Waking Up Is Hard to Do
In a new monthly series, our correspondent tries to improve every one of his daily routines. First: how to become a morning person
By Kevin Roose
Illustrations by Giacomo Gambineri
Mark Twain once wrote, “I have tried getting up early, and I have tried getting up late—and the latter agrees with me best.”
I’m with you, Mark. I abhor waking up. Every morning, I silence the first of my iPhone’s three alarms (set for 5:30, 5:45, and 6 a.m., thanks to the fact that I work East Coast hours from the West Coast), bend myself reluctantly out of bed, pick crud out of my eyes, and try to convince myself that today is going to be the day I become a morning person. It never works, though—in part, I suspect, because I’ve never learned the proper methods.
I decided to start the “Self-Bettering” series—a step-by-step attempt to optimize each part of my daily routine, from morning to night—by revamping my wake-up ritual. The problem, I learned, is that waking up is still more art than science. Not sleeping, mind you. Sleep is one of the more rigorously examined areas of modern neurobiology. Robust studies have been done of how to sleep, how much to sleep, and how to diagnose and treat conditions like sleep apnea. But the act of waking up—what comes immediately after sleep, in other words—mostly comes down to personal preferences.
“The science is soft on this,” said Tetyana Swan, the clinical coordinator at San Francisco Sleep Diagnostics. Swan had plenty of tips for how to feel well-rested (mostly, make sure you get at least eight hours of sleep per night, and avoid waking up during the deepest part of the sleep cycle), but when it came to the more specific questions I had—which kind of alarm clock is best? what should I eat for breakfast?—she was adamant that it was a matter of taste. “Do what works for you,” she said.
But what does work for me? Like most choices I make, the way I wake up is mostly the product of unexamined habit. I roll out of bed before 6 a.m. because that’s when I need to get up for work. I use my phone’s alarm clock because I’ve used my phone’s alarm clock for the last five years. I brush my teeth as soon as I wake up because that’s what my parents taught me to do when I was young. I’ve never stopped to figure out if these are the best methods, or if better alternatives exist. Because no scientifically optimal method exists, I had to become my own laboratory.
So I spent weeks reading studies of post-sleep alertness, combing through reviews of products and sleep gadgets, and speaking with experts in the field. I used myself as a human guinea pig for the better part of a month—A/B testing every bit of my routine to observe its effects on me. And I came up with what I believe is the optimal way to drag my lazy ass out of bed.
Develop a consistent routine
My morning grogginess has a scientific name: sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is defined as a period of impaired cognitive function that starts immediately after waking up. A 1999 study by researchers at Australia’s Victoria University found that sleep inertia caused subjects to perform, on average, about 50 percent worse on cognitive tests within the first three minutes of being woken from deep sleep. This impaired state can last for longer than 30 minutes and happens even to well-rested people. Sleep inertia “impairs the essential cognitive abilities of vigilance and alertness, necessary for sound and rational decision making,” the researchers wrote.
My goal is to have no sleep inertia at all. I want to spring out of bed in the mornings, greeting the day with a smile and laying waste to my to-do list right away—less Garfield, more Tigger. The first thing experts recommended I do was to be consistent in my sleep pattern. “Waking up at about the same time everyday is like an anchor,” said Allison Harvey, a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Golden Bear Sleep Research Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley. “All those rhythms in your body align around it.”
I followed Dr. Harvey’s advice, going to bed at precisely 10 p.m. several nights in a row and waking up at 6 a.m. (Several recent studies have claimed that that seven hours of sleep is the optimal amount, so I also tried going to bed at 11.) I sometimes experience neck pain in the morning, so I also tried changing from a soft, fluffy down pillow to an ultra-firm Japanese-style pillow filled with buckwheat hulls, a type that review sites like Sleep Like the Dead and The Sweethome recommend for people who need extra support. (There are lots of buckwheat pillows out there, but I went with a top-rated Beans72 model, $25 on Amazon.) But even with a sufficient amount of consistent sleep and a more supportive pillow to rest my head on, I still felt groggy in the mornings, and it still took me a good 45 minutes to feel like I was operating at full speed. So I decided to try something else.
Find the right alarm clock
For years, I’ve been using the default alarm sound (it’s called “Opening”) on my iPhone’s clock app. It works well, in the sense that it successfully gets me up at the right time. But it’s far from pleasant. The noise itself is a klaxon of repetitive, high-pitched xylophonic notes, and it’s among the least jarring sounds in the iPhone’s default set.
