How to Wake Up to an Alarm (and Not Hate the Process)

Wake up more easily to an alarm by keeping your sleep debt low, staying in sync with your circadian rhythm, and using a gentle alarm that wakes you up slowly.
Updated
2023-07-27
19 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.

How to Wake Up to an Alarm? 

  • Wake up more easily to your alarm by making sure you’re getting enough sleep overall. 
  • Living in sync with your circadian rhythm, choosing a gentle alarm clock sound, and doing energy-boosting activities as soon as you wake up can stop you from hitting snooze. 
  • The RISE app can work out how much sleep you need and offers a gentle alarm with smart features to wake you up more easily.

Most of us start our mornings the same way: by waking up to an alarm. But it’s not always that simple. Some of us hit snooze once, twice, or many times. Others turn off the alarm or sleep through the noise only to wake up hours later than they had planned.

Below, we’ll dive into how you can wake up to an alarm and why you're struggling to get out of bed when it goes off or oversleeping it altogether. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app alarm can gently wake you up and make getting out of bed easier to do.

A Sleep Doctor's Thoughts

We spoke to Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer Dr. Chester Wu, who’s double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“If you find it hard to wake up when your alarm clock rings, or sometimes find yourself oversleeping your alarm, the first thing to check is whether you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re sleep deprived, it’ll be much harder to wake up in the morning. Try heading to bed 15 or 30 minutes earlier for the next few weeks and seeing if your mornings get easier.”

Why Can’t I Wake Up to My Alarm?

You might not be able to wake up to your alarm because you’ve got a lot of sleep debt, you’re out of sync with your circadian rhythm, you’ve got sleep inertia, or you’ve got a medical condition or sleep disorder.  

Let’s dive into those in more detail. 

1. You’ve Got a Lot of Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you’ve missed out on recently. It’s compared to your sleep need, which is the genetically determined amount of sleep you need

In simple terms, if you need eight hours of sleep, but only get six hours, you’ll have about two hours of sleep debt. 

At RISE, we measure your sleep debt over the last 14 nights. So if you’ve been skipping sleep recently, even if you got enough sleep last night, you’ll still have sleep debt. 

And when you’ve got a lot of sleep debt, it’s not just your health that can suffer. You’ll find it harder to wake up to an alarm. 

If you’ve got high sleep debt you might:

  • Wake up groggier than usual
  • Struggle to resist the snooze button
  • Oversleep your alarm altogether 

Heads-up: You might need more sleep than you think. We looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up. The median sleep need was eight hours, but 48% of users need eight hours or more sleep a night.

We looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up. The median sleep need was eight hours, but 48% of users need eight hours or more sleep a night.
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.

RISE uses a year’s worth of your phone data and sleep science algorithms to calculate your sleep need. It automatically tracks your sleep times to work out how much sleep debt you have. 

We’ve covered more on how much sleep debt you have here. 

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2. You’re Out of Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm 

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural internal clock. It runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and plays a part in controlling your sleep cycle. 

If you’re out of sync with it, you may feel low on energy when your alarm clock rings. 

You might be out of sync with your circadian rhythm if: 

  • You work night shifts
  • You’re ignoring your chronotype — like a night owl trying to be a morning person 
  • You’ve got social jet lag, or an irregular sleep schedule — which about 87% of us do 

And if your sleep schedule is all over the place, you might wake up in a deep sleep stage of sleep, which may make you feel sleepier than usual. 

It’s harder to be woken up from deep sleep than it is from REM sleep or light sleep. So if you’re in a deep sleep stage when your alarm clock rings, you might not even wake up. 

RISE uses your sleep data and inferred light exposure to predict your circadian rhythm each day. You’ll see when your body naturally wants to wake up and go to sleep, so you can sync up with these times. 

RISE app screenshot showing energy peak and dip times
The RISE app can predict your circadian rhythm.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen here

3. You’ve Got Sleep Inertia 

Sleep inertia is the grogginess you feel right after waking up. It’s natural, but it will feel worse and last longer if you’ve got high sleep debt. 

The symptoms of sleep inertia include: 

  • Grogginess
  • Disorientation 
  • Lowered cognition 

When you’re in the grips of sleep inertia, you might find yourself hitting snooze or turning your alarm off and going back to sleep. Even if you do manage to get out of bed, you’ll feel sleepy and it may take a while to fully wake up.

