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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 28 2009

Grok Never Needed an Alarm Clock, So Why Should You?

By Mark Sisson
70 Comments

It goes without saying that Grok never had to resort to a shrieking alarm clock to get him up in time for the day’s activities. But he also never had to worry about beating rush hour, or getting his little Groklings to school. Even if we subscribe to all the other behaviors of our ancestors – diet, fitness, rest, relaxation, play – it is our reliance on external, artificial rousing mechanisms that’s the hardest vice to shake. One could even argue that modern (corporate) culture requires the use of an alarm clock. How else are we to manage our most precious commodity of all, time?

I think an argument could be made for the value of quality of sleep, rather than quantity. See, when we wake up naturally, without the use of external alarms (either intentional or random noises), we tend to feel at peace. Our bodies are waking up of their own accord, usually at the end of a light sleep cycle. Given free reign, the human body will usually act in its own self interest. It’s only when we disrupt that balance, either by stuffing it with improper foods or subjecting it to shrill alarm clocks that stress begins to impact us negatively. An alarm clock blaring in your ear just as your dream’s about to get good (you’ve almost achieved flight!) is jarring; it wakes you up prematurely and in a sour mood. That’s physical stress. You’re confused and liable to hit the snooze button, but you’re only prolonging the inevitable. You will have to get up and get dressed, trundle out to the car and chug espresso just to stay awake. That’s mental stress.

Wouldn’t it be nice to forgo all that stress and train yourself to wake up when you want, how you want, using only natural means? Your mornings will no longer consist of futile battles and, though you’ll still have to show up to work everyday, it may not be something you dread anymore. Rather than seek out the most annoying, ear-splitting alarm clock on the market (how ridiculous and counter-intuitive does that sound?), you can actually train yourself to wake up using your own internal rhythms.

The most important step on the path to freeing yourself from alarm clocks is establishing a consistent wake up time. That’s pretty easy, because most of us have a set time at which we’re “supposed” to wake up – we just tend to ignore it. Don’t throw out your clock just yet. You’re going to need it for this.

  1. Pick your ideal wake up time, and set your alarm for the same time every day. When the alarm goes off, get up! Don’t languish in bed. You’re trying to set your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that governs your physiological processes. Luckily, our concept of the 24-hour day is pretty similar to our natural cycle, so the two will mesh well once they’re consistent.
  2. Allow yourself enough time to get a good night’s rest. Give or take an hour or two, you’ll want about eight hours of good sleep per night. Most people function best on that amount, and good sleep is crucial if you plan on producing growth hormone and recovering from a day of exercise, stress, and activity.
  3. Pick a bedtime that will give you the hours of sleep you need. Go to bed at the same time every night. This, along with a set wake up time, will help you establish a consistent rhythm.
  4. Gradually wean yourself off the alarm. If you’ve been following your sleep schedule closely for a week, you should be acclimated enough to test yourself. Try setting the alarm for 15 minutes later than usual – not so far off that you’ll ruin your day if you sleep in, but enough that you’ll find out if you can wake up at the same time without the alarm. Continue this until you’re waking up consistently at the desired time, sans alarm. Eventually, you’ll be able to go to bed at different times (not too late or too early) and still wake up on time.

Another, slightly more advanced (but also more desirable) avenue to pursue is waking up without an alarm entirely, at the time of your choosing. I find I’m actually able to “choose” a wakeup time at will and, more likely than not, I will wake up around that time. For me, I sort of just developed this ability on my own. I suspect that it lies within all of us, but most people suppress it by eating the wrong foods, living stressful, sedentary lives, or getting hung up on artificial problems. In fact, once I got rid of all the excess grains and sugar that defined my life as a marathoner and triathlete, I noticed my internal sleep rhythms becoming more and more reliable.

