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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Yes, Knowing Your Sleep Cycle Helps You Feel Awake in the Morning—But There’s a Lot More to It

woman in bed

Last Monday, I had one of those godly morning experiences. I’d gone to bed late—later than I wanted or could afford—and was terrified I would be exhausted, cranky, and not in any mood to produce awesome, creative, or even satisfactory work the next day.

But lo and behold, when my alarm went off, I felt amazing! So immediately I had to wonder, why? Why today of all days?

We’ve all heard about sleep cycles. In the course of one night, it’s common to go through four stages throughout the night: three non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stages, followed by a shorter REM period—over and over again until you wake up.

To break that down even further, you start by falling asleep (stage one), which can take anywhere from one to 14 minutes—or longer or shorter if you happen to be stressed, distracted, intoxicated, caffeinated, or uncomfortable. Then, you eventually settle into sleep (stage two), which is when your heartbeat begins to slow and your temperature drops. Finally, you fall into a deep slumber (stage three), also known by scientists as slow-wave sleep, which then leads you to dream (REM). Based on this, your best bet for waking up rested is to not to have your alarm go off during the later stages.

But all facts aside, this is a pretty complicated process to think about and plan around. When I woke up feeling surprisingly awake, I instantly downloaded a sleep cycle app on my phone to see what I was missing (I used the Sleepytime Scheduler for iPhones, but there’s also a SleepyTime Calculator for Androids and, my favorite, a website).

What I learned was just what I wanted to hear. I could remember the time being 1:44 AM when I went to bed, and based on the app, that’s about the time I should’ve fallen asleep to wake up feeling alert at 8 AM.

So, does planning your schedule actually work? Are these apps or alarm clocks worth a shot? Most importantly, will I always feel this good if I just wake up at the right time?

The short answer is no. Because like anything, no solution is that simple.

An article from Psychology Today explains the (many) flaws in these trackers. For one thing, nobody has a “textbook perfect” sleep cycle every night. In fact, studies show that a typical eight-hour night isn’t even completely natural. In the 1900s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a test to track sleep patterns. Despite placing subjects in total darkness for 14 hours, he discovered that they would consistently wake up in the middle of the night for a couple hours before going back to sleep. After a lot of scientific and historical research, scientists found that it was normal—in fact, healthy—for individuals to have two distinct sleeps. But because of things like indoor lighting, mandatory work hours, and the invention of coffee, we began to lose this concept in the modern era.

So, while you think you can follow your sleep cycle consistently enough to get the ultimate amount of rest, no two nights are alike. Your patterns depend not only on how fast—and when—you fall asleep, but what interruptions you may face throughout the night (a.k.a., if you wake up to pee or went to bed hungry), as well as how much rest you got the night before.

Also, sleep debt is a thing that exists. According to Scientific America, losing just 30 minutes of REM sleep the night before can lead to a jump from 74 minutes to 100 minutes of REM sleep the next night. Hence, why you tend to have more vivid dreams when you’re really tired.

Lastly, something we can all attest to is that it’s not possible to fall asleep or wake up exactly on time for the perfect cycle. The next night, after my magical Monday, I tried to get to bed right at 12:16 like my Sleepytime app said for a 9 AM alarm, and yet I woke feeling groggy and miserable. This is because I probably didn’t fall asleep at 12:16. I’m a night owl, not a morning lark, and so I just couldn’t lure myself down that “early.”

What I’ve learned from all my research is that this isn’t a science—even after reading all these studies and blog posts and downloading several different apps. According to Time, there’s no such thing as a universal bedtime. We’re all different, and each day presents new challenges for our mornings.

However, all of this doesn’t mean we can’t try to use our knowledge to our advantage. Scientists do recommend that no matter what time you go to bed, you should wake up at about the same time every morning. Creating a schedule will help train your body to naturally set its internal alarm. Another technique is to get ready for bed before you’re actually ready to hit the hay. The act of preparing yourself for sleep might actually make you tired, or at least it’ll make it easier for you to crash whenever drowsiness calls.