Waking up without an alarm: 7+ years of living the dream


Image: "Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton (1895). via Wikimedia Commons

Since everyone is reporting on their long-term self-experimentation this week*, I thought I'd share my own major breakthrough. I strongly believe that waking yourself up with alarms is extremely bad for your health, creativity and productiveness.

I'm coming up on the 8th anniversary of my decision to eschew alarm clocks. It started when I noticed that I often awoke before my alarm went off anyway. After reading an article about ten years ago in Nature on timing the end of nocturnal sleep (PMID: 9892349), I gave alarms up in 2003 and have not looked back. I decided to try working without a net, and after some trial and error, I found what works for me. I have never overslept (a problematic word, IMHO) or missed anything important. Details after the break.

Here are the basics:

  1. I have no clock in my bedroom.
  2. I do not keep a watch or phone in my bedroom.
  3. I do not have a TV or computer in my bedroom.
  4. I use a very heavy window curtain so I can't tell what time it is.

Here is what I have found:

  1. It forces me to get the kind of good night's sleep championed by Mark, Xeni, and Arianna Huffington.
  2. I go to bed sooner, especially if I have something important the next morning.
  3. I remember my dreams more often.
  4. I feel much sharper in the mornings than I used to.
  5. I do not need caffeine to wake up (though I do drink energy drinks throughout the day)
  6. My skin looks better, especially around and under my eyes.

A few caveats that might affect your own results:

  1. The biggest leap of faith was not setting an alarm before a morning flight. To this day, I still often stay up until my flight, then sleep on the plane.
  2. I have never had any problems with insomnia, and I sleep pretty heavily.
  3. I do use my phone's audible reminder feature throughout the day when I have a call or other obligation.
  4. I do occasionally get a feline wakeup call, similar to the one shown here. These are on no discernible schedule.

A few friends who couldn't make the no-alarm thing work switched to those sunrise alarms and were pleased. I tried one out a few times when I was housesitting. One friend's had little bird sounds in addition to a gradually brightening light. Looking online it was probably a Good Morning Sunrise Wake-up Light Alarm Clock with Nature Sounds. She swore by it, and it was certainly not as traumatic as a beep, buzz, or heaven help us, a morning radio DJ.

I still occasionally put on this Liquid Mind: Sleep album I mentioned last year, which is very relaxing to me. Brian Eno's ambient stuff would probably do the trick, too. If you have a week where you can go to bed early, I recommend giving it a shot. The main thing is not to worry about waking up. That will let you complete your sleep cycle and leave you feeling a lot less stressed. It's like being on vacation all the time – no alarms!

* BTW, I never use bar soap, but unlike Sean and Mark, I smell like a nerdy hippie chick. A little gamey, but not revolting.