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If you want to wake at 6am, when should you go to sleep?

I have a love-hate relationship with sleep. I love sleeping and I hate not getting enough. I naturally lean towards being a late chronotype - a night owl. I tend to stay up late and rise late, yet I don't find this rhythm to be particularly productive. I used to get a second wind - or just one long wind - throughout the afternoon and into the late evening, but not any more. Now I'm older, I find I run out of mental steam sooner and end up spinning my wheels. If I'm particularly tired, my eyes will droop and I'll be nodding at the keyboard. Most importantly, a tired person who is grouchy because he didn't achieve what he wanted during the day is no good when an ebullient daughter wants to play. That I am present for my daughter is as important as any work, so I need to pace my energy.

To compound this problem, if I get out of bed early and really do not get enough sleep, I run out of steam much earlier and it can disrupt the whole day. I am not someone who is blessed with a need for fewer sleep-hours. Man-alive, I wish I were! I consider it a super-power. I am envious of those who can get by on little sleep. Not getting enough sleep for me is the ultimate productivity killer, no matter what time I get up. It makes me feel weak, unwell, unproductive and unable to concentrate. Not good.

So I'm attempting to recalibrate. I'm making a real effort to get up earlier and go to bed earlier. Surprisingly, getting up early isn't so much of a problem - it's going to bed at a reasonable time that's hard. It's just not something I can control with any certainty. So let's call it a fixed constraint. Bedtime is variable. The challenge, then, is to get up reasonably early even if I can't predict the time I'll go to sleep.

My goal is to create a habit where I rise early enough to feel like I have a productive chunk of morning time, but I'm not going to forgo sleep just for the sake of dragging myself out of bed arbitrarily early. That is what we call a false economy. What to do?

The concept of sleep cycles is not new. You fall asleep and proceed through stages: light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. This sequence normally lasts about 90 minutes. If you wake during a light sleep stage, it should feel easier; deep and REM sleep are much harder to wake from.

Sleeping through the night in one go is known as a monophasic sleep cycle. If you're short on sleep and have a nap around midday, that's called a biphasic cycle. I like the idea of biphasic. In practice it's hard to dependably get that nap. There are other more difficult cycles that will give you more waking hours overall, but I'm sticking with the simple ones.

In a monophasic pattern, 5-6 cycles are considered optimal. That equates to about 7½-9 hours. 4 cycles works out to about 6 hours. Although not quite enough for me, I think 4 cycles works well as a bare minimum. 4 cycles can work really well if you can grab a power-nap during the day. Fewer hours than that and I'm not replenishing my daily mental reservoir nearly enough, which I need for the kind of work I do.

There are numerous smartphone apps to help with managing sleep cycles. There are those that do fancy things like monitor your movements while you sleep. I have my phone far away from my bed so that option is out and, besides, I like to keep things relatively simple. So I've gone for SleepyTime Plus by Yu Chen Hou. There is a free version, but Plus has no adverts and is just 58 pence.

SleepyTime showing when you should go to bed if you want to get up at 6am

SleepyTime does several useful things:

  • If you need to wake up at a specific time, it'll tell you what time to go to bed in order to get x cycles. It gives you a list of options based on the number of cycles you're after. For example, if you must get up at 6am and you're after 5 cycles (7h30m), it'll suggest 10.15pm as bedtime. The eagle-eyed reader might be wondering why it's suggesting 10.15pm when 6am minus 7.5 hours is 10.30pm. The answer is that SleepyTime adds on 15 minutes because this is how long, on average, people take to get to sleep. It's a variable that can be adjusted in the app.
  • If you have a set bed time, it'll tell you what your options are for rising. If you go to bed at 10pm and, again, you're after 5 cycles, it'll suggest 6.45am.
  • If you have a variable bedtime like I do, you can tell it you're going to bed now and it will calculate the options.
  • Once you have decided on how many cycles you're going to do, it will set an alarm of your choice; i.e., it doesn't restrict you to its own alarm or the system alarm. That means I can use it with my favourite Timely app.

I also use an app called Rewire to keep track of my "early" rises (yes, I consider 7am early) and act as encouragement to keep going. I'll discuss that in another post.

So this is all very useful but, for me, it comes with a caveat: I find I can wake relatively easily if I get 7 hours in regardless of cycle stage. So, if I go to bed at midnight, I can set my alarm for 7am which is slap bang in the middle of a cycle; i.e., in deep sleep. I suspect I naturally start to wake and remain in light sleep as the sun rises and light creeps into the room. But I don't know. Another suspicion is that I don't sleep in tidy cycles at all and that my sleep is quite broken. I've often wondered if I suffer from sleep apnoea. I don't know, but one has to wonder given what feels like undue tiredness on many days, even if I get plenty of shut-eye.

But overall, being mindful of sleep patterns, how many hours I'm getting, and making a real effort to go to bed as soon as I can is beneficial. Apps can help make the vague a little more concrete, but it's also important to listen to what your own body is telling you and adjust accordingly.

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