Have you ever:
- Stayed up late to finish a big essay or project?
- Stayed up late over school break, only to find that you feel like a mess when school starts again?
- Had trouble waking up at the right time? That kitten in the photo did, too.
If so, you may have found that getting back on a normal sleep schedule is harder than it sounds. Some people I respect very much have also expressed shame that they “can’t even go to sleep at a normal time.”
I hear you. It’s hard. It’s not the end of the world difficult, but it’s enough to make you feel like crap. Life is hard enough without being exhausted on top of everything else.
I’m definitely a night owl. During graduate school, I stayed up very late when I had big deadlines (music scores that were due, final papers, dissertation deadlines, etc.). Recently, I noticed my sleep schedule getting later during the pandemic and because I work from home in a non-traditional job.
I decided to test some methods on myself for waking up early, and I’m glad to say I’m finally having some success.
Sleep schedule hacks that didn’t work for me:
- forcing myself awake
- blaming myself
- setting alarms gradually earlier
How to Wake up Earlier According to Traditional Medicine
The classic advice from sleep doctors is to set your alarm gradually earlier, which didn’t work for me. I felt miserable and exhausted, and I also felt I was losing productivity during the day because I felt fuzzy and confused from lack of sleep.
There are also techniques that involve short term sleep deprivation. This method was recommended to me by a sleep doctor.
The idea is that you purposefully go to sleep extremely late and wake up very early until you are so damn tired that you cannot help but fall asleep.
Um – no thanks. This sounds a little too much like torture for my taste. If you want to try it, you can make an appointment with a sleep physician who can explain the specific hours you need to go to bed and wake up.
While I’m normally a fan of going to the doctor when you need to, in this specific case, I think my technique is better.
How to Wake up Earlier using a Light Lamp
This winter, I was having more trouble waking up. It got so bad that by January, I couldn’t fall asleep until 3 or 4 a.m, and I woke up about 1 p.m. I was not pleased to lose so much of my day, but I was so. damn. tired.
When I finally realized that I was struggling more with my sleep schedule in winter, I also happened to remember that the therapeutic light lamps normally used in seasonal depression can be used to regulate sleep cycle.
I decided to try it.
If you’re not familiar with light lamps for seasonal depression (also called “seasonal affective disorder” or sometimes “winter depression”) they are super bright lamps that have been clinically studied for effectiveness for mood and sleep cycle. I wrote a more detailed explanation of seasonal depression in my other article, so feel free to check it out if you want more information.
Waking Up Earlier: My Technique
This is the least painful way to do it! I know because I am testing this method on myself, and I have no tolerance for feeling sleepy and miserable.
Unfortunately, this technique does require that you buy a light lamp. I don’t tell people to buy things they don’t need for a few reasons. First, there are times in my life that I was so poor. I understand that not everyone can afford to waste money. I also feel that buying things you don’t need is bad for the environment.
In this case, though, light lamps are so effective that I wanted to get the word out. The good news is that they are so much more affordable than they were in the past.
Light lamps used to be $150-300, and insurance didn’t often cover them, even though they are considered a durable medical good with high clinical efficacy.
Luckily, the price has come down significantly. I’ve seen them range from about 35-100, depending on the model you want, and whether you want it to be clinical strength. And let me tell you, there is nothing wrong with choosing one that’s a good deal. You need “good enough” in this case – you don’t need “perfect.”
Wake up Earlier (the Painless Way)
1. Calculate a new wakeup time.
We won’t be making a change all in one day, because that will make you feel like hell.
What time did you wake up yesterday? I recommend choosing a goal time that is ½ hour to 1 hour earlier, depending on how messed up you’ve been feeling. If you have been overwhelmingly sleepy, ½ hour is a more gentle change.
2) Set your alarm for tomorrow.
As I mentioned above, choose a time that’s ½ hour to 1 hour earlier than yesterday’s wake time.
3) When you wake up, turn on your light lamp.
