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How Long Does It Take to Adjust to a New Sleep Schedule?

There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Learn how to adapt to a new sleep schedule — whether due to getting up early, shift work, jet lag, or the time change.
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1/25/2022
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Do you want to join the ranks of the early bird club? Or maybe you'd like to beat travel jet lag at its game? Perhaps you want to make the best of your shift-work schedule or get through daylight saving time (DST) changes with minimal sleepiness. These are just some of the most common reasons that prompt the question, "How long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule?"

Whether you're doing it for work or social obligations, this guide will show you how long it takes to get your body clock on board with a different sleep schedule.

Spoiler alert: There isn't a catch-all timeline for the various scenarios mentioned earlier. That said, one common theme runs through it all — the adjustment doesn't take place overnight. Read on to find out how planning and dedication can help you realize your new sleep schedule with maximal success and minimal fuss.

What It Means to Adjust to a New Sleep Schedule

Your new sleep schedule should ideally be constructed around your individual sleep need and tailored to your circadian rhythm.

  • Sleep need: Instead of the generalized sleep recommendation of "eight hours of sleep per night," your sleep need is genetically determined, just like how your eye color and height are. For the majority, your sleep need is likely somewhere between 7.5 and 9 hours. A minority of roughly 13% needs nine or more hours of sleep each night. Want to find out your unique sleep need? Open the RISE app and click on the profile icon on the top-right corner.
  • Sleep debt: What happens when you don't meet your sleep need? You rack up sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you've missed out on in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need. As a rule of thumb, stay below five hours of sleep debt to feel and function at your best (or as close to it as possible).
  • Circadian rhythm: Most commonly known as your internal clock, your circadian rhythm governs your sleep-wake cycle and other biological processes over a roughly 24-hour period. When these processes are inclined to happen boils down to your chronotype — are you an early bird, a night owl, or somewhere in between? The RISE app makes it easy to follow your natural circadian rhythm. It tells you the exact timing of your daily energy peaks and dips on your Energy Schedule.

As you can see, altering your sleep patterns isn't as straightforward as fiddling with the alarm clock settings on your smartphone.

How Long Does It Take to Adjust to a New Sleep Schedule?

So, how long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule? It depends. You may groan at what seems to be a non-answer, but the reality is, it's so much more complex than an arbitrary number.

The exact time you need to adjust to a different sleep schedule hinges on your personal motivations, such as minimizing travel jet lag or dealing with a shift-work timetable. Other factors, like your running sleep debt and chronotype, also affect the length of your adjustment period.

You Want to Become a Morning Person

How long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule: woman waking up in a good mood and stretching her arms

Much of society is wired around an early-bird schedule. That's why a substantial percentage of the night-owl populace wants to become morning people.

However, your chronotype is a byproduct of your genetics. So, does that mean evening chronotypes have to suffer from subpar energy levels when they wake up earlier than usual? Not really. It's all about making a conscious effort to stick to your new sleep and wake times, paying special attention to the timing of your light exposure.

With that said, the switch to an early-bird schedule will be an active, ongoing process as you work against your chronotype. The strength of your genetic programming also determines how long you take to reach your new sleep schedule and how much dedication you need to stick to it. To illustrate, an extreme night owl will likely need more time and effort to reach their new 6 a.m. wake-up time and stick to it.

What You Can Do

So, how long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule if you're trying to wake up earlier? It depends on your current sleep timetable and the new sleep and wake timings you want to achieve.

Gradually shift your bedtime and rise time forward by 15-30 minutes each night, taking care not to incur more sleep debt. If your current bedtime is 11 p.m. and you want to hit the sack by 10 p.m. to wake up an hour earlier the next day, it will take you roughly 2-4 days to adapt to your new sleep schedule.

You can find other useful tips like timely light exposure and melatonin supplements (a sleep-promoting hormone) in our detailed guide to "How to become a morning person."

You Want to Minimize Travel Jet Lag

Travel jet lag occurs when you cross two time zones or more. The intensity of your jet lag positively correlates with how far you've traveled from your original time zone and the direction of your journey — eastward travel intensifies jet lag more than trips to the west.

Here's why: Traveling disrupts the natural flow of your circadian rhythm, inciting circadian misalignment.

When you travel west, your day lengthens. But when you go east, your day shrinks. Because your body's internal clock is slightly longer than 24 hours, it's easier for you to adapt to a "stretched out" day rather than a "compressed" one.

More research indicates that "we can move our internal clock later by about 2 hours per day, but we can move it earlier by only 1 to 1.5 hours." This is why it takes less effort to bounce back from westward travel than eastward expeditions. 

But, no matter if you're journeying to the west or east, jet lag takes a toll on your body in more ways than one. Aside from the immediate grogginess and disorientation upon deplaning, a study found that airline crew who were subject to several years of repeated jet lag through transmeridian flights experienced higher cortisol levels and memory impairments. Jet lag may also result in digestive issues, poor mental health, and menstrual disturbances in women. It may even heighten your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

What You Can Do

How long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule: RiseApp Melatonin Window
The RISE app shows your daily Melatonin Window on the Energy Schedule, the best window of time to go to bed.