Some of my friends swear by digital fitness bands like the Jawbone UP24, which uses micro-accelerometers to track a user’s sleep patterns and can be set to wake you up with a vibration at the optimal point to avoid grogginess. (You set a 10-, 20-, or 30-minute window, and the band senses when you’re in the lightest part of your sleep cycle—when sleep inertia is shortest—and wakes you up.) I’ve gone to sleep wearing an UP24 band in the past, and I trust the science behind it, but I never found it made for a better, more alert awakening. Partly, that’s because waking up to a physical vibration on my wrist, rather than to a sound, always made for a panicky few seconds of thinking I was about to die in an earthquake before I realized what was happening.
To test the alternatives, I ordered two new alarm clocks. The first was the Philips Wake-Up Light ($110 on Amazon), whose product description touts that it is “clinically proven to make waking up more pleasant.” The clock, which comes highly recommended by Gizmodo, works by simulating a natural sunrise. The lamp illuminates over a 30-minute period, slowly filling your bedroom with light until the designated wake-up time. If the light hasn’t woken you up naturally by the time of your alarm, a series of bird sounds plays softly until you manually turn it off.
I loved the Wake-Up Light. Each of the days I used it, I woke up 10 to 15 minutes before the appointed time, pre-empting the bird sounds altogether. It’s often dark when I wake up, but having a fully lit bedroom when I arose made my weekdays feel more like lazy weekend mornings.
The next clock I tried, the Oregon Scientific WS903G Aroma Diffuser and Sound Therapy Clock ($78 on Amazon), was less successful. The clock, which came recommended by SleepForAll.com’s Paul Jordan, works by using an ultrasonic diffuser to pipe aromatherapy scents into your room at an appointed time, waking you up nose-first. I put a bit of lemongrass essential oil into the clock’s reservoir, along with some water, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up in a room that smelled like a Thai restaurant.
Try the R.I.S.E. U.P. method
Waking up isn’t just about using the right alarm clock, of course. It’s also about what you do once you’re upright. Dr. Harvey of the Golden Bear Sleep Research Center told me that she recommends what’s called the R.I.S.E. U.P. method to her patients who suffer from severe sleep inertia. R.I.S.E. U.P. stands for:
Refrain from snoozing
Increase activity for the first hour
Shower or wash face
Expose yourself to sunlight
Phone a friend
I tested Dr. Harvey’s method for a week, with very good results. Every morning, I woke up using my Wake-Up Light, then walked to the bathroom to wash my face and hands with cold water. I typically go for a run in the late afternoon, but during this week I ran a short series of sprints first thing in the morning, pumping a “dance workout” Spotify playlist through my headphones as I panted.
For the last step—“phone a friend,” which is designed to increase alertness by forcing you to talk to another person early in the morning—I scheduled phone meetings beginning at 6:30 a.m. The overall effect was significant: I felt alert and awake mere minutes after waking up and maintained my energy levels throughout the morning. (I still started to fade around 3 p.m., but that’s for another experiment.)
Get your buzz on
More than half of all Americans wake up with a cup of coffee—and science supports their choice. Many studies, including one in 2001 led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School, have found that caffeine helps with sleep inertia, making us feel more alert more quickly than we would without it.
I typically start my day with a double shot of espresso. But for this experiment, I tested out four alternatives: a Monster energy drink; cold-brewed iced coffee, made with coarse-ground beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco; Runa, a brand of caffeinated Amazonian tea called guayusa that bills itself as a “cleaner” form of energy than coffee; and Sprayable Energy, a canister of caffeinated substance that is designed to be sprayed on the neck or wrists and absorbed through the skin. The company promises that by spritzing yourself with caffeine instead of drinking it, “you will feel awake and focused without being over-stimulated as is common with coffee and energy drinks.”
