I can’t remember where I first read about the wonderful idea of living without an alarm clock. I do remember the writer pointed out that most of us regularly don’t get enough sleep. This can make you as badly impaired as a drunk driver.
I was receptive to this idea because at the time I was working shifts, rotating regularly between mornings, afternoons, and nights. I don’t think I got a good sleep in five years. I couldn’t get to sleep in the day, and I couldn’t stay awake through the nights. I got sick all the time.
So when I got a new job with a more relaxed attitude to timekeeping – people arrived when it suited them, generally at any time between about 10am and 1pm – I saw it as a great opportunity to ditch the alarm and let my body determine its own sleep pattern.
Of course, for the first few days it was crazy. My chronically sleep-deprived body wasn’t used to waking up by itself. For the last 30-plus years I’d trained it to wake up to a harsh ringing or buzzing. If I awakened naturally before the alarm, the learned response was to immediately snuggle down to sleep again, to snatch a few more precious minutes before zero hour. So without the alarm, I slept and slept. And slept.
It probably raised a few eyebrows when I strolled in to work at 3 or 4pm, but I was feeling great! When you’ve been a little sleep-deprived continuously for years, getting all the sleep you need feels like a week’s holiday.
After a few days, of course, I caught up on my sleep debt and started waking up naturally at a more reasonable hour. The body likes a regular pattern. I soon got the habit of going to bed at about midnight to be awake around 10am.
People were surprisingly sceptical about the idea. “Surely without an alarm clock you’ll just oversleep all the time,” they pointed out. But this is only true for the sleep-deprived – and your body needs that sleep, or it wouldn’t ask for it.
“But I can’t just get up when I feel like it. I have to be at work at a certain time.” The time you wake up depends on the time you go to bed. If you need to be awake at 7am, say, you might have to be in bed by 10pm or even earlier. Most of us don’t do that, so it’s no real surprise that we get less sleep than we need.
If I absolutely, positively have to be up by a certain time – a train to catch, say – I use a backup alarm. I rarely need it though. The alarm I do use is Sleep Cycle, which aims to wake you as you’re naturally entering the lightest phase of sleep. It’s like the difference between a gentle caress from a lover, and a bucket of water in the face.
A Zen teacher named Bankei said, “When I am hungry, I eat. When I am tired, I sleep.” It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.