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

Waking up to an alarm is easier if your sleep debt is low, your wake times are consistent, and you’re using an alarm that gently eases you into the day.
Published
2022-11-16
Updated
20 MINS
Woman reaching out to hit the snooze button on her alarm clock

If you’re someone who blearily hits the snooze button the moment your alarm goes off each morning (or have a habit of sleeping through it altogether), you’re certainly not alone. While there are several different things that can cause us to rue our alarms, they’re all prevalent in today’s world: chronic sleep deprivation, a sleep schedule that’s all over the place, and using the harsh default alarms that come on our devices have all been attributed with making waking up harder.    

But just because wake-up struggles are common doesn’t mean you have no choice but to suffer through the morning (and beyond!), day after day. Just knowing what wake-up sabotaging behaviors and habits to zero in on is half the battle. In addition to getting enough sleep for you (not everyone needs 8 hours) and adopting a more consistent sleep-wake routine, something as simple as swapping out the type of alarm you’re using can have a huge impact on your willingness to wake (any gentle, gradual alarm will be better than a jarring one, but the RISE app’s new alarm feature — which we’ll dig into later — is unique in that it also helps you determine the best wake-up time for you, based on your individual sleep data). 

In short, waking up can be hard to do, with or without an alarm. But science points to ways to make both easier. We’ll walk you through it all here. 

Why Can’t I Wake Up (When My Alarm Goes Off)?

Let’s face it — those who spring out of bed as soon as their eyes open are a rare breed. In reality, even self-proclaimed “morning people” face some resistance when it comes to facing the day. In the next section, we’ll delve into tips for making waking up to an alarm easier on our morning selves, but first it’s important to understand the science behind why it might be hard to wake up in the first place. 

You May Be Carrying a Lot of Sleep Debt

Each of us has a genetically predetermined amount of sleep our body requires every night to function optimally during the day. This is known as our sleep need. For most, this hovers between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep, though for 13% of the population it’s actually 9 hours or more. 

On nights when we don’t meet our sleep need, we end up accumulating sleep debt, which is the amount of sleep we owe ourselves based on our sleep need (in the RISE app, we calculate your sleep debt based on data from the last two weeks). High sleep debt (which is considered to be anything over 5 hours) is more than just a drowsy inconvenience — the effects to our physical, mental, and emotional health are quite dire

On the bright side, it’s possible to reverse the ill effects of acute sleep debt by making up for lost sleep, for example by turning in early a few nights in a row, or blocking out time for afternoon naps. When we don’t take it upon ourselves to proactively pay down our sleep debt, however, our bodies will try to eke out more sleep by any means necessary, and so we find ourselves nodding off at our desks after lunch, dozing during our family movie nights, and — you guessed it — sleeping through our alarms. 

It’s also important to note that most people underestimate the amount of sleep they actually need, and overestimate the amount of sleep they’re actually getting. So even if you think you’re getting plenty of shuteye, you may in fact still be sorely under-slept. This is where the RISE app comes in. Not only does RISE help you pin down your true nightly sleep need, it also tracks your sleep debt in real time, and offers practical suggestions for how to get back on track (20+ in-app sleep hygiene habits) when you find yourself coming up short. (And once you’ve got your sleep debt in check, you’ll see that waking up becomes a lot breezier.)

  • RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
Waking up to an alarm is more difficult when your sleep debt is high. Track your sleep debt-and keep it low-with the RISE app.

Your Circadian Rhythm Could Be Out of Whack 

As the Earth takes 24 hours (or 23 hours and 56 minutes, to be exact) to complete a full rotation, our bodies too run roughly on a 24-hour clock (we say “roughly” because the timing of everyone’s “clock” is unique to some extent, and also may change as we age). This personal “clock,” known as our circadian rhythm, dictates the timing of our sleeping and waking, among other things.

Our circadian rhythm craves consistency, and, a bit like a dog, functions best when it knows what to expect from day to day. When our sleep and wake times vary throughout the week, however, even by just an hour or two, our circadian rhythm can get thrown out of whack — what sleep scientists refer to as circadian misalignment — and this results in trouble falling asleep and waking up when we need to. 

While evidence of circadian misalignment is most readily apparent in extreme situations — new parents, shift workers, frequent international travelers, etc. — even those who have more consistent schedules during the week can still fall into the misalignment trap by shifting to a later sleep-wake schedule on their days off. This phenomenon, called social jetlag, is startlingly common — affecting up to 87% of the population — and can make waking up at our “regular” time feel all but impossible for the first half of each new workweek (and then, just as we’re getting back into the swing of things, we’re hit with another discombobulating weekend of staying up late and sleeping in…and the cycle repeats itself.)

Conversely, committing to waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends) will do wonders for stabilizing your sleep patterns, and you’ll almost certainly see a marked improvement in your ability to get moving in the morning. 

Are You a Night Owl Moonlighting as an Early Bird?

Though we live in a culture where working a 9-5 schedule is fairly ubiquitous, not everyone is genetically programmed to go to bed by 10 or 11 pm and wake up at 6 or 7 am. Each of us has a biological predisposition to be awake and asleep at different times — what’s called our chronotype — and some of us (between 10-12%, according to one study, though the number may in fact be closer to 30%) are naturally inclined to hit the sack closer to the middle of the night. For these so-called “night owls,” adhering to an early bird lifestyle puts them at a higher risk for chronic sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment (as well as a host of other health issues). And of course this also means that night owls often suffer their early morning alarms more than most. 

If you suspect that your wake-up troubles are in-part due to a schedule that’s out of sync with your chronotype, it’s worth considering if there’s anything you can do to change this. Is a modified work schedule out of the question? Or is there another job that might be better suited to your night owl talents and more supportive of your sleep health? If not, don’t fret: while it requires some dedication and will power, it’s not impossible for someone with a later chronotype to adjust to a morning person lifestyle over time

And Yet, Sleep Inertia Spares No One

It’s important to point out that even when you're doing everything right–your sleep debt is low, you’re in the groove of waking up at the same time each day, and you’ve found an alarm that works for you (we’ll get into this in a moment) — you’re still not going to be at your best first thing in the morning. The grogginess we feel immediately upon waking — known as sleep inertia — isn’t indicative of subpar sleep habits. It’s normal and inevitable, albeit annoying. Though getting enough sleep does reduce both the severity and duration of sleep inertia, take heart in knowing that no one is their most alert or productive selves for the first 60-90 minutes of their morning routine (and for some it lasts even longer — up to 4 hours in extreme cases). 

Fortunately, you can make the most of your daily bout of sleep inertia. And the right alarm can help… 

RISE app screenshot showing your energy and grogginess zone
The right alarm can help you move through morning sleep inertia more easily. The RISE app can predict the timing and length of each day’s Grogginess Zone (what we call the sleep inertia phase), depending on when you wake up and how much sleep you’ve been getting.

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

If you’re an early-riser by nature or your schedule is flexible enough to accommodate you going clock-free, the best type of “alarm” to wake up to is always going to be your own circadian rhythm (benefits of an alarm-less morning potentially include better mood, improved motivation, and feeling more rested. Note: most of these can be attributed, at least in part, to getting sufficient sleep). For most of us, though, some form of external stimulus is required. 

Science shows that our alarm has the power to influence our mood, to what degree we’ll experience sleep inertia, and even our health. So it’s not something to take lightly, to say the least. If you think your alarm situation may be in need of a makeover, here are some factors and options to consider: 

First of All, Timing Matters

Perhaps more important than what your alarm sounds like is what time you set it for. As we’ve established, one of the best things you can do for improving your wake-up experience is to keep your wake time consistent day to day (pro tip: if you’re inclined to sleep in on weekends because you have sleep debt to make up, we recommend grabbing a nap instead!), though consistency isn’t the only thing to think about when it comes to timing. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that the time you set it for takes your sleep need into account (with a 30-60 minute buffer, if possible, to account for the time it might take you to fall asleep and any nighttime awakenings), and that you’re giving yourself ample time to work through sleep inertia (we recommend allotting at least 90 minutes) before any important meetings or appointments. (Threading this needle may mean moving your bedtime earlier, too, and we’ve already put some work into helping you figure out your sleepy time sweet spot). 

Resisting the Siren Song of the Snooze Button

In line with this, a better alarm experience means taking a long hard look at your snooze habits. While repeatedly hitting snooze may not be explicitly harmful, it’s often a symptom of a bigger problem (i.e. high sleep debt or circadian misalignment), so the impulse shouldn’t go unchecked. 