Sit 16 to 24 inches away from the lamp, and DO NOT look directly into the lamp. Think of it as shining the light on your face, almost as if the sun were shining on you. The reason you don’t want to look at it is that it’s freaking bright and it won’t feel good or be healthy for your eyes.
Therapeutic dose for seasonal depression is 30 minutes at 10,000 lux, but don’t start with that. Some people will find it makes them anxious, irritable, or headachy. Too much of the light lamp (compared to what your body personally needs) can also trigger insomnia, so it’s better to gradually get used to your lamp.
Start with 5 minutes of light lamp use in the morning if your lamp is on 10,000 lux.
Because I have debilitating headaches (with light sensitivity), I’m using my lowest light lamp setting (2500 lux) for 10 minutes. Even that has been enough to help reset my body clock.
Over the first few days of light lamp use, I was actually able to push my waking time back 2 hours! Your results will vary depending on how long your sleep has been messed up.
I had been sleeping to about 11 or 12 until a few weeks ago, when I suddenly couldn’t get up before 1. I was able to get my wake time back to 11 a.m. in just a few days.
4) Over the first week, push your wake time back as much as you tolerate.
I recommend moving your wake time by 1 hour, then adjusting for a few days. Then move your wake time back another 1 hour, and adjust for a few days.
If you don’t feel like waking up, tell yourself that it’s okay to sleep again IF you use your light lamp first. You’ll find that after sitting under the lamp, you are more alert and don’t feel as sleepy.
If you actually have untreated seasonal depression, you may not notice increased alertness until you are at the clinically proven strength (10,000 lux for ½ hour). Some people need even more. In general, treatment for seasonal affective disorder can gradually make you feel better over a period of weeks. If you think you have seasonal affective disorder or any undiagnosed mental health condition, please contact your physician to get an accurate diagnosis and to make sure you are receiving proper care.
5) The next week (week 2), push your waking time 1 hour earlier.
You can adjust for a few days and then push back 1 more hour, or you can do only 1 change this week.
By the end of week 2, if you have followed my schedule with the light lamp, you will have moved your waking time back 3 – 4 hours!
This might be enough for you. If not, keep waking up 1 hour earlier each week, using the light lamp to help you adjust painlessly.
That’s it! Congratulations on fixing your sleep schedule. If it gets messed up again, you’ll know what to do!
What Should I Look for in a Light Lamp?
- Get one that is capable of 10,000 lux, which is the strength demonstrated to be effective in clinical trials, and the strength that traditional doctors recommend.
- Get a good brand so you know that the claims of 10,000 lux are accurate. Verilux is the brand that my doctors recommended for seasonal depression and for sleep cycle regulation, so that’s what I bought.
As you gradually move your waking time earlier, you’ll likely find yourself getting sleepy earlier in the evening. This is a good thing! Make sure to get in bed earlier when the sleepiness hits – don’t push past it.
If you are finding that changing your sleep schedule by an hour is too much, and you’re having trouble adjusting, try moving your sleep schedule back by half an hour instead, giving yourself several days to adjust if possible.
Don’t believe internet articles that promote “hacks” to avoid sleep. It is unhealthy and dangerous to sleep very little. Sleeping less than you need can cause depression and is associated with car accidents.
This article is NOT intended to trick your body into sleeping less.
If you’re not getting results from the lamp, you may have an underlying health condition. For example, people with seasonal affective disorder need specific dosing of the light lamp, and this is best managed by a physician.
You should also speak with your doctor if you are having trouble with excessive sleepiness, falling asleep in public places, falling asleep while driving, or any sleep-related breathing difficulties such as choking, gasping, or snoring, as they may be signs of sleep apnea. Major depression can also make some people very sleepy, and a light therapy lamp is not considered a primary treatment (it can, however, be a beneficial adjunctive therapy).
Light lamps are not safe for people with retinal disorders or eye damage. They also might cause mania if you have bipolar disorder, so make sure to check with your doctor before use.