Awakening based on your own circadian rhythms is the absolute best option, Winter says. Indeed, there are those people who awaken every day before their alarms, feeling great. They share a secret: They go to bed and get up at the same time every day. “You may be getting the same amount of sleep, but if you’re always waking at different times, it can be disturbing to your brain—it’s like social jetlag,” Winter says. “Generally speaking, if your sleep is consistent, your brain does a good job of ending your final cycle of dreaming and moving toward lighter sleep so you’re ready to be awake in time, or even before, the alarm.”
Being diurnal—that’s the opposite of nocturnal—our biorhythms are naturally attuned to the cycles of the sun, which is why it’s typically really hard to sleep in if you leave the drapes open. For most of us, it’s not necessary or practical to get up at daybreak all the time. Still, you can make light work on your schedule by investing in some blackout shades and a dawn-simulating light-up alarm clock that gradually brightens, like those from Philips, which also have sound options that come on at the end of the “sunrise,” just in case.
“If my wife falls asleep in front of the TV, I’ll go over and shake her arm lightly to wake her,” says Winter. It’s that logic that puts vibrating alarm clocks, like the ones built into fitness trackers and smartwatches (more gentle), or the panels that go under your mattress (more intense), next on the list. The bonus to the former is that if it works for you, your alarm won’t likely awaken your bedfellow. The latter, however, probably will. “The disk that comes with the Sonic Bomb clock that goes under the mattress really shakes the bed!” Winter says.
For some folks, it takes a little noise to crack their slumbers. That doesn’t mean you should default to those traditionally alarming alarms. “The ones that sound like a babbling brook and start off quietly and build are nice,” says Winter. If you need a bit more stimulation, awakening to music, talk radio or a podcast, or the TV might get you going more quickly because it gives your brain something to focus on and follow. There are also alarms in which you can record a personalized message to yourself (or have your significant other or even a friend do it) so that you awaken because you hear a familiar voice telling you it’s time.
Here’s where the soundest of sleepers most commonly go to regain consciousness. “In the scheme of things, those loud beeping or ringing alarms are not optimal because they’re jarring and when your body is blasted awake at the wrong moment of your sleep cycle, can leave you feeling groggy,” Winter says. Still, if you know that’s the kind of noise it takes for you, do yourself a favor and look for an alarm that gradually gets louder, rather than starting with the rooster-directly-in-your-ear level. Any sound louder than 85 decibels (about the loudness of city traffic) can damage your ears.
This is not for the faint of heart or really for anyone but the heaviest of sleepers. There are alarms out there that’ll literally shock you awake, using a low-grade electric current. “The Pavlok wristband will zap you a little, then can shock you more—it’s a pretty decent jolt at max,” says Winter. “It really works, but I see it as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ kind of solution.” (The band also uses vibration and its manufacturers say that most users don’t actually need to get shocked to be awakened. After using it a bit, your brain associates the shaking with impending electrocution, so it learns to become alert before that happens.)
No matter how you bring your body back to alertness, Winter says it’s what you do from there that matters more to developing a happier wakeup routine. First, he suggests not snoozing, or if you do, limiting yourself to one 10-minute bout. Once you’re awake, Winters prescribes starting your day with light exposure (artificial, if necessary), exercise, and food. By keeping this habit, your brain starts to learn what it means to get up.