And then for many of us, every time we press snooze, it comes at a cost — we end up trading our showers, our breakfasts, our stretching sequences, our morning walks, and other treasured morning routines for these little morsels of half-sleep, and then feel hectic and uncentered going into our days. Keep in mind that while it may feel blissful in the moment, snooze-button minutes are essentially wasted time — we’re not falling back into deep sleep or moving through sleep cycles, and we’re also not using that time to get past sleep inertia and/or set ourselves up properly for the day ahead. 

If you have a snooze problem, rest easy — as soon as you start maintaining your sleep debt and supporting your circadian rhythm with consistent wake times you should find it considerably easier to transition to a snooze-free (or at least a much snooze-reduced) morning. 

Setting the Tone for the Day Ahead 

Hearing is the sense we most readily associate with the alarm clock, and for good reason — sound is a highly effective way to puncture our sleep bubbles. But not all sounds are created equal when it comes to rousing us, just as certain sounds are more pleasant and/or conducive to a positive state of mind while we’re awake. 

Thanks to technological advances, gone are the days of relying on a blaring clock radio, but we should also be wary of the default alarms that come on our devices. Abrupt or jarring sounds — like the high-pitched, caustic beeps of many cell phone alarms (beware the iPhone one, in particular) — can trigger a surge in adrenaline, rendering us confused and fearful in the first moments of the day. Beyond feeling uncomfortable, repeated sudden awakenings can negatively impact our heart health over time, so loud alarms should be avoided whenever possible. Here are some options to try instead:

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 more perceptible can be a great option, even for more stubborn sleepers. Gradual sounds allow us to more peacefully transition from sleeping to wakefulness, without throwing our systems immediately into fight-or-flight mode. And yet eventually the sound becomes a big enough presence in the bedroom that we can’t easily tune it out in favor of slipping back into REM sleep. 

Lower Pitch Sounds

There is evidence lower frequency alarm sounds (500 Hz) might be more effective at waking us and curbing sleep inertia than those at a higher frequency. That might sound something like this.

Melodic Sounds

While the term “melodic” is subjective here, research shows that when our wake-up call comes in the form of pleasing and familiar musical elements it has the potential to not only boost our mood but also curb the perceived effects of sleep inertia post-waking. As a bonus, we’re also less inclined to press snooze on music we enjoy. (As a side note, putting on a favorite upbeat song first thing in the morning can make us feel more alert, motivated, and positive going into the day ahead.) 

Sounds That Make You Want to Move Your Body

There’s research to suggest that an alarm tone or song in C5 with a tempo of 100-150 beats per minute — like this one — may be optimal for increasing arousal upon waking, making it more difficult to drift back to sleep. If you’d rather go with a song than a tone, try choosing a song that makes you feel like dancing–songs that inspire us to move our bodies often naturally fall within the prescribed tempo. (And such songs may not only rouse us more easily, but also help with sleep inertia — in a 2020 study, researchers found that The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and The Cure’s “Close to Me” were two of the most effective songs for minimizing sleep inertia, individual musical tastes depending.)

Soundless Alarm Options

Our ears don’t have a sensory monopoly when it comes to alarms, however. Our sense of sight, smell, and touch can also be used in service of rousing us (and for those who are hard of hearing, these other sensory options aren’t just nice-to-have, they’re essential).

Waking With the Sun

Light is the most important regulator of our circadian rhythm — when the sun sets in the evening, the dimming light triggers the chemical processes that ready our bodies and brains for sleep, and, hours later, exposure to the morning sun cues the chemical processes that move us toward awakening. Even when our eyes are closed, our photoreceptors may still able to detect light through the permeable membrane of our eyelids. While our sensitivity to light has a dark side when it comes to sleep (even a small amount of rogue light in an otherwise dark bedroom — the glow of an digital clock, let’s say, or the charging light on an electric toothbrush — can cause sleep disturbances), it also makes for a powerful wake-up tool when timed correctly. Though too much light all at once can shock our systems, similar to a jarring ringtone, gradual light is a gentle and natural first alarm. 

Smart blinds — which you can program to open 30 minutes or so before you need to be up — are a good option for those whose wake schedules sync up with the rising run. But artificial light works just fine in a pinch, and many people swear by their sunrise alarm clocks, which are essentially wake-up lights that slowly grow brighter over a period of time leading up to waking.

Smell-O-Gram

While there’s little evidence that smells can reliably wake us on their own, they may keep us from falling back asleep once we’re awake. In particular, aromas that we associate with breakfast — coffee brewing or bacon frying, for example — can stimulate our appetites and mentally arouse us, making it easier to get out of bed. While smells are of course harder to come by via our iPhones and Androids, a good old programmable drip coffee maker might be just the thing.

