Studies show that the week after we change the clocks forward (for spring) or backward (in the fall) are particularly disruptive to sleep. The one hour change can throw off our circadian rhythms.
Navigating Wake-up Times
For many years, I typically woke up between 6 and 6:30 am, and the change was particularly harsh: after a winter of waking up in the dark, just when it started to become light again we would move the clocks forward, thrusting my wake-up time back into darkness.
This year, I realized that I had inadvertently found the solution to this challenge:
Last year, I discovered a class I liked at a local gym. The class is only offered early or much later, at a time that doesn’t work for me. If I want to take class, I have to be at the gym by 5:30 am.
I now wake up at 4:30 am.
No matter what time of year it is, in the Northeast United States it is always dark at that hour.
The Habit That Destroys Productivity
When I shared this discovery with a friend, he wistfully recalled how he used to wake up at 4 am to row crew. He told me how much he loved to row, how the rhythmic nature of it got him in a zone and set a rhythm for his day.
He had just been telling me about some challenges he was having in being consistent with certain actions in his business, how time seems to get away from him each day. He is motivated to take the actions, but somehow the day can get away from him before he does.
This is a common challenge my clients bring to me. And it typically starts in the same place.
I was curious.
I asked him about his morning routine.
Once he wakes up, he spends about an hour in his personal routine getting ready for the day: shower, getting dressed, making his coffee — the type of things that are rarely on a calendar or a to-do list.
Then I asked him: What time do you wake up in the morning?
His reply: I try to wake up at 6 am.
That revealed everything.
The moment I hear I try, I have confirmation of the source of the problem.
I already knew the answer to my next question:
How often do you actually wake up at 6 am?
About 60% of the time.
In other words: not consistently.
Nor did I really need to ask the next question:
What happens when you don’t wake up at 6 am?
He shared that he will hit snooze and negotiate with himself the time to sleep a little more.
His dialogue might be along the lines of, I can sleep for another 30 minutes today.
I pointed out to him that this is where the day starts to fall off track.
The Snooze Button is Your Enemy
Everything we do in our day builds on what we’ve done before.
If my friend’s morning routine sounds familiar, then here’s what you need to know:
The snooze button is your enemy.
And your habit of hitting it in the morning has consequences that last beyond the morning.
2 Problems With Hitting Snooze
Problem 1: Snooze Interferes With Your Sleep
The first problem is that the time you sleep between hitting the snooze button isn’t quality sleep.
You’re in that half-sleep, half-wake state, with a part of your nervous system working to monitor time — even if you don’t realize it in the moment.
When I used to hit the snooze button, I knew I could hit it a certain number of times before I actually had to get out of bed. In fact, I would set the alarm earlier than necessary to give myself the time to snooze.
When I did get out of bed, I never felt more refreshed than when the alarm first went off.
Almost 10 years ago, I made a rule for myself that I would no longer hit snooze. The setting is disabled on every alarm.
If I’m so tired that I really feel like I need more sleep, I shut the alarm and go back to sleep until I wake up. It’s rare that I do this, because I find that even this extra sleep isn’t really quality sleep.
If you’re not getting quality sleep in those extra minutes, you might as well get out of bed, right?
The inefficient sleep is reason enough not to hit snooze. But it’s not the only destructive part of hitting the snooze button.
Problem 2: Snooze Induces Decision Fatigue
The second problem is what’s happening in that moment you hit snooze, even if it’s under the surface.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re negotiating with yourself.
Let’s go back to what my friend says:
I can sleep another 30 minutes.
He is aware of this thought. But it’s what’s happening beneath the surface that is so damaging.
I call it “calendar chess.”
You’re playing mental chess with your calendar.
Beneath that one decision that you can sleep for another 30 minutes, your subconscious is moving around the various items on your calendar, figuring out where to slot them and what can be removed to create space.
This includes the events and activities that may not be explicitly written on your calendar: brushing your teeth, taking a shower, making your bed, eating breakfast, meditation, workout.
The moment you hit the snooze button, you start rationalizing and rescheduling.
If it were an actual, out-loud conversation it might sound like this:
I can do a shorter workout today. I can shower in 5 minutes instead of 10. I can move my workout to the afternoon. I can move those calls to tomorrow.
Each of these negotiations is a mini-decision.
This is where I introduced my friend to the neuroscience of Decision Fatigue.
We only get a limited bandwidth for decisions.
Decisions drain energy.
This is why Steve Jobs famously wore the same black turtleneck and jeans. It’s the reason we all want to cultivate better habits. And it’s the reason I love going to my morning workout class.
Streamlining our routine, putting things on auto-pilot, or outsourcing decisions and planning to other people saves our energetic bandwidth.
Each time you hit the snooze button, you’re relitigating decisions you had already made — not only about what time you’ll get up, but also about events and activities for the entire day, as well as subsequent days.
What we do in any day is a culmination of actions we take the previous days. Each moment impacts the next.
By the time you get out of bed, you’re not only exhausted because you didn’t get quality sleep, but also you’ve depleted your limited supply of decision bandwidth.
You’re starting at a deficit.
Decisions impact the part of the brain that deals with executive function. As someone with ADHD, I already have limited bandwidth here.
Playing mental chess with my calendar before I’m even fully awake is not the best use of that resource.
But decision fatigue impacts everyone, even neuro-typical people.
The Solution: Start Your Day With a Full Tank
The solution is simple: decide once and commit to it.
Go back to the start of this essay and notice how I describe my wake up time:
I wake up at 4:30 am.
It’s not the time that matters here. It’s the absence of the word try.
Pick a time that works for you and commit to waking up at that time.
To be clear, I don’t have a perfect record. There are days when I decide to shut off the alarm and go back to sleep.
On those days, I feel the energy depletion that comes from renegotiating my schedule.
What helps me stay consistent is a commitment to being in a certain place by a certain time. Having a fun class that I love to take helps pull me out of bed and get me out the door. I don’t stop to think about whether I feel like working out (I almost never do that early). I just go.
And here’s the thing: I almost always feel better once I’ve gotten to the gym and started moving. That movement fuels my work and my day.
Experiment and See What Happens
You don’t have to take my word for it. Run your own experiment to see what happens. Decide on a time to wake up, and commit to getting up at that time.
Stop hitting snooze.
Notice how you feel.
Reach out to let me know what happens, or share in the comments.
I’m curious to hear how it works for you.