4. You’ve Got a Medical Condition or Sleep Disorder 

A medical condition or sleep disorder could be the reason you can’t wake up to an alarm. 

Medical conditions include: 

  • Mental health issues like anxiety and depression 
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Hypothyroidism 
  • Iron deficiency anemia 
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic fatigue 
  • High blood pressure 

And sleep disorders include: 

  • Insomnia 
  • Sleep apnea 
  • Restless leg syndrome 
  • Parasomnias

If you have one of these health or sleep issues, you might find it hard to get the sleep you need, and so struggle to wake up when your alarm rings. 

Side effects from medications like antidepressants or sleep aids can also make it harder to wake up when your alarm rings as they come with fatigue as a side effect. 

Speak to your healthcare provider if you think a health issue could be to blame. They can run tests to confirm and recommend treatment options to help. 

How to Wake Up to Your First Alarm?

You can wake up to your first alarm by lowering your sleep debt, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, using a gentle alarm sound, and doing an activity that wakes you up first thing. 

Here’s how to nail this advice. 

1. Lower Your Sleep Debt 

Lowering your sleep debt can help make getting out of bed easier each morning. 

Here’s how to lower your sleep debt: 

  • Take naps: Be sure to keep naps short and early in the day so you can still fall asleep at night. Check RISE for your afternoon dip in energy, which is an ideal time to take a short nap. 
  • Go to bed a little earlier: We’ve covered tips on how to sleep early here.
  • Sleep in a little later: Keep this to an hour or so to avoid messing up your circadian rhythm. 
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Good sleep hygiene can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night, meaning you get more sleep overall. RISE can guide you through 20+ good sleep habits daily. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours. Research suggests your mental performance with five hours of sleep debt is roughly comparable to what it would be with no sleep debt at all. 

So five hours is an achievable goal to aim for that’ll make a difference to your energy levels. 

Check RISE for how much sleep debt you have and try chipping away at it to get more morning energy. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

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2. Get in Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm

This will help you feel sleepy at bedtime and more ready to wake up when your alarm clock rings. 

Here’s how to sync up with your circadian rhythm: 

  • Keep a consistent sleep routine: Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time all week, even on weekends. A consistent sleep schedule can also help to keep your sleep debt low and morning energy high. We found RISE users with consistent sleep patterns have less sleep debt than those with inconsistent sleep patterns. 
  • Eat meals at roughly the same times and during the day: Eating can change the timing of your circadian rhythm. Aim to eat at roughly the same times, and avoid eating too close to bedtime or at night. 
  • Go to bed during your Melatonin Window: This is what we call the roughly one-hour window of time when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest. Melatonin is the natural hormone that primes your body for sleep, so going to bed during this window can help you fall and stay asleep.

Sleeping and waking up when your body naturally wants to is best. But that’s not always possible. For example, you might be a night owl who has to do early mornings for work.  

If your sleep-wake cycle doesn’t match your life, you can learn how to reset your circadian rhythm here.

3. Use a Gentler Alarm 

A shrill jarring alarm sound can trigger a rush of adrenaline, which is not a peaceful way to start the day. And research suggests repeated sudden awakenings can harm our heart health. 

Don’t settle for the default iPhone alarm sound. Instead, swap loud beeps for a gentler sound that can slowly rouse you from sleep. 

Research suggests the best alarm sounds are: 

These types of alarms can help you reduce sleep inertia, meaning you’ll feel less sleepy when they go off and you’ll — hopefully — be less likely to press snooze. 

The RISE phone alarm has the option of melodic sounds, your choice of music, or gentle watch or phone vibrations. 

RISE app screenshot showing the smart alarm
The RISE app can wake you up with a gentle alarm sound.

Heads-up: If you regularly oversleep your alarm, you could be a heavy sleeper and find it takes more noise to rouse you from sleep. Research suggests people who generate more “sleep spindles” — a type of brain activity — have a higher tolerance for noise while sleeping. 

Try experimenting with different alarms that include a loud alarm sound, light, and vibrations. And remember the lower your sleep debt the easier it’ll be to wake up in the morning. 

4. Make it a Habit to Not Hit Snooze

Hitting snooze can make you feel more tired.

You read that right. Instead of getting extra sleep time, you may have lower energy levels when you eventually get out of bed. 

