When exactly should you be going to sleep and waking up each day? Early birds will say as early as possible, and night owls will say the opposite. And then others may change their answer depending on whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. But what does science say?
It turns out the right time to go to bed and wake up is different for each person, and it all comes down to how much sleep your body needs and what your natural circadian rhythm is.
In this article, we’ll dive into what exactly these two things are and how you can use them to find the times you should be getting in and out of bed each day to feel and function at your best.
The first step in figuring out when you should be going to sleep and waking up is finding out how long you should be sleeping for in the first place. This is called your sleep need, a genetically determined trait you have no control over — just like height and eye color.
You’ve no doubt heard the ideal amount of sleep is 8 hours a night, but that’s not actually the case for everyone. Research shows the average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so. And 13.5% of people may actually need 9 hours or more sleep a night.
But it can be difficult to figure out your number by yourself. Caffeine can make you feel alert even if you haven’t had enough sleep, so you may feel fine after six hours and a strong coffee. On the other hand, grogginess is natural up to 90 minutes after waking, so you may mistake this feeling for the sleepiness you feel when you're experiencing sleep deprivation.
A tool like the RISE app takes the guesswork out of it. RISE uses historical sleep data on your phone to work out how much sleep you’ve been getting and uses proprietary sleep-science-based models to calculate your sleep need. You’ll then get a time — in hours and minutes — to aim for each night that'll make you feel your best the next day.
Once you know your exact sleep need, you can start thinking about the times of night you can get those hours of sleep — and that’s where your circadian rhythm comes in.
Your circadian rhythm is the internal body clock that dictates your energy levels over a roughly 24-hour cycle. However, just how everyone’s sleep need is different, everyone’s internal clocks are different, too. Part of this comes down to your chronotype, or whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or something in between. This is our natural tendency to wake up and sleep earlier or later. You can learn more about chronotypes in our in-depth guide.
Your circadian rhythm is also largely affected by light. When your optic nerve first senses daylight, it signals to the brain to start releasing cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin to make you feel alert and awake. And then come nighttime, darkness triggers the brain into producing melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy.
RISE predicts your circadian rhythm each day, based on factors like how long you slept the night before as well as your inferred light exposure, so you can see when your body naturally wants to sleep and wake up.
As long as it’s dim, the pineal gland in your brain starts producing melatonin about two hours before your biological bedtime. This is what scientists call the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). In the RISE app, we use this to calculate your “Melatonin Window,” the window of time when your brain will be producing the most melatonin it will all night.
You should aim to go to bed during your Melatonin Window to have a better chance of falling asleep quickly and staying asleep all night. RISE keeps track of your Melatonin Window — the exact timings of it can change each day — and it can even notify you when it’s time to start thinking about bed to make sure you don’t miss it.
So if your Melatonin Window is 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., you know the ideal time to go to bed is within those hours, and you’ll have a much harder time falling asleep if you go to bed earlier or later.
However, this process is easily disturbed by light. So if you get too much light exposure late in the day, the timing of the DLMO and your Melatonin Window can be delayed and become unpredictable, making it harder to know the best time to go to sleep. To keep things working smoothly, dim the lights and avoid blue light in the run up to bedtime.
Life often gets in the way of our natural circadian rhythm and chronotype. You may biologically prefer to sleep until 10 a.m., but have to start work at 8 a.m., for example. If this is the case, you can actually shift your circadian rhythm to an earlier schedule. How long this will take all depends on your chronotype and how much you’re trying to shift your schedule — about two hours is most realistic.
Here’s how to do it:
We share more tips in our guide on how to become a morning person.
So for better sleep, we’d ideally be going to bed and waking up when our bodies naturally want to. But that’s not how life works. Looking at your work schedule, you may have commitments you can’t change. For most of us, these will be in the mornings, such as early morning meetings, so let’s start by looking at the time you go to bed, which we often have much more flexibility to change.
Once you know your sleep need, you can count back from your morning commitments to find the time you should be going to bed to get this amount of sleep. For example, if your sleep need is 8 hours 20 minutes, you can count backwards from the time you need to wake up to find your ideal bedtime.
However, you should also add an extra 30 minutes to an hour to take into account sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (the times you wake up in the night). Once you have an ideal bedtime for you, you’ll know if you need to slowly shift your circadian rhythm to make it easier to fall asleep at this time.
Remote working means it’s all too easy for many of us to roll out of bed five minutes before we sit at our desks to work. But just like you wouldn’t break into a sprint without warming up, our brains need some time to warm up into the day, too. So you shouldn’t just count back from the first commitment you have in the mornings. Instead, give yourself 60 to 90 minutes before you need to be “on” for the day.
This is because of sleep inertia, or the groggy feeling you experience when you first wake up. This is caused by adenosine, a compound that makes us feel drowsy. Adenosine builds up throughout the day and is flushed away as we sleep. But when we wake up, it can take up to 90 minutes for it to fully leave our system and that groggy feeling to decrease.
It's tempting to snooze your alarm clock, but the best way to reduce how long you feel this grogginess is by getting some natural sunlight, going for a walk or drinking a cup of coffee.
As well as sleep inertia, you should also consider your schedule throughout the week. Our bodies love consistency, so try and stick to the same sleep schedule each day. That means if you know you need to be up at 7 a.m. two days a week, it’s better to wake up at 7 a.m. every day — and yes, that includes weekends.
In a perfect world, we’d all get the exact amount of sleep we need each night to be at our best each day, but that’s not always possible. If you haven’t been meeting your sleep need, you’ll have built up sleep debt — the amount of sleep you “owe” your body based on your sleep times over the last 14 nights.
The lower your sleep debt, the better you’ll feel. That’s why at RISE, we focus on sleep debt over metrics like the amount of time spent in the deep sleep and REM sleep phases, the number of sleep cycles you get, or even sleep quality (which doesn’t have a consensus definition in sleep science).
If your sleep debt is higher than five hours, you should focus on “paying down” this debt, and therefore you may have earlier or later sleep times while you do this. The best way to do this is by taking a nap during your afternoon dip in energy — RISE can tell you when this is. However, you should avoid napping if you’re trying to shift your circadian rhythm earlier. If your schedule won’t allow for a nap, go to bed a little earlier or sleep in a little later.
If you really can’t squeeze in any more sleep, make sure to practice good sleep hygiene to ensure you’re falling asleep quickly and staying asleep when you go to bed. Limit bright lights in the evenings, have a relaxing bedtime routine, and keep your bedroom at a cool temperature.
With busy days and so many factors affecting our energy, it can be hard to know when exactly to go to sleep and wake up — and that’s if we’re lucky enough to choose to begin with.
But if you have some control over this, you should align your sleep and wake times with both your circadian rhythm and your sleep need to set yourself up for success each day. The RISE app not only calculates what these are for you, it guides you to stay aligned with them each day and night.
Learn more about Rise for sales teams.
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential