The Alarm Clock Paradox

By: Ben Weintraub

There are few things in this world that make me as angry as alarms. I don’t use an alarm, I don’t think anyone should use one, at least on a regular basis.

Alarms give the false perception that we are in control of how much sleep we need. Believe me, I wish that were the case. I have searched unceasingly for ways to limit how much sleep I need. But at this point, I’ve accepted that I can do no more than acquiesce to the demands of nature — until there is a breakthrough in sleep science, we just have to accept that we need a lot of sleep.

We all have a biological clock — finely tuned over hundreds of millions of years — to maximize the amount of productive hours we have [1]. This means that for evolutionary reasons, our bodies will wake us up when we’ve had enough sleep [2]. If we wake up before that time, we will begin accruing sleep debt. And debt is bad. You wouldn’t put something on credit with no intent of paying it back, right? So why would you do the same with sleep? It’s a rhetorical question obviously — I know why you do it — you have stuff to do. I get it — I have stuff to do too. But the first thing you have to accept is that spending your life sleep deprived is not going to help you in the long run. Productivity, focus, mood, and health can and will all suffer from longterm sleep deprivation. I don’t deny that there are times when getting a little less sleep can help in one-off instances, but if you’ve reached the point where that is the case, it’s probably because of a past mistake coming back to haunt you i.e. procrastination. In short, you can score some quick life-points occasionally by shirking a night of sleep, but your total accumulated life-points will suffer if it happens too regularly.

The whole concept of an alarm clock is flawed: it’s a tool designed to wake us up before we’ve gotten enough sleep. Unfortunately, that’s really the only time it can go off while maintaining any semblance of purpose. It would be pretty silly for it to go off after we’ve had enough sleep, because we’d already be awake [3].

The good news is that cure for our societal alarm clock addiction is simple, two-step program:
Step 1) Pick up your alarm clock in one hand, and with the other hand, open that one super messy drawer you throw stuff into when you don’t know where it should go. Bury the alarm in that drawer. You will never see the alarm again because of the that drawer’s blackhole-like features.

Step 2) Go to sleep earlier. If you have a certain time in mind that you want to get up by, calculate how much sleep you really need (probably 8–9 hours), subtract that time from when you want to wake up, and congratulations, you have have your new bed-time.

I know what you’re thinking, If I don’t use my alarm, I won’t make it to work on time. I have great news for you. Alarm clocks and getting to work on time do not have a causal relationship unless you force them to. The fact that you need your alarm to wake you up at 6am means that your body is not getting enough sleep that it thinks it’s okay for you to wake up at 6am. However, it’s important to note that without something as strict as an alarm clock, there may be some slight variability in your wake up time. Setting your wakeup time goal to be a little earlier than it needs to be, will give you some buffer on the days when your body needs more sleep. And as an added benefit for days when you wake up without dipping into your buffer, you will have some additional time in the morning to get done some of those things you’re always putting off. In my personal schedule, I have set up a buffer of 1–1.5 hours. The latest I can stay in bed is 7:30am, so I aim to get up between 6 and 6:30.

You might find, at first, that when you go to sleep earlier, you’re still tired at the time you’re supposed to be getting up. That’s to be expected for a couple reasons. For one, it can be hard to fall asleep when you move your bed time up. That will take a couple weeks to adjust to. Some people suggest moving up your bedtime incrementally, 15 minutes every week until you reach your goal. The other thing making your new sleep habit difficult is that there’s a good chances that you’re already deep in the throes of sleep debt, in which case, it may take a couple weeks of full rest to let your body catch up to where it should be. Give it some time, your body will thank you.

During the first few weeks of your transition, it might be wise to have a backup alarm in place (I don’t want to be responsible for you being late!). In fact, when I transitioned to this lifestyle, I kept that backup alarm on for several months. But at some point, it became clear that it was no longer necessary.

You’ll also find that those extra hours you used to spend sleeping in on the weekends are now hours you can be awake for. At 6am Saturday morning, you’re sleep ledger will be balanced. And in fact, continuing to wake up at the same time on the weekends will make it easier to hold yourself to the same bedtime and wakeup time during the week. And on top of that you’ll finally have some of those extra hours to do the stuff you want to do.

So throw away your alarm! Cast off the shackles of sleep deprivation! And start building a longterm, sustainable lifestyle. If you don’t pay back your sleep debt now, you’ll pay it back later — with interest.

[1] Although, some scientists believe that the reason sleep even exists is because hunting and gathering were so hard at night that looking for food ended up draining more resources than were actually found in the food. Meaning that turning down your metabolic systems in the hard-to-hunt-or-forage hours was the most energy efficient way for pre-historic humans to live.

[2] If you subscribe to the theory in note [1], the same effect is still true, just for a different reason. If that is the actual reason for sleep, our bodies would still wake us up at the earliest possible time after getting enough sleep, because laying asleep — even in a slow metabolic state — is not a sustainable lifestyle. We need to continually gather new forms of energy to burn. And not just a sufficient amount of energy to exist, but enough to give us the greatest evolutionary advantage possible to increase the likelihood of passing on our genes. Spending the most number of hours awake as possible is how our bodies lead us to that goal.

[3] Though, there are several potential reasons why you might not be awake after you’ve gotten enough sleep — maybe your bed is warm and fuzzy and the rest of house is making your fridge shiver, or maybe you’re going through a rough patch in life, perhaps a depression-type thing, etc. You’re alarm clock isn’t really going to fix any of those though.