A 2022 study found hitting the snooze alarm prolongs sleep inertia compared to using a single alarm.

And when you snooze, you fragment your sleep. And as one study puts it, “fragmented sleep is less restorative than consolidated sleep, and leads to sleepiness-related daytime impairment.” 

Remind yourself you’re not getting more sleep by snoozing, you’re just making mornings harder than they need to be. 

5. Do Something Easy Right After Your Alarm Goes Off 

You don’t need to jump right out of bed when your alarm clock rings and right into a HIIT workout. Instead, do something gentle to ease your brain into wakefulness and stop you from drifting back off. 

With the RISE alarm, when you turn the alarm off, the app will automatically kick you straight to your favorite app — whether that’s TikTok or the news. 

You can then have some guilt-free phone time to help slowly warm up your brain. The blue light from your screen can help wake you up, too. 

But don’t worry, we won’t let you get sucked into social media for too long. RISE will send you a reminder after 15 minutes, so you can get started with your day. 

6. Put Your Alarm On the Other Side of Your Bedroom 

If you snooze your alarm in your sleep and have to wake up early, it’s time to take drastic action. Try placing your phone or alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom. But make sure it’ll ring loud enough to wake you up. 

When it goes off, you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off. And once you’re out of bed, you’ll — hopefully — stay out of bed. 

Have a plan for what you’ll do next. This could be jumping in the shower or making a cup of coffee. 

7. Shake Off Sleep Inertia Straight Away 

You can’t avoid sleep inertia altogether, but there are some things you can do to shake it off faster to make it less likely you’ll hit snooze and crawl back under the covers. 

Here’s how to feel less groggy first thing: 

  • Get out in natural light 
  • Drink a cup of coffee 
  • Drink a glass of water 
  • Play your favorite music 
  • Do some exercise (a 2021 study found just 30 seconds of exercise can help wake you up faster) 

We’ve covered more ways to wake up faster here. 

8. Have a Morning Routine You Look Forward to 

Having a morning routine you look forward to can make it easier to get out of bed and get started with your day. 

Try waking up 60 to 90 minutes before you need to be “on” for the day. This should give you enough time to shake off sleep inertia, and you can use this time to do some enjoyable activities such as: 

  • Going for a walk with a podcast
  • Drinking a cup of coffee in the garden (try programming the coffee maker to start brewing around the time your alarm clock will go off) 
  • Going to your favorite workout class or running route 
  • Calling a loved one or having breakfast with a family member 
  • Taking time to read, practice yoga, or meditate 

Many of these activities can help you have more energy in the morning, too. 

9. Set Your Alarm at the Right Time for You 

You might not have control over when you wake up, but if you do, setting your alarm at the right time for you can make it easier to wake up when it goes off. 

First, think about your sleep need. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough time in bed to meet your sleep need each night. 

We recommend adding 30 minutes to an hour to your sleep need and giving yourself this amount of time in bed. This will give you time to fall asleep and wake up in the middle of the night (which is normal) and still get enough shut-eye. 

For example, if you need to set your alarm for 8 a.m., and you need eight hours of sleep, you’d want to be getting into bed around 11 p.m. 

Next, think about your chronotype. This is whether you’re an early bird or night owl. If you have control over it, wake up when your body naturally wants you to.

The RISE alarm can tell you, right as you’re setting it, whether your alarm time will contribute to sleep debt or not. If it will, try setting a later alarm to make sure you’re getting enough sleep — which will make it much easier to not oversleep your alarm.

We’ve covered more on the best time to sleep and wake up here. 

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What’s the Best Type of Alarm to Wake Up to?

The best type of alarm to wake up to is one that gently wakes you up from sleep. 

Here are some options to consider. 

Gradual Sounds

One of the gentler ways to wake up is via sounds that gradually build. Songs or tones that start out at a lower volume and/or intensity and progressively become louder can help slowly lift you out of sleep. 

Lower Pitch Sounds

Research suggests lower-frequency alarm sounds (500 Hz) might be more effective at waking us and curbing sleep inertia than higher-frequency sounds. That might sound something like this.

The less sleep inertia you feel when you wake up, the more likely you’ll stay awake, rather than hit snooze. 