Of the four methods, the cold-brew coffee worked best. To test the effects of a different temperature on my morning drink, I poured it ice-cold in a glass left in the freezer overnight. The cold temperature woke my mouth up, and holding the frosted glass did for my hands what washing with cold water does for my face. Minutes after downing a glass, I was feeling wired and ready for work. The Runa worked well, too, though I had to drink more of it to feel the same effects as the single glass of iced coffee, due to its lower caffeine content. The Monster energy drink, on the other hand, was terrible —gross-tasting and sugary, with a harsh aftertaste that lingered until I ate a banana to clear it out. And the Sprayable Energy didn’t do much except make my neck sticky. (And yes, I tried cutting out caffeine altogether but gave up after six hours of temple-throbbing misery. For this experiment, at least, I’ll have to work within the confines of my caffeine addiction.)
A 1999 study in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition concluded that people who eat carbohydrate-dense, high-fiber meals right after waking up feel more alert than those who eat high-fat breakfasts. I’m not a big fan of big breakfasts on weekdays, so I decided to make juices instead, opting for high-fiber blends of kale, carrot, and fruit juices. The first day’s juice was terrible: I added way too much kale, and the resulting green sludge tasted like the run-off at an arboretum. But in subsequent days, I fine-tuned the ingredients, adding sweeteners like apple and ginger (the latter of which is thought to increase mental alertness, and also helps cut the taste of the kale). Ultimately, I wound up with a juice blend that tasted good and didn’t sit too heavy in my stomach. I wasn’t sure it was having any effect on my sleep inertia, but the act of chopping up fruits and vegetables certainly did. (Nothing heightens awareness like early-morning proximity to a sharp knife.)
I also tried eating dark chocolate, based on a 2011 study by University of Reading researchers, which found that young adults who consumed a moderate amount of cocoa flavanols (which are found in all chocolate but are more plentiful the darker it is) had better visual function and short-term memory than those who didn’t. I tried chewing peppermint gum right after waking up, since chewing gum has been linked to improved cognitive function, but I gave that up because it was making my fancy coffee taste like garbage.
Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate
There are lots of elements of personal wellness that aren’t a matter of opinion. Don’t smoke. Eat a balanced diet. Exercise regularly. But when it comes to waking up, personal tastes still prevail. Once you find something that works for you, it’s important to keep tweaking and fine-tuning your routine until it produces the effects you’re looking for.
At the end of my month-long test, I decided to stick with what worked best for me so far: a consistent sleep pattern of between seven and eight hours, the Wake-Up Light, a large glass of cold-brew coffee, a fiber-heavy breakfast juice, and some intense early-morning exercise. I printed out Dr. Harvey’s R.I.S.E. U.P. routine and taped it to my computer monitor. Each morning, when I wake up, I write down how rested I feel on a 1–to-10 scale and repeat the process half an hour later. I’m constantly adjusting my routine to make myself less tired. (One recent tweak: If I have my coffee before my morning run rather than after it, I both run longer and feel more energized after I get back.) I’ve started taking an online memory test every few days to see how well I’m doing at early-morning alertness. Right now, I’m getting about 94 percent accuracy, with an average reaction time of 0.8 seconds, compared with 85 percent accuracy and a 1.1-second reaction time at the start of the month.
Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface. If I were going to be really thorough, I’d have to try out some of the wackier morning routines of historical figures. Like Winston Churchill, who rose at 7:30 a.m. and stayed in bed until 11 a.m. reading newspapers and eating breakfast, then bathed, took a walk, drank a whisky and soda, and started work. Or Marcel Proust, who is said to have smoked opium powders before breakfast.
The big lesson of wake-up science is that one person’s perfect morning is another person’s hell. (Lady Gaga, for instance, has said that she does five minutes of meditation every morning. If I tried that, I’d be snoozing by minute two.) But with some effort and careful attention to what makes you feel alert and awake, waking up can go from painful to—well, not pleasant, exactly, but certainly tolerable. By the end of my experiment, I noticed that I was able to do more of my work in the mornings, leaving my afternoons more relaxed. And while my sleep inertia hasn’t disappeared altogether, it’s been cut down dramatically. Waking up for me used to be like turning around a battleship. Now, it’s like turning around a tugboat—not simple, certainly, but not the giant ordeal it once was.
All of this testing and tweaking might sound like too much work for the average person, but—as I hope to prove with the rest of “Self-Bettering”— it’s easier than it looks. It’s worth getting these daily habits right. After all, waking up isn’t optional, and most of us will do it tens of thousands of times during our lifetimes. If you can spare a few minutes per day and a little bit of legwork, you have a shot at becoming the rarest member of the species: a true morning person.
Next month: I perfect my bathroom routine.