The key to all this may lie in a little hormone known as adrenocorticotropin. In a study some years back, researchers observed that patients who were instructed to wake up at a certain time had elevated levels of the hormone about an hour before awakening. When they expected to sleep until 9 AM, but were woken up at 6 AM, there was little adrenocorticotropin produced. Instead, they had elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s usual stress-response hormone. But when they were warned they would be getting up early, their bodies released adrenocorticotropin an hour prior to waking. This suggests that the hormone is a subconscious reaction to a conscious decision. We may not consciously secrete adrenocorticotropin, but we can consciously decide to wake up at a certain time and, if in good condition, our bodies will respond by releasing the hormone responsible for preparing us for awakening.

In order to maximize your ability to secrete the hormone and get up when you want, try this:

  1. Again, decide when you want to wake up. Pick a time, any time.
  2. Trying to keep your sleep time adhere to 90-minute intervals, pick a time to go to sleep. Most people operate on a 90-minute sleep cycle, and it’s generally easier to wake up from either the first 30 minutes (as in a nap) or the last section, which tends to be lighter sleep.
  3. Before you sleep, actively visualize the time of awakening. Think about when you want to wake up, and how. Get creative. Imagine yourself waking up and looking at the clock, which – in your imagination – will be set to the correct time. It’s all about implanting that time in your mind. Remember, our internal clocks have adapted to the 24-hour time cycle, so thinking of your wake up time in terms of physical, man made clocks will be helpful. Your conscious anticipation will be guiding your subconscious. We’re not sure how the brain monitors the passage of time, but it does.
  4. You can even use your alarm as motivation. Set your alarm for the time at which you absolutely must awaken; if everything goes according to plan, you won’t need it, but the knowledge that it’s there ready to go off could prompt the release of adrenocorticotropinm and get you up and alert. So, in a sense, you’re still using the alarm clock, but you’re not subjecting yourself to the horrible, intrusive noise.

I don’t even own an alarm clock anymore. I don’t really need one. With pretty consistent accuracy, I can wake myself up on command.

Other random tips:

  • Use natural light to your advantage. Grok woke up with the rising sun, and you can too. Leave your blinds open so that the morning light wakes you up. Nothing like some nice, warm Vitamin D washing over you in the morning.
  • Avoid too much coffee, especially late in the day. I drink coffee myself, but I don’t use it as a crutch. If you find yourself needing it to stay up late to work on a project, or just to get moving in the morning, perhaps you need to reevaluate the way you’re living. Even the best beans are no match for a night of uninterrupted (by alarm or by caffeine still coursing through your body) slumber.
  • Drink a tall glass of water before bed, but not too much – you don’t want to need plastic sheets.
  • Get plenty of exercise, minimize stress, and enjoy life. This should go without saying, but having a healthy, strong body and a clear mind will make for the best sleep. If you’re worried about something at work or feeling crappy because you missed a week of working out, it’s easy to dwell on it. Your sleep will suffer and, once you do get to sleep, waking up will be harder than ever. Do the right thing, follow the PB, and get plenty of exercise and relaxation.
TAGS:  Grok

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70 thoughts on “Grok Never Needed an Alarm Clock, So Why Should You?”

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  1. Great article.
    I’ve been thinking about this for a while.. I work evenings as a chef and, since I don’t need to rise at any particular time, I always feel well rested when I do wake up.
    I’ve even been considering investing in some automatic blinds that gradually open at a set time in the morning; I think this would serve as a more natural method of rousing oneself.

  2. For many yrs, I could never get a good night’s sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night, mind racing. Or never fall asleep at all.
    Now, that get some sort of workout almost everyday & I have a more compatible partner, I sleep all night!
    Also, I’ve always been an early raiser. I am usually wakened by the sun or between 5 & 6 am. I am fortunate to have found someone with the same wakening hrs as me! We only set an alarm for a weird time like for a trip or something. Then I’ve found that we also just wake up near that time anyway as our bodies “know” we have to.
    For the longest time my sleep patterns were so frustrating & I was very self-conscious about them. Now knowing that I’m not so weird afterall is even relaxing.

  3. My friend uses a light alarm clock and loves it. But it is quite expensive.

    I’m definitely going to try Mark’s approach instead which is not only cheaper but much more natural.

  4. Haven’t used an alarm clock in years, unless “just to be sure” for a 3:30 am rise time for an early flight … And, typically, I do arise before it goes off, even on those rare occasions. I *HATE* using an alarm! My life’s much better without it, and the “set” is choice of bedtime the night before.

    For a cheap light alarm, try an auto timer with a lamp!

  5. Grok didn’t have an employer that wanted him to work until 10 p.m. some nights and to start at 5 a.m. other days (in the same week… occassionally back to back). I’d be happy as a clam (or caveman or whatever) getting up around 8 every morning but my employer doesn’t give me that luxury. I’m sure a lot of us have to keep unnatural hours because of work. Such is modern life… 😛

    1. A slave to your employer, I see. Congrats on chaining yourself to someone who could care less about your health for a small amount of change.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit recently, whenever on vacation I found myself to be receiving much better sleep due to falling asleep and rising in conjunction with the sun.

    Recently at home I began leaving the blinds open for the morning and found even on days with a little less overall sleep I wake-up a bit earlier and a bit more rested.

    Good topic, I hope to try some techniques to further the advancement of life sans an alarm clock.

  7. if you’re like me, and have ‘mind wandering’ issues that prevent sleep, I’ve found lately that reading fiction for 15-30 minutes before sleeping helps with this. It still happens from time to time, but generally it seems to prevent my mind from wandering off.

    But don’t read some philosophy or something like that that will just make your mind wander. Just something light and easy to read.

  8. Had a method taught to me several years ago that works, though I can’t claim any scientific truth to this…

    After I climb into bed, I decide what time I want to wake up. I then try to tighten every muscle in my body and think about waking up at that time. Then I relax. I repeat this seven times. Takes less than a minute.

    I know, sounds like hocus pocus, but it works for me.

    1. Like you I am able to just think of the time I need to be up and I wake up right on time give or take up to 15 min. I have never tried the whole tightening of the muscles things.

  9. Two more weeks and its summer vacation, I can try setting my own wake time without worrying about over sleeping. Worrying that I will over sleep makes it hard for me to get to sleep.

  10. I like using my iPod. I use a playlist of download nature sounds with lots of birds chirping etc and have it programmed to turn on right about when the suns shining through my window onto my face, perfect combo if you ask me.

  11. Oddly enough, in college I was better able to stay on a sleeping pattern because I was always late to bed & late to rise (2-3am to bed, 9-10am rise). While I’m not sure it was enough sleep, it was generally that same pattern. Now that I’m working I’m up at 630am during the weekdays and to bed early-ish… but I can’t (or won’t) quite give up my late nights out on the weekends yet (hey, I’m only 23!) which screws up the rythm every week. Guess maybe my alarm will be part of my 20% unprimalness…

  12. I’m lucky enough to work in an industry and a company where nobody much cares when I show up, as long as my job gets done.

    I haven’t used an alarm clock (except for the rare need to catch an early flight for vacation) in almost 5 years… And it is awesome.

    To simply leave it at awesome would be doing this lifestyle change a disservice. I am never tired, because I don’t wake up until I’m ready to. This means I am far less cranky, it also means I am far better at everything I do, due to being well rested.

    If you can manage to adjust your world to allow you to do this, do it.

  13. I think this is a great concept. Not sure it’s totally achievable for everyone, but it’s a great idea. In general, I think stress is the culprit in most of our sleep and energy related issues; God knows it’s a major factor in mine. I don’t think we can necessarily CONTROL stress, but I believe strongly that we can MANAGE it, though admittedly I am not strong in this area…yet.

  14. Good post…I have been wondering about something like this. I sleep pretty badly most nights – I dream a lot. Most of the time I feel like it is the dreaming that is causing me to not feel rested, though I’ve heard you usually don’t dream unless your in deep sleep…any thoughts on dreaming and poor sleep? I also have two cats that like to jump on me, so this may also have a lot to do with it!

  15. This is good information. The website at http://www.sleepwarrior.com often talks about this information (anticipating wake-up times, etc)… It also has a few articles on how grains & sugar can harm sleep quality.