The good news is, you can reset your circadian rhythm to minimize and possibly avoid the injurious effects of jet lag when your plane touches down. Changes to your sleep routine in the days (or weeks) leading up to your flight give your internal clock enough time to align itself to your destination country's time zone.

If you're traveling west, go to bed later each night in 15- to 30-minute increments so that it matches the bedtime at your destination's time zone. The reverse rings true if you're going east. Remember, it's harder to follow an earlier bedtime due to our slightly-longer-than-24-hour biological clock. If you need some help in this department, some scientific evidence suggests 0.5-10 milligrams of melatonin (a sleep hormone) at bedtime can help you adjust better when traveling. 

Because light is a potent circadian cue that starts and stops your internal clock, well-timed light exposure also helps you get over your jet lag faster. 

If you anticipate reaching your stop in the evening, studiously avoid all light sources in the few hours before you disembark — especially blue light-emitting electronic devices like your cell phone. Artificial light exposure hampers your body's dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). This is the circadian phase marker that signals the start of your Melatonin Window in the RISE app, the window of time in which your body produces peak levels of melatonin. Steering clear of artificial light sets your DLMO in motion to help you fall asleep more easily by your target bedtime.

Those on a red-eye flight should prioritize sleeping on the plane and use sleep aids, like melatonin supplements, if they need to. Bask in the morning sunlight once you've arrived at your destination to kickstart your biological clock.

Fasting is a close runner-up to light exposure when helping you adjust to a new sleep schedule while traveling. When you deprive your body of food for as long as 16 hours before landing, you essentially "freeze" your internal clock in time. The first meal after jet-setting restarts your body clock. This dupes your body into thinking it's a brand-new day, making it easier for you to adjust to the new schedule.

You’re on a Shift-Work Timetable

In America, one in five people work hours at odds with their natural sleep-wake cycle. Think security guards on the graveyard shift and health care personnel on rotating shifts. This leads to the increasingly common phenomenon of shift work sleep disorder (SWD) — you feel excessively sleepy when you're awake (usually at night) yet struggle to doze off when it's time to snooze (usually when the sun is up).

SWD-affected individuals get less sleep than they need. Those on night shifts and rapid shift rotations reportedly sleep less than those on the evening and slow rotating shift schedules. 

To make matters worse, your chronotype influences your risk of SWD. Night owls on the morning shift and early birds on the night shift are two prime examples. Research also highlights that evening chronotypes are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects of circadian misalignment. In which case, be on guard for the warning signs of high blood pressure, weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, depression, and more. 

With SWD, excessive daytime sleepiness affects your performance at work. Call operators on night shift duty connect calls more slowly while meter readers make more errors during the graveyard shift. Extensive data shows fatigue leads to monumental costs on a societal level, too. For instance, sleep-related human error is believed to contribute to the Chernobyl plant meltdown (the worst nuclear accident in history).

What You Can Do

How long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule: woman sleeping soundly in her bed

Realistically speaking, true adjustment to your sleep schedule will never be possible due to an ever-changing shift-work timetable. But that doesn't mean it's a lost cause for you. There are steps you can take to minimize the backlash of circadian misalignment to maximize how you feel and function at work — and in life.

  • Protect your sleep environment during daytime: Just like the conventional bedtime environment is cool, dark, and quiet at night, so should it be during daylight for night shift workers. Invest in noise- and light-blocking tools like earplugs, eye masks, and blackout curtains. If need be, soundproof your room to help you get the sleep you need. 
  • Prioritize sleep even on your days off: Put sleep at the top of your to-do list on your rest days, especially if you're paying down sleep debt. For night shift workers, you don't necessarily have to stick with your workday sleep schedule. Try going to bed 5.5 hours earlier on your days off to achieve a compromise circadian phase position. This helps you partially align your non-work sleep schedule with your night shift sleep schedule to maintain some semblance of normalcy when you aren't on duty.
  • Work rotating shifts that move forward in time: If your roster regularly rotates between different shifts, see if it’s possible to request a forward rotation (aka clockwise rotation). Here's how it might look: morning shift → evening shift → night shift. A forward shift rotation essentially acts as a sleep phase delay schedule that pushes your bedtime backward after every shift to lessen circadian disruption, so that you need less time to adjust to a different sleep schedule. This may potentially help reduce sleep problems for better sleep among shift workers.
  • Nap during night shifts if possible: Working at night means you're going against the natural rhythm of your biological clock. To avoid unintentionally falling asleep at work, scheduled naps reduce sleepiness and lessen the need for recovery sleep afterward. Short naps (around 20-30 minutes) are highly recommended, as they are less likely to trigger sleep inertia (wake-up grogginess) upon awakening. (Do note that high sleep debt can still incite sleep inertia with short naps, so it’s in your best interest to keep sleep debt low all the time.)
  • Make light exposure work for you: Intermittent bright light exposure at work followed by wearing sunglasses after clocking out may help night shift workers adapt better to their sleep-wake schedules. Bright light therapy under the guidance of a medical professional may also benefit you.

You Want to Make the Best of Daylight Saving Time

Transitioning in and out of daylight saving time (DST) perfectly exemplifies how sleeping merely an hour earlier or later than your regular schedule can instigate circadian misalignment. 

Our clocks spring forward by an hour in March when DST starts and fall back by an hour in November when DST ends. What seems to be an insignificant change to our local clocks is more than enough to upset our internal clocks. This mismatch between our social and biological clocks unfavorably impacts our sleep-wake schedule. 

On the night that DST begins, you inadvertently lose an hour of sleep when your clock advances. This slight change in your sleep schedule also increases sleep latency (how long you take to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (how often you wake up) over the next seven days or longer.

You may assume that you gain an extra hour of sleep when DST ends. Yet, self-reported surveys show that not many people take advantage of this extra hour of sleep opportunity. What's more, the earlier wake-up time in the following days increases your cumulative net sleep loss over the next week or so.

In either scenario, our internal clocks take much longer to adjust to a new schedule courtesy of DST. A 2007 study proclaims that with the start of DST, participants' sleep-wake schedules were still disrupted even after eight weeks, especially for night owls.

More data illuminates the downsides of DST on your daily performance. When your sleep schedule is off by roughly an hour, you can expect a slower reaction time upon awakening. This, coupled with the heightened lethargy, is a recipe for disaster in the form of higher accident rates and increased health risks.

What You Can Do

Hourglass on the grass

Unless or until your state chooses to end the time changes, DST puts your sleep health through the wringer. That said, there are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself:

  • Tweak your sleep schedule in advance: In the week before DST begins, go to bed earlier by 15-30 minute increments each night. The opposite rule applies in the week prior to the end of DST when November rolls around.
  • Take advantage of the full hour: At the end of DST, you "gain" an extra hour of sleep. Instead of splurging it on late-night screen time, use it to pay down your existing sleep debt to ward off the effects of potential lost sleep in the days to come as you get used to a new sleep schedule.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene 24/7: Healthy sleep hygiene offers you some immunity to the deleterious effects of DST. But it's not only your bedtime routine you have to worry about. Sleep hygiene actually refers to the round-the-clock upkeep of behaviors that influence your sleep. Case in point: Stimulants like caffeine and alcohol too close to your bedtime do more harm than good to your sleep architecture.

Set Yourself up for Success With Your New Sleep Schedule

Sure, it may take you a while to adjust to a new sleep schedule. But, you can still set yourself up for success before you make the transition.

Pare Down Your Sleep Debt

One way to play your cards right is to keep sleep debt to a minimum at the time of your adjustment. When you aren't majorly sleep-deprived, you're more likely to come out the next day unscathed by excessive drowsiness, putting you closer to your full potential.

So, what's the best way to pare down sleep debt? Hint: We've covered this in the previous section. You've guessed it right — it has everything to do with your sleep hygiene. If you need help perfecting your sleep habits, our step-by-step Sleep Guide is at your service.

Stay On Top of Your Sleep Schedule

For some people (read: extremely late or early chronotypes), there's a good chance that your sleep timetable will revert back to square one due to your genes. This is especially so for sizable alterations, say when you metamorphose from a night owl to an early bird or vice versa.

In these cases, it's vital to stay on top of your sleep schedule. Actively manage your sleep and wake times to not let your genetic code triumph. A consistent sleep schedule, even on your days off, can help you stick to the program with more success.

Time Your Naps Just Right

Rise App Energy Schedule screen
The RISE app tells you when your Afternoon Dip starts and ends so that you can plan ahead for a nap.

Naps are your best friend when it comes to keeping your sleep debt low as you adjust to a new schedule. But if you aren't careful, ill-timed naps can turn on you, too.

For the most part, nap during your afternoon dip (check the RISE app for the exact timing). Decide whether you need a:

  • Short nap (10-20 minutes): It temporarily boosts your energy levels but without the side effects of wake-up grogginess.
  • Long nap (40-90 minutes): It gives you a longer-lasting energy boost but comes at the expense of more intense sleep inertia.

No matter the length of your nap, avoid snoozing too late in the day. Doing so may release too much sleep pressure, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.

Be Smart About Your Light Dosage

By now, you know that light exposure is a double-edged sword for your circadian rhythm. As Matt Walker, the author of Why We Sleep, puts it, light is "the principal and preferential signal." This makes it a potent instrument in almost all cases of adjustments to your sleep schedule.

To recap, light exposure delays your sleep schedule while light avoidance can advance it. When you keep this in mind, you can bend this circadian signal to your advantage as you familiarize your body clock with your new sleep schedule.

Good Things Take Time, Including Your New Sleep Schedule

So far, you've learned the answer to "How long does it take to adjust to a new sleep schedule?" can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. It all comes down to your personal reasons for changing your sleep and wake times.

As long as you plan ahead, keep a close eye on your running sleep debt and follow your circadian rhythm, you can adjust well to a new schedule within the recommended timeline. This is where RISE can help. Not only does it calculate your unique sleep need to measure your sleep debt, but it also gives you a heads up on your daily energy peaks and dips.

Suffice to say, the RISE app is the only tool you need to help you move your sleep schedule forward or backward with minimal friction to your internal clock.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

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Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

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