Melodic Sounds

While the term “melodic” is subjective, research shows that when our wake-up call comes in the form of pleasing and familiar musical elements it has the potential to boost our mood and lessen sleep inertia. 

Your Favorite Music 

There’s research to suggest that an alarm tone or song in C5 with a tempo of 100 to 120 beats per minute — like this one — may be optimal for increasing arousal upon waking, making it more difficult to drift back to sleep. 

Beyond sounds and tones, you can opt for music to wake you up. Any music can help, but one study found “excitative music” can decrease sleep inertia and it’s even more effective when it’s music you like.

And a 2020 study found that The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and The Cure’s “Close to Me” were two types of melodic songs that can help you wake up. 

Sunrise Alarm Clocks 

Sunrise alarm clocks use light to wake you up. They gradually get brighter and brighter, gently rousing you from sleep. 

Light is a powerful signal to your circadian rhythm, telling your body it’s daytime.

While wake-up lights and alarms can be a gentle way to wake up, make sure you get out in sunlight in the mornings, as natural light is best for resetting your circadian rhythm. You can buy smart blinds that open at a set time in the morning. 

Head-ups: Light may not be enough to wake up heavy sleepers. Make sure you use light and sound or have a backup alarm sound if this is you. 

Vibrations 

Many fitness trackers and smartwatches come with a vibration alarm feature that wakes you up with gentle vibrations, either with sound or just the vibrations alone. 

This is a great option if you need to wake up earlier than your partner. 

For deep sleepers, “bed shaker” alarms use a vibrating pad attachment that you place under your mattress or pillow to buzz you awake. 

The RISE App 

Here’s a recap of how RISE’s smart alarm can wake you up: 

  • Melodic sounds
  • Your choice of music
  • Gentle vibrations on your phone or watch 
  • Get taken to your favorite app when you turn the alarm off 
  • Find out if your chosen wake time will add to your sleep debt 

RISE can also guide you through sleep habits to help you lower your sleep debt and better sleep, which will make it easier to wake up to your alarm.

Stop Snoozing Your Alarm Once and For All 

The best way to wake up to your alarm is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep to begin with. It’s going to be harder to wake up if you’re sleep deprived. And if your body can, it’ll keep on sleeping to get more shut-eye.

Getting enough sleep and still struggling to resist the snooze button? Make sure you’re living in sync with your circadian rhythm and try hacks like using a gentler alarm sound, putting your alarm clock on the other side of the room, and doing an easy and enjoyable task first thing to slowly wake yourself up. 

The RISE app is the alarm clock that takes all this into account. RISE can work out how much sleep you need, how much sleep debt you have, and predict your circadian rhythm each day to help you sync up with it. 

When it comes to the alarm feature, RISE can make sure your wake-up time won’t contribute to sleep debt and offer gentle sounds and vibrations to transition you into wakefulness. 

You could be waking up the first time your alarm goes off in a matter of days. We found 80% of RISE users feel more energy within five days. 

Summary FAQs

How to wake up to an alarm?

You can wake up to an alarm by keeping your sleep debt low, living in sync with your circadian rhythm, choosing a gentle alarm sound, putting your alarm on the other side of your bedroom, and doing an easy and enjoyable task first thing to stop yourself falling back to sleep.

How do I stop sleeping through my alarm?

Stop sleeping through your alarm by keeping your sleep debt low, living in sync with your circadian rhythm, putting your alarm on the other side of your bedroom, and experimenting with different alarm sounds or lights and vibrations.

Why don't I wake up to my alarm?

You may not wake up to your alarm because you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re living out of sync with your circadian rhythm, or you have a medical condition or sleep disorder.

How do I wake up to my alarm as a deep sleeper?

Wake up to your alarm as a deep sleeper by making sure you’re getting enough sleep and you’re living in sync with your circadian rhythm. Try experimenting with different alarm sounds, lights, and vibrations, or placing your alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom.

What to do if your alarm isn't waking you up?

If your alarm isn’t waking you up, you should first make sure you’re getting enough sleep and living in sync with your circadian rhythm. If you are, try using a new alarm clock with a different sound, light, or vibration. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about medical conditions and sleep disorders that could be to blame.

How to wake up without an alarm?

Wake up without an alarm by getting enough sleep and living in sync with your circadian rhythm with a regular sleep schedule. You can also try alarms that wake you up with light or vibrations, instead of sounds.

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