    I don´t know about anyone else but I do get better sleep quality when I eat clean… I also think primal exercises are better for sleep since chronic cardio can just make you want to sleep 10-12 hrs straight.

  16. This is so dangerous for a litigator such as myself that it’s not even funny. Sleeping in could cost you your client, professional reputation and an a$$-kicking from a judge. I’ll stick with my alarm clock.

  17. I have not used an alarm clock for the past 8 months. I am able to wake up naturally when I need to. Like Furious Mittens I just think to myself what time I need be up before bed and in the morning I wake up on time give or take 15 min. If I don’t have a set time to wake up I normal get some where between 8 and 9 hours of sleep.

  18. I was wondering if anyone had read “Lights Out”. It has a lot of good info on sleep, but it recommends that people sleep in absolute pitch blackness. The authors claim that even the smallest amounts of light can disrupt sleep. I think they speculate that we evolved sleeping in totally dark caves. Anyway, I’ve covered my windows, and I do sleep better. But this seems to contradict the advice to let sunrise wake you up. Any thoughts?

  19. Ha! my 4 yr old is my alarm clock except for those mornings when i have really early (8:30am) meetings at work. I also get a power nap when i tuck him in bed at night – then I wake up and can get some momma time in for another 2 hours or so. But then, I also just recently learned that I’m in mid-stage adrenal fatigue so this is not a lifestyle I recommend – nor is it really my preference but with attached kids you do what you can – within reason.

  20. Phillips made a good light-clock that’s not that expensive (about $150). It can be found here: http://www.wakeuplight.philips.com/

    I used it myself for about a year and it was really good. Now I’m travelling around all the time and it’s too big to bring with me.

  21. I have been able to master this though sometimes I still worry if I will miss the morning. I get some help from the birds around – they confirm that it is indeed early morning. I am trying to train my daughter to inherit this quality.

  22. I naturally wake up around 6: 30 every day now, if I don’t have an early class, sometimes I allow myself to go back to sleep for a little snooze and I’ll be able to get up in an hour and half or so natually as well.
    never feel tired in the morning anymore =DDD
    and I do drink coffee too.><

  23. what about melatonin? i dont use it every night but i find it helps me stay in a more restfull sleep.

    1. Read “Healing Nights” by Dr. Naiman (I think that’s his name)…

      He semi-recommends careful melatonin supplementation to make up for the damage of the modern environment.

      That idea is quite similar to primal supplementation that Mark recommends. “Grok didn’t take supplements so why should I?” — because Grok had access to more nutrient-rich foods and a less toxic environment. Modern supplemntation in theory helps close that gap.

      The same idea is possible with melatonin. Our environments are flooded with “toxic” levels of artificial light, which inhibits melatonin production. Melatonin supplementation might help close that gap. But because melatonin is a hormone, supplementation is tricky and may or may not be safe in the long-run due to how the body was designed to self-regulate its own melatonin levels.

  24. Thanks for a great article. Just for clarification though, UVB (which stimulates vitamin D production) does not pass through windows (less than 5%)… UVA rays DO pass through windows. So this comment could be misleading: “… Leave your blinds open so that the morning light wakes you up. Nothing like some nice, warm Vitamin D washing over you in the morning.”

  25. What about those of us that work nights? I work 11p-7a as a nurse. Is there any way to set my rhythm for sleep?

  26. More proof that I am weird.

    When I was a trucker my wake-up times would vary a lot, maybe 5 am for a 6 o’clock start one day then 8 the next day as my drop didn’t open until 9, then 7 for an 8 o’clock drop etc. then back to 5 again.

    I used to regularly wake up a few minutes before my alarm no matter what time I set it to.

    In later years despite having more regular hours I seem to have lost this ability. I suspect I could retrain myself again but in my current situation it feels like more effort than it’s worth. Dunno what changed to make me lose this ability.

  27. I tried similar methods to reset my nocturnality for almost 2 years, and was never been able to reset my clock. I spent these 2 years going to bed at about the same time (11pm) getting up at the same time(5:30am), even on weekends, even after rough nights (I would take naps if I could during the day).

