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The Great Wake-Up Program: Reflections On My Last Week As A Night Owl

During my five weeks of what I've dubbed "sleep therapy," I'll wear a silent alarm-clock wristband that also tracks how many hours I sleep, how many times I wake up at night and how long it actually takes to fall asleep.
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Last week, I copped to my dysfunctional relationship with sleep -- and, as a lifelong night owl, I signed up to be a part of the Huffington Post Media Group and LARK's Great Wake Up Program. During my five weeks of what I've dubbed "sleep therapy," I'll wear a silent alarm-clock wristband that vibrates me awake in the morning and tracks how many hours I sleep, how many times I wake up through the night and how long it actually takes to fall asleep.

LARK calls the wristband "pajamas for your wrist," and I have to admit that it was surprisingly comfortable to sleep with it strapped to my arm (I'm a "Princess And The Pea" type, so that's saying a lot). You sync the LARK up to your phone and set an alarm that triggers the wristband to gently vibrate you awake (there's even a snooze button that you can customize in length). Overall, it's a gentle nudge awake that's equally as effective but not nearly as jarring as the blaring iPhone alarm sound I usually opt for (kind of like a gentle, but persistent hand pushing you into consciousness while still having the decency to let you snooze for 10 more minutes before really putting its foot down).

This first week, I kept up with my normal sleep habits while the LARK tracked my baseline (a la Big-Brother style). To briefly recap (yes, I know the hours I spend sleeping is fairly yawn-inducing information to anyone other than myself) I slept between 5 hours and 48 minutes and 9 hours and 24 minutes (the latter was on Saturday, my "binge sleep" night).

As for the more interesting data, most nights I fall asleep in between one to five minutes. As a night owl, I hate that feeling of lying in bed, unable to fall asleep. With that extra time on my hands, my overly-alert brain starts kicking into double time. I plan the next day, I think about various things I need to finish, I worry ("Did I turn off the stove after dinner tonight?" -- of course, I always have). I've read before that it's best to save bed for when you're truly sleepy. So even if that means I'm not sleepy until 1:30 or 2, I wait until then to turn in. But according to Hyunsoo Kim, one of LARK's sleep experts, if you're falling asleep too quickly after your head hits the pillow, that may actually be a sign that you're sleep deprived, not that you're a good sleeper. So instead of my one-minute descent to dreamland, a healthier target would be to take about 15 minutes to fall asleep.

Of course, this can't happen magically -- I can't just will myself to be sleepy (no matter how many mornings I swear to myself that this will be the night I go to bed early). My body clock runs later than it "should" in our society, so I need to find ways to push it back a bit.

Hyungsoo argues that the answer is in the amount of light we get. Last week, he wrote a blog about how light exposure is the key to "fixing" our body clocks. And for my first week of coaching, which starts today, light exposure and other environmental factors will be important tools in the goal toward establishing my new midnight bedtime (which suits my lifestyle and the shared goal of getting seven-plus hours of sleep each night).

Realistically, you can't go from a 2 a.m. bedtime to a 12 a.m. bedtime in one week, so for this first coaching session, I'll shoot to fall asleep between 12:45 and 1 a.m. Here's my action plan:

Before 7:40 a.m. and after 11:45 p.m., I'm encouraged to stay inside and avoid bright light. In theory, it doesn't sound so hard. But my post-11:45 p.m. life often involves TiVo, working on my laptop, checking my iPhone and generally enjoying a brightly-lit NYC apartment. But Hyungsoo asures me that there will be plenty of strategies to combat the not-so-perfect situations that come up (I'll report back on that next week).

Between 7:40 am and 9:20 a.m., my new plan suggests that I get at least 15 minutes of bright, preferably natural daylight. I have a hunch that the glow of my laptop as I start working first thing isn't going to hack it.

As far as other lifestyle factors, I'm to avoid heavy exercise within a few hours of bedtime and stop all caffeine intake after 4:45 p.m. "The half-life of caffeine is about six hours," my action plan reads. "If you drink a cup of coffee with 200 mg of caffeine in it at 3:00 p.m., then about 100 mg of caffeine is still in your system by 9 p.m. You may be able to fall asleep,but your body probably will miss out on the benefits of deep sleep." My coaches also tell me that if I need a nap, it should happen between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. There go my after-work snoozes.

As I'm about to take off on my first week of coaching, I'm realizing that, like any healthy lifestyle change, improving my sleep is actually going to take some tough work. It's easy to slip into the comfortable habits, so wish me luck in the next seven days.