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Is Social Jetlag Dragging You Down? Here's How to Combat It

That Monday drag could be the result of social jetlag from late nights and sleeping in on the weekend. Read on to learn why it happens and how to prevent it.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Young man sitting on bed dragged down by social jet lag

Whether you're a parent waking your kids at the crack of dawn or a business executive getting ready for your morning Zoom meeting, there's a chance you're lamenting your late weekend nights because you're definitely feeling their repercussions on Monday morning.

What you’re experiencing is a common phenomenon known as social jetlag — a mismatch between your biological and social time, triggering circadian misalignment. Till Roenneberg, the preeminent chronobiologist, takes credit for coining this term. He’s also the widely acclaimed author of “Internal Time,” the winner of a British Medical Association Book Award, and one of our most recommended reads on understanding the power of your circadian rhythm.

But the cause of social jetlag isn't solely rooted in wild weekend celebrations. It could also be due to work schedules that aren't in sync with your natural sleep cycle — think night-shift workers.

Still, is there any way to celebrate TGIF without having to pay for it on Mondays? Also, can you recover quickly after a night shift to enjoy your free days? The answer is yes — it all begins with understanding what social jetlag is, how it disrupts your circadian rhythm, and how it intensifies sleep debt. We’ll explain all these aspects of social jetlag as well as the tweaks you can make to your routine to combat it.

Social Jetlag 101: Concept to Consequences

Our circadian rhythm governs our body processes — it’s an internal clock that determines everything we do, from sleep to when we feel hungry. This biological rhythm marches to its own beat in approximately 24-hour cycles. Unfortunately, the modern pace of life ticks to a social “clock” that doesn’t always sync up with your circadian clock. 

This leads to inconsistent sleep schedules that don’t align with your biological inclinations for slumber and wakefulness, which is the perfect recipe for circadian misalignment. When your body runs on two different clocks — your biological clock and social clock — the resulting mismatch is called social jetlag, an idea not unlike travel-induced jetlag.

During travel jetlag, your body experiences circadian misalignment due to the different time zones. Your internal clock still runs on the original time zone and needs some time to catch up to the new one, creating a lag.

But that’s where the similarities end. Travel jetlag is easily remedied with well-timed light exposure and melatonin aids. On the other hand, social jetlag can be a chronic condition that needs a longer adjustment period to get your circadian rhythm back on track (more on that later).

How Social Jetlag Occurs for Many of Us

Social jetlag: A crowd walks across a crosswalk

About two-thirds of the general population experience social jetlag to some degree. For many, work and social obligations are the main culprits of the discrepancy. Social jetlag can be caused by:

  • Irregular sleep times — for example, an early sleep schedule on weekdays and a late one on the weekends
  • Shift work schedules, such as a night shift followed by an early shift
  • Misalignment between your chronotype (your biological sleep and wake preferences) and sleep schedule

The 8-5 crowd can probably relate to the first cause in which weekend activities throw your usual sleep patterns off-center. Here’s a detailed rundown of how you’re unconsciously disrupting your circadian rhythm starting on Friday night:

  • You knock off work at 5 p.m. and are ready to kick off the weekend celebrations. You may catch up with your buddies over drinks or go on a date night with your significant other. In any case, you get back home way past your bedtime.
  • Saturday morning rolls around, and there’s no need for an alarm clock since it’s the weekend. Due to the previous late-night shenanigans, you end up sleeping way past your usual wake-up time. With the additional sleep debt you’re carrying from the workweek, you may even lounge in bed till noon.
  • When Sunday night approaches, you’re wondering why you aren’t falling asleep even though you’ve gone to bed on time — you can blame circadian misalignment for this one.

Note that this scenario isn’t just limited to the working population. Social jetlag can happen to anyone, say, a stay-at-home mom or a teenage kid. All it takes is a disconnect between your biological and social times.

In a similar vein, social jetlag doesn’t operate only on a weekday-weekend timeline. You could be a retail associate working from Friday to Wednesday and still suffer from the disconnect on your free days.

The Relationship Between Social Jetlag and Chronotypes

What many people don’t realize is, your chronotype also influences the severity of social jetlag.

All of us belong to one chronotype or another — think morning larks, night owls, or somewhere in between. As morning larks are genetically primed to sleep and rise early, which is how our society is mostly oriented, early risers are less likely to experience social jetlag than other chronotypes.

On the flipside, night owls have it much worse since they are naturally inclined to go to bed late, which doesn’t bode well for their early call time on workdays. Research confirms later chronotypes:

  • Have more irregular sleep-wake schedules
  • Accumulate sleep debt on workdays
  • Sleep longer on weekends (to pay down sleep debt)

In other words, late risers are usually burdened with more social jetlag than early risers.

The next time your night-owl teenage son struggles to get out of bed, don’t blame it on laziness or poor time management. After all, our chronotypes are genetically predetermined, so there's little night owls can do to resist nature’s call from their circadian clock (more on that later).

The Insidious Nature of Social Jetlag

Social jetlag: A yawning woman works on her laptop

Those battling social jetlag are probably no stranger to its symptoms, like:

  • More intense morning grogginess (scientifically known as sleep inertia)
  • Increased daytime sleepiness or feeling “jetlagged”
  • Increased sleep latency (taking longer to fall asleep)
  • More difficulty concentrating on the tasks at hand
  • Poorer mood, such as increased irritability and depression

Social jetlag also spells trouble for your kids’ school life. A 2015 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence discovered that social jetlag is associated with unsatisfactory academic performance and reduced emotional well-being. Affected students are more likely to show defiant attitudes, violence, substance use, and truancy.

