend Rise Science for this particular use case. It’s got a $59.99 yearly subscription, but you won’t really need more than the initial 7-day free trial. I like Rise Science because it calculates your sleep debt and sleep need based on your sleeping habits, as well as provides a bedtime window. I’ve also used and liked Mintal Tracker and Sleep Cycle, but anything that measures your sleep duration and can give you an idea of your sleep quality will fit the bill.

Next, look at your data to see what time you actually wake up. For example, I wanted to wake up at 6AM, but most days, I rolled out of bed at 8:15AM.

At that point, you’re going to set two alarms. Set the first for 15-30 minutes earlier than you currently wake up. For the second, work backward to find out what time you’d need to be asleep in order to meet your sleep need. Set an alarm for 15-30 minutes before that as a signal to wind down.

In my case, I had two years of wearable data, and the Rise Science app calculated my sleep need at 8 hours and 15 minutes. Based on that, I set my wake-up alarm for 8AM and my bedtime alarm for 11:45 PM. You can always use the Sleep Schedule feature on iOS or Bedtime in the Clock app on Android to make this easier to visualize.

Sleep schedules can help you visualize what time you need to go to bed to wake up earlier.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

Once you can reliably maintain that schedule for about three weeks, you can shift your alarms up by another 15-30 minutes until you reach your ideal wake-up time. Be patient — this entire process could take months, and you might get stuck at a particular time. It took me roughly seven months to successfully and sustainably go from waking up at 8:15AM to waking up at 6:15AM. (I’m still working on making my way up to 6AM).

Use smart devices to create a bedtime routine and relaxing environment

A solid bedtime routine can include non-techy things like setting out your clothes for tomorrow before bed, but it can also mean making the best use of smart lights, smart plugs, sunrise lamps, thermostats, and aromatherapy gadgets. Your setup can be as simple or as complicated as you like, just so long as it helps you create your ideal sleeping environment.

One of the easiest things to do is enable a Sleep Focus (iOS) or Bedtime Mode (Android 13) on your smartphone. These features work a bit differently, but both are designed to limit phone-related distractions when you’re trying to wind down. These modes are also highly customizable. For example, you can set limits for apps that tempt you to stay up, turn off notifications for anyone who isn’t family, or have the phone automatically switch to Dark Mode. It requires some experimentation, but the important thing is it acts as a signal to put down your phone.

Sunrise lamps are a type of alarm clock that wakes you up gradually by simulating sunrise.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Smart lighting is also an excellent way to customize your sleeping environment. We have a complete guide to smart lighting here, but one cool thing is you can program your lights to dim at a specific time. If you’re all in on the smart home, you can also sync up your lights along with lowering the thermostat (cooler rooms are better for sleep) and queue up a soothing playlist. Smart plugs are another good option here if you just want to turn a device on or off at a specific time. For instance, if you want to turn on a regular diffuser or humidifier at 10PM every night.

If that’s too complicated, you could always opt for a sunrise lamp. These lamps are essentially a type of smart alarm clock where an artificial light source simulates sunrise. The idea is to replace sound-based alarms with a more gentle, noninvasive method that takes advantage of your natural circadian rhythms. Many modern sunrise lamps can also double as reading lamps that use warm lighting to help you relax at night. Some have built-in sleep tracking and can integrate with the smart home, like the Amazon Halo Rise, while others can play white noise to help you drift off.

Basically, you’re trying to stack the odds in your favor. You’re more likely to wake up early if you can fall asleep more easily. You’ll fall asleep faster if you can control your environment, and so on and so forth. The ideal routine will look different for everyone, but here’s one example (assuming you have a fully smart home):

  • Smart lights dim and use warm lighting at 9PM.
  • Smart thermostat starts lowering your bedroom temperature at 10PM.
  • Smart plugs turn on a diffuser with lavender oil (which promotes sleep) at 9:45PM.
  • Phone enters bedtime mode at 10:35PM, muting all notifications, limiting all social media apps, and dimming screens.
  • Lights turn off at 10:45PM.
  • You fall asleep at 11PM.
  • Your sunrise lamp starts waking you up at 6:15AM.

My personal setup these days is a lot simpler. I’ve got a smart diffuser that kicks on at 9PM, and my humidifier’s hooked up to a smart plug that turns on at 9:30PM. Both automatically turn off at 1AM. My phone’s Sleep Focus turns on at 10:15PM, and I’m usually asleep by 10:30PM. At 6:15AM, my Apple Watch starts vibrating to wake me up without bothering my spouse.

I know I’ll need to tweak this down the line. In fact, I just added the diffuser this past month and removed a sunrise lamp that only woke me up half the time. That said, doing all this has helped me wake up earlier 90 percent of the time while improving my overall quality of sleep — even if my cat does his best to thwart my efforts. I don’t always succeed, but after a decade of trying to change my sleep habits, I can genuinely say that focusing on the night before makes a world of difference. And if gadgets can help you better automate the perfect bedtime routine — why not take advantage of them?


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