Good Vibrations 

Fitness trackers and smart watches have perhaps revolutionized the silent alarm game by allowing us to self-wake using physical sensation–instead of using an audible tone, many of them can be set to vibrate, making for a low-key wake-up “call” that’s still hard to ignore. And for those who prefer (or require) a vibrating alarm, but could stand to have something a little higher-key, “bed shaker” alarms use a vibrating pad attachment that sleepers place under their mattress or pillow to buzz them awake come morning. 

Wake Up the Right Way With the RISE Gentle Alarm Feature

Get yourself an alarm that can do it all! Founded by sleep experts and fueled by real-time sleep data, RISE has unique insight into what type of alarm is best for waking you up the right way each day — and we’ve put that knowledge to use in designing the new RISE gentle alarm feature. 

The RISE alarm uses melodic sounds or music (and lets you choose your own song or playlist) to give you a mood boost as soon as you wake and lessen sleep inertia. It can also be synced to activate vibration on your phone or Apple Watch.

Using your own sleep data, we’re able to personalize the alarm just for you. The RISE alarm is the only one out there that’s anti-snoozing, sleep debt optimizing, and created with your individual circadian rhythm in mind. 

What If My Alarm Still Isn’t Waking Me Up?

If none of the above alarm tactics succeed in rousing you, it’s possible you’re a deeper sleeper than most, and may struggle to wake up to an alarm no matter how low your sleep debt is or how committed you are to keeping a consistent sleep schedule. (Scientists still aren’t sure why someone’s “arousal threshold” may be higher than others, but aside from issues of sleep deprivation and/or circadian misalignment, certain medications, sleep disorders, genetics may be at play.)

If this is you, you may be a good candidate for the aforementioned “bed shaker” alarm (most of them come with adjustable intensity levels, catering to the heaviest of sleepers), or you may be someone who benefits from placing your alarm clock on the other side of the room so that you have no choice but to leave your bed to disarm it. The RISE alarm may also work for those who’ve had trouble waking up to alarms in the past, as it works with your unique circadian rhythm and can be set up to employ vibration as well as sound.

Still sleeping through your alarm? You might consider enlisting the help of someone else

It’s worth underscoring that being unable to wake up can also be indicative of a sleep disorder or medical condition, so if the problem persists and/or is getting in the way of your daily functioning, it’s a good idea to schedule a consultation with a doctor, if only to rule out the possibility that something deeper is at play. 

RISE Helps You Wake Up to an Alarm (Once, and Not Hate It)

At the end of the day — or, in this case, the beginning — the best alarm is one that not only gets the job done, but also creates sustainable habits and positive associations around waking up. With an alarm that eases you gently into the day while taking the science of sleep debt and circadian rhythm into account — like the one in the RISE app — you’ll find that waking up requires less force of will, and you’ll be less inclined to “snooze” on the day ahead.

More Ways to Start the Day on the Right Foot

Summary FAQs

How do I stop sleeping through my alarm?

Make sure you keep your sleep debt low by getting enough sleep during the night and try to adhere to a consistent sleeping schedule. In waking up at the same time each day (even on the weekends), your body will rouse more naturally at your desired wake time.

What do you do if your alarm isn’t waking you up?

This can be a sign of chronic sleep deprivation, so first and foremost make sure you’re meeting your sleep need each night. Setting your alarm for the same time each day, even on your days off, will also help calibrate your internal clock, making it easier to wake up at your “regular” time.

How do you wake up to an alarm if you are a heavy sleeper?

An alarm with a vibrating attachment that shakes your bed might do the trick, or you can try placing your alarm across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.

How do I wake up early?

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night — when we’re sleep-deprived, waking up earlier is much harder. Consistency is also key, so set your alarm for the same time every day. Waking up early may be difficult at first, but it’s possible to adjust to an earlier schedule. Gradually moving your wake time in 15 minute increments can also help.

What does it mean if I slept through my alarm?

You may be carrying a lot of sleep debt and your body needed the extra sleep, or you may not be used to waking up at the time you set your alarm for. You could also be an especially heavy sleeper, which isn’t a bad thing, but you’ll likely need to make adjustments to your alarm or wake-up routine so it doesn’t keep happening.

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