    On most weekdays, I would swim for an hour after waking, and would do 3-4 martial arts and yoga classes spread across the week and weekend. Exercise has always been a very important part of my life.

    I was never, ever, not ONCE, able to wake up without an alarm clock. I tried visualization exercises, setting the clock earlier to acclimatize the body- whenever that alarm sounded, I was dragged miserably out of deep sleep. The few times my felines intervened (disabled the alarm clock somehow) I overslept by at least an hour.

    Going to bed at what seemed earlier to me (11pm) would invariably result in me lying quietly until ‘natural’ sleepiness overcame me, at about 12:30 – 1am. When 5:30 rolled around, it always felt like the middle of the night to me.

    I spent those two years just feeling tired all of the time. When my work schedule changed and I could wake up at 8am (going to bed at my ‘natural’ time of 12:30-1, it felt like the weight of the world had lifted. People asked if I had lost weight or started taking antidepressants! The quality of my swimming improved dramatically when I moved the workouts to the evening.

    This is not a troll, and I respect this blog very much. I just think some people just have more firmly ingrained circadian patterns than others. My 2 year attempt to become a clockless morning person failed miserably….

  28. Oh the dreaded alarm clock. Someday when I retire from my career in the sky, I will never use an alarm again. My schedule for work is crazy with some flights keeping me awake all night and going to bed at 6am and then waking up at 1am the next morning for an early flight. So I need an alarm for my week of flying. Then I have a week and a half off and I sleep with no alarm. Rise with the sun each day. It is bliss. People always ask me if I have a trick for jet-lag. But the only thing that works is to sleep in the dark and wake with the sunrise of your destination.

  29. ok, so here’s my story. I’ve had this skill since I reached adolescence. Though, at that time I was sleeping on a very set schedule school weekdays, then when the weekend hit my dad usually wanted me up at the the same time I was getting up for school. That wasn’t a problem, I adapted myself naturally. Today, I’ve worked night shift for most of the time, second shift here and there. Then, you always have those in between shifts, short shifts, swing shifts, back to back night shifts with a second job in between etc. but now I can wake up 20 min every time before work starts, no matter what schedule I’m on. Just so I now what time before I go to sleep. weird, huh?! no training myself what so ever. I don’t know how i do it. I’ve been looking up this phenomenon trying to find something other timing your sleep, but in my case that’s immpossible. If somebody finds an explanation I would like to know…

  30. I guess I kind of give lie to some of what you have said. I don’t eat right, I am pretty much a couch (in my case–computer chair) potato…but I haven’t used an alarm clock for years. And it just sort of happened that way. I was noticing that I would wake up within about 5-10 minutes of when the alarm would go off, so I just quit using it. I used to take a nap during my lunch hour at work, and I would consistently wake up within about three to five minutes of when I needed to be back at work.

  31. In 1980s when I was young schoolboy we used to have electricity cuts at night in summers(we do have cuts even today but we have inverters and generators now). In those days we used to lay out beds on the terrace under the stars to escape heat. Anyone who has ever slept under the stars knows that it is not only beautiful, it is something divine and other worldly. And no matter what, we used to wake up along with sunrise. Its natural, no effort required, come sun and up awake we get.

  32. There is no way I wake up in the morning! Not even with my alarm clock ringing like crasy for 1 hour constantly 🙂
    Yeah I know it’s a real problem….

  33. I am the rare, weird exception to nature’s rule. I have a rare neurological disorder called hypernychthemeral syndrome. What this means: there is a part of the brain, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), that keeps the body set to the circadian rhythms of the sun. This is what Mark was talking about when he said, “Luckily, our concept of the 24-hour day is pretty similar to our natural cycle, so the two will mesh well once they’re consistent.”

    My natural cycle does not mesh with a 24-hour day. In fact, my “day” is much longer than 24 hours. I’ve worked with the best sleep specialist in my state — we’ve tried light therapy, melatonin, medications . . . everything known to science for manipulating circadian rhythms. My SCN is broken and I just can’t entrain to a 24-hour day. Attempts to do so make me sick, weak, depressed, and non-functional. (This has to do with the rigidity an earlier poster mentioned — some of us have more flexible circadian rhythms while others of us are more rigid no matter what we do or try.)

