Mash's Musings

A clock without batteries

Published Jul. 26, 2021

One of the unexpectedly best lifestyle changes I've made in the last couple years has been to sleep better. Practically speaking, this is the cumulation of a few different changes: cutting out caffeine, keeping lights dim after dark, less drinking, etc. But none have been as immediately gratifying as going to bed without an alarm.

If the thought of this sends a jolt of anxiety through your body, then you are not alone. Surely you'd miss your morning meetings, or that early appointment. Maybe without that palpatation-inducing alarm, you'd just continue in an eternal slumber. Whatever the outcome might be, it's certainly not going to turn out well. But as mystical as it sounds, your conscious fears manifest into an impressively accurate subconscious alarm.

Have you ever had that experience where there was some looming thing you had to wake up for? The kind where you set two alarms and asked a friend to message you just in case. For me, this was every exam or midterm scheduled before 11:00 am. If you're anything like me, what actually happens is that you find yourself suddenly wide awake scrambling to find your phone in a panic, certain you've doomed yourself—only to realize that it's 3 minutes before your alarm was set to ring. Phew.

After the nth time of this happening, I realized that the precision of my internal clock was a lot higher than I was giving it credit for. As long as it was on my mind to wake up at a certain time before going to bed, I would wake up at almost exactly the right time. The more stressed or concerned, the earlier I'd awake. And without some urgent stressor and a reasonably regular bed time, I found myself waking up within a 15 minute window completely naturally.

So why bother with no alarm if I'm waking up at the right time either way? It wasn't until I read Why We Sleep that I knew why I felt so much better from those extra few minutes. As we've all heard, sleep consists of many different cycles. Naturally, we wake at the end of a cycle when the restful benefits have been complete. With an alarm, we abruptly awaken mid-cycle, disrupting our rest and also catching us before the adenosine and cortisol mix makes us feel awake; thus the familiar desire to immediately hit snooze. Secondly, the alarm itself physically induces a mild shock, like a voluntary choice to have someone startle you awake. Over time, this more insidious effect results in increased risk of heart disease. Not a great double whammy.

If any of this sounds compelling, I'd urge you to give this a shot whenever you don't have any early meetings. If you find yourself sleeping in, great! That is your body in no uncertain terms telling you that it needs the rest. After a few days you'll notice a very regular rhythm emerge and early meetings to be subconsciously handled. And more importantly, you'll notice just feeling refreshed first thing in the morning instead of a cloud of brain fog. Now don't get me wrong, this approach is not bulletproof: if you're crossing timezones or going to bed at 3:00 am, you may still need an alarm. But hopefully you come to think of an alarm as exactly that, an emergency tool like a smoke alarm or fire alarm. The ultimate sleep alarm turns out to be dynamic, silent, batteryless omnipresent, and made of soft tissue. You just need to let it run.