But, social jetlag doesn’t just negatively impact your performance, grades, energy, and emotions for the day. It's also a chronic condition that sets the foundation for more severe health problems later in life. A 2018 medical review shares social jetlag puts you at a greater risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Metabolic syndrome, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure
  • Weight gain and a higher body mass index (BMI), which is an indicator of obesity
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders, like sleep apnea

What you misconstrue as a day or two of extreme tiredness may actually be undermining your health and wellness down the road.

Combat Social Jetlag With Simple Tweaks to Your Routine 

Contrary to popular opinion, sleep medicine isn't a viable solution to social jetlag. Instead, you should tweak your daily routine in a way that prioritizes circadian alignment and keeps sleep debt low.

That said, it can be hard to adopt (and stick to) new habits. That’s why we created the RISE app — to help you make mindful changes to your routine that are easy to follow and prime you for better energy every day.

Adopt a Consistent Sleep Schedule

The best thing you can do to thwart social jetlag and promote circadian alignment is to stick to a consistent sleep schedule that accounts for your sleep need and syncs with your circadian rhythm. Go to bed and rise on the weekends as you would on the weekdays. If you’re a later chronotype and need help rousing in the morning, use an alarm clock.

That said, we understand that life happens, and sleeping in on your free days may be too tempting to resist, especially with high sleep debt looming over you. If you need some extra shut-eye, limit it to within an hour of your regular wake time, so it doesn’t upset your circadian clock too much. Alternatively, you can go to bed a bit earlier at night to pay down your sleep debt. 

Leverage the Power of Napping

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peaks and dips
The RISE app will show you the time of your afternoon dip.

If you can resist the call of sleeping in till noon (kudos to you!), afternoon naps are the best way to get enough sleep and pay down sleep debt. Moreover, naps can be used to preempt sleep debt (sleep scientists call it prophylactic napping). For example, night-shift employees may nap before work to compensate for sleep loss later on. With lower sleep debt, they are much more capable of bouncing back from social jetlag on their free days.

Your afternoon dip is the best time for a daytime snooze — it’s the period when your energy levels are naturally at their daytime lowest, and your body needs to recharge itself. The RISE app predicts your afternoon dip in the Energy Schedule, so you can plan ahead for your catnap.

Choose between power naps (10-20 minutes) and long siestas (40-90 minutes). The former is less likely to incur wake-up grogginess, while the latter can give you a longer-lasting energy boost. Keep in mind, though, you’re much likelier to experience slow-wave sleep in long naps, which is great for improving cognitive performance, but also makes you groggier when you rouse. Last but not least, try not to exceed 90 minutes when napping (equivalent to a full sleep cycle) as it can disrupt that night’s slumber.

Bask in Light the Moment You Wake Up

Light is the greatest circadian cue to combat social jetlag. You should bask in sunlight first thing in the morning to signal to your brain that it's time to wake up. The Journal of Sleep Medicine discovered that 15 minutes of bright morning light is sufficient to regulate your circadian clock and help you fall asleep earlier that same night. If natural light isn’t available (e.g., you work the night shift or it’s wintertime), artificial bright light tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime by releasing circadian alerting signals and encouraging wakefulness.

For the ultimate power duo, combine sunlight (or artificial light) with exercise. The reason being, your core body temperature drops during sleep, so raising it is another circadian cue for wakefulness. An outside walk, jog, or biking sesh is effective in shaking off the last cobwebs of morning grogginess.

Bonus: Regular exercise helps you fall asleep faster and extends your sleep duration — all good things for keeping sleep debt low to better counter social jetlag.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene Every Day

Good sleep hygiene is a robust defense against social jetlag. Practicing healthy sleep habits throughout the week means you're less susceptible to sleep debt and circadian misalignment, which in turn makes it easier to resist sleeping in on the weekends.

To set you up for more sleep success, RISE offers various in-app notifications, from preparing you for the evening wind-down to creating the perfect sleep environment.

P.S. — Check out our in-depth guide on how you can improve sleep hygiene, starting tonight.

Work With Your Chronotype, Not Against It

Our chronotypes are largely set in stone, which is why you should work with it instead of against it.

If you're a night owl, review your schedule to see if you can wake up at a time that allows you to get enough hours of sleep. For example, shift workers who are night owls can volunteer for night shifts whenever possible. If you're a parent who loves sleeping in late, check if your partner doesn't mind chauffeuring the kids to school in exchange for you taking charge of their bedtime routine. 

It’s also encouraging to see certain states take students’ chronotypes into account when planning school days — in the near future, high schools in California will not begin classes before 8.30 a.m. to accommodate later chronotypes. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s worth noting that the new start time isn’t nearly flexible enough to truly accommodate all late-risers (some night owls prefer to wake up at noon!). 

If there's no wiggle room in your schedule, you can work actively to shift your chronotype, i.e., shifting your bedtime routine such that it syncs with your school timetable or work schedule. For instance, late risers may hit the sack way before their biological sleep timing in anticipation of 6 a.m. wake-up calls. Do note that this will be an active process for the duration of time you want it shifted.

The best way to shift your chronotype is to do it gradually. If your wake time is non-negotiable, start by going to bed a half-hour earlier (or later). Stick to this new sleep schedule for a few days before repeating the process as frequently as needed until you meet your sleep need and minimize the risk of social jetlag.

Better Days Are Ahead

Social jetlag is the silent killer of sound sleep and productive days. It undermines your ability to show up in life, preventing your family, friends, and colleagues from seeing the best version of you. On a more immediate note, it makes you feel dead on your feet even before the day has started — talk about an extreme case of Monday blues!

But, better days are coming as you learn how to combat social jetlag with the RISE app. Tweak your routine so that your sleep-wake schedule best fits your circadian rhythm and chronotype while keeping sleep debt low. It may take some time to get to where you want to be — free from the clutches of social jetlag — but it’s more than worth the effort.


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