    After years of observation and record-keeping, I found a second-best solution. I have been able to entrain to a 28-hour day instead of a 24-hour one. My natural cycle seems to go in a sine wave between a 27 hour day and a 29 hour day. Since 28 is evenly divisble into 168 (the number of hours in a week) I’m able to have a regular, predictable schedule (though sometimes I need a short nap to make it through the day and sometimes I am still wide-awake when bedtime comes, since my natural cycle wavers from 27 to 29.)

    I even spent a couple of months “nudging” my sleep and wake times until I came up with a schedule where I get to spend a lot of time in the sunshine most days of the week. Even my weekends, which are mostly dark, give me a chance to get out in the sun for an hour or two before it sets or a couple hours of sunlight before bedtime.

    I do totally agree with Mark about the huge value of being out in the sun! That’s why I’ve tried to maximize my sun time and take advantage of the sun as much as possible. It really makes me feel great to spend time in the sun every day!

    I sometimes wonder if my disorder is one of the casualties of the modern world with 24-hour light (maybe an “overdose” of round-the-clock light (coupled with genetic predisposition) is what broke that part of my brain?) or whether this is something that the rare individual might have experienced even back in Grok’s day.

    There’s no survival advantage I can think of to being out-of-sync with the rest of the tribe, but maybe the tribe would have found someone like me valuable anyway because of the things I would see that others might miss and thus the added wisdom a person like me would bring to the tribe.

    At any rate, even as a disadvantageous trait, so long as my ancestor could survive to reproduce, there would be a chance of passing the trait — or at least a tendency toward it — down. So I’m left wondering why I was “blessed” with this unusual trait: is it a strange element that has been floating around in a small number of humans since pre-history? Or is it strictly a disease of modern society?

  34. As someone how had very hard time getting up early I found the right solution that works for me.
    Here are some of my advise.
    you can visit my website for further info…

    Jump Out of Bed When Your Alarm Goes Off
    Stop Rationalizing
    Stop Snoozing
    Leave The Room

    Get Light Exposure
    Open Window Blinds
    Walk Outside
    Use a Sun Box

    Have a Reason To Wake Up Early
    Eat Breakfast
    Cook Food
    Exercise

    Write Your Goals Daily
    Set Goals
    Know Why You Want It
    Write Your Goals 2x/Day

    Build a Morning Ritual
    Mix the previous tips and do them daily in the same order for example:
    Wake up at 6am. Drink water. Open window blinds & windows.
    Eat breakfast and cook your food for day.
    Review your goals and write them down.
    Go the gym, come back, eat, shower, get ready for work.

    Commit For 30 Days
    Use Willpower
    Focus on 1 Habit
    Be Consistent

    Go To Bed When You’re Sleepy
    Get Downtime Pre-bed
    Set Bedtime Deadline
    Stop Trying to Sleep If You Can’t

    Get Quality Sleep
    Stop Stimulants
    Avoid Big Meals Pre-bed
    Avoid Drinking Pre-bed
    Avoid Exercise Pre-bed
    Set Right Conditions

    Make Yourself Accountable
    Tell family or close friends you’re going to wake up early for 30 days.
    Make a deal that if you don’t wake up early each day for 30 days you’ll do something you don’t want to do (like writing them a 1000$ check).
    Report to them daily for 30 days: call, text or email them. And if you skip once, stick to the deal you’ve agreed on.

    Stop Believing The Myths:

    There’s nothing like a “morning” or “night person”. Human bodies can adapt to anything. You just have to be consistent to get used to waking up early.
    Start tomorrow morning. Don’t deviate. You’ll become an early riser within 30 days.

    Hope you’ll find the way to get up early.

  35. Thank you for this very good article! I never use an alarm to wake, honestly I never did, when I was younger my parents or siblings woke me up to go to school, and after a while I’d just wake up on time for college or work since it was about the same time. If I ever set up an alarm I wake up several times before it goes off and that just stresses me, so I don’t use it.