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.
Your new sleep schedule should ideally be constructed around your individual sleep need and tailored to your circadian rhythm.
As you can see, altering your sleep patterns isn't as straightforward as fiddling with the alarm clock settings on your smartphone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Learn more about Rise for sales teams.
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential