Time to write something more personal, for a change. I find it somewhat curious how my sleeping habits have changed over the years, as well as the level of sophistication of the way I have been waking up. Let me run a short recollection of how a teenager who tried to squeeze every single minute out of (morning) sleep turned into a young man who tried to optimize his sleep, and finally into a man who does not mind waking up much earlier than strictly necessary.
Early days of longed sleep and brutal wakeups
I recall that back when I was a high school pupil, I tried to sleep as long as possible. Of course, teenagers are always very busy in the evenings. The only way they can get more sleep is by waking up later. I was never the kind of guy to skip breakfast or bathroom. My only option was to optimize so that I could cover all the morning routine in as short time as possible. If I recall correctly, at some point I’ve managed to do it all in around 30 minutes — from waking up and making the bed, to the point of being ready to leave (actually, this might have even included the 5 minute walk to the train station but I’m not really sure anymore).
I think the key to having managed that was the alarm clock. It was some electronic Russian stuff that me and my brother have gotten one each as a child. It had some high-pitched nostalgic melody as the wake-up call. It was so annoying and depressing at the same time, that you learned to get up and turn it off very quickly. In fact, some time later I have started naturally waking up just before the alarm clock, in order to disable it before it started playing. It was a somewhat interesting skill. Eventually, I managed to wake up at an arbitrary hour, knowing only at what time I need to wake up and at what time I went to sleep.
At some point the alarm clock died and just like many young people at the time, I’ve started using the cell phone for the purpose. Of course, originally it wasn’t one of these unreliable Android phones that fail to wake you up because they just happened to decide to enter some deep sleep to save battery. It was a proper Linux phone of the days long forgotten but I’m digressing now.
At some later point in life (not sure when exactly) I have read an article about sleep cycles. I am not going to go into details here as it is not really my area of expertise, and there’s a lot of texts on the topic out there. For those who have never heard of them — the rough idea is that during sleep the brain cyclically goes through various phases, and some are better for waking up while others make waking up a hard and dreadful task. If you ever woke up and felt more exhausted than when you went to sleep, this is probably why.
The main idea I have gotten from this was: if I time my sleep to last a multiple of 90 minutes, then I have a good chance of waking up in the right phase. This implied figuring out the right time to go to sleep because obviously the as-late-as-possible wake up time was sacred.
In fact, I think I’ve reached the heights of absurd there. If I did not manage to finish around the planned go-to-sleep time, I have stayed up for another 90 minutes waiting for the next right time. It would probably have never occurred to me that I could just wake up earlier and achieve the same result.
This worked for me for a long time. From retrospective, I am not really sure if what I figured out back then was really correct. The fact that I’ve started sleeping more regularly may have had more importance.
It is not uncommon for people to have trouble waking up. Sometimes you just don’t hear the alarm clock (especially if it’s not brutal anymore), or you just lay down for one more minute, or even are not really sure what happened (or did not happen). There are a few common ideas on how to resolve that. You could set two alarms instead of one, you could use a fancy alarm clock (app) that repeatedly tries to wake you up, has a snooze timer, or even one that makes turning it off a challenge that only awake man can manage.
Back then, I went for two alarms. But I didn’t time them 5 or 10 minutes apart from each other, no. I have reused my earlier ideas and timed the first one 90 minutes before the actual wake up time. Again, the idea was rather simple. The first alarm clock woke me up, usually sleepy and so happy that I can go back to sleep! The second one was not that horrible anymore.
In fact, this idea was probably what made me abandon the previous system. I eventually assumed that it doesn’t really matter what time I go to sleep at. The first alarm clock woke me up 90 minutes before the wake up time, possibly totally exhausted but it didn’t matter because I went back to sleep immediately. At the time, the theory was that this reset the sleep cycles and made the actual wake up time fit. Whether it really worked like that, I have no clue. But it worked for me.
Cats and proper sleep cycles
As I was getting older (plus gotten through little health issues), my habits have changed. I no longer managed the morning routine this fast, I needed some extra time for unforeseen delays. Finally, I’ve adopted stray kittens last year. It became pretty normal to me to wake up three times in the night, to let the cats out, then let them in, give them food, let them out again…
Finally, I have installed one of the (sad to admit, proprietary) sleep cycle apps on my old Android phone and started experimenting with it. The idea is that it is supposed to monitor your sleep (via microphone) and choose a good time to wake you up, up to N minutes before your appointed wake-up time. To be honest, with its closed-source nature I have no clue if it really works or just draws nice plots that do seem to make sense and randomly wakes me up. However, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about.
The really curious part is that I finally realized that I could wake up earlier, and be better than if I had slept a little longer. Crazy, right?
But this week I did something that astonished me even more. Usually, when I had to wake up for an early train, I used to go to sleep early (and then slept on the train anyway). This time I’ve decided that if I stay up late and sleep much shorter, then I will probably have less trouble waking up than if I attempted a longer sleep, and decided to get the rest of the sleep during the journey. In fact, I’m staying up late again just to write this post.