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Better Questions to Ask Than, “When Should I Wake Up?”

Read on to learn why your wake-up time should be about more than just not being late. It should be about the time that will give you the best day possible.
18 MINS

When should I wake up? If you’re asking yourself this question as you set your alarm clock at night, the answer is probably dictated by what you have to do or where you have to be in the morning. 

But if you’re really asking a different question (What time should I wake up so that I can feel and perform at my best the next day?), there are more important questions to consider: What time should I go to bed in order to meet my sleep need? And how can I structure my day to align with my body’s natural energy fluctuations so that I can feel and perform at my best?

In this article, we’ll explain why setting a consistent bedtime that allows you to meet your personal sleep needs will help you find the energy you need during the day. For optimal results, designing a schedule that aligns with your circadian rhythm or internal body clock is equally important. 

We’ll discuss the benefits of keeping your sleep debt low and share tips on how to improve your sleep hygiene to make it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep, and have ample energy to take on the day — no matter when you decide to wake up. 

Do the Math for Your Ideal Bedtime and Wake Time

Whether it’s because of our jobs, our kids, or other societal demands, most of us don't have the luxury of choosing exactly when we wake up. To make sure you're getting enough sleep each night, the real question becomes: When should I go to sleep?

Every individual requires a genetically determined amount of sleep that’s ideal for them. Let's say your personal sleep need is 7.5 hours. To calculate your bedtime, start with your predetermined wake time and count backward by 7.5 hours. You’ll also want to factor in an additional hour to account for sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (periods of intermittent wakefulness during the night).

The RISE app will do these calculations for you. Using data from your phone alongside proprietary, science-based models, the app learns your unique sleep biology and calculates your sleep need in hours and minutes. It uses these calculations to tell you your ideal bedtime and wake time (more on this later). It will also help you track your circadian rhythm and your sleep debt (more on these later, too).

Better Days Start With the Two Laws of Sleep

when should i wake up: man sleeping soundly in his bed

Anyone making an earnest effort to improve sleep habits is probably not thinking about sleep for sleep's sake. We want to get more sleep so that we can have more energy during the day.

Optimal sleep and energy start with the Two Laws of Sleep: sleep debt and circadian rhythm. Focusing on this two-process model of sleep regulation — a theory first established by sleep scientist Alexander Borbély in the 1980s — is the key to getting the amount of sleep and energy you need. 

Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body. It’s a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed over the past 14 days, as compared to the sleep your body needed.

Instead of trying to decipher vague ideas around a good night's sleep, deep sleep, sleep quality, or so called healthy sleep, we recommend focusing on this one number — your sleep debt. Tracking and keeping your sleep debt low, ideally below five hours, is vital for vitality. 

Carrying high sleep debt — also known as sleep deprivation — can have serious health consequences. In the short term, high sleep debt can negatively impact things like your mood, focus, reflexes, and immune system. Long-term or chronic sleep debt can increase your risk for developing cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Such serious consequences remind us why deriving a wake up time that takes into account your sleep need to keep sleep debt low is so vital for everything that matters to you, both in the long and short term.

Circadian Rhythm 

Think of your circadian rhythm as an internal clock that tells your body when to be active and inactive during a roughly 24-hour period. In the RISE app, we call it your energy schedule because it predicts the natural and predictable peaks and dips in energy you experience each day. You can make the most of these energy fluctuations by scheduling your day so that your activities match up with the level of energy available to you at the designated time.

Though it varies slightly from person to person, the general circadian sequence is pretty much the same for everyone: 

  • Wake up: Morning grogginess (or sleep inertia) is normal and can last for up to 90 minutes after waking. This is not the ideal time for important meetings or high-stakes tasks. Instead, you might check your email or do other administrative tasks that don’t require you to be on your A-game. To spend a little less time in the grogginess zone, take a walk outside and have a cup of coffee or tea. 
  • Morning peak: You begin to feel more alert, focused, and energetic. Take advantage of your high energy and cognitive capacity by scheduling work or activities that require high levels of focus or performance. For example, write an important paper or presentation or perform a complicated task or procedure.
  • Midday dip: Your energy decreases in the early afternoon. But you can use this time to catch up on low-stakes tasks like paying bills, cleaning up your desktop, or doing household chores. It’s also the best time of day to take a nap, if you need to pay down sleep debt.
  • Evening peak: With this second wind, you’ll have more energy and focus. So put in a little extra time on an important project, spend quality time engaging with your loved ones, or use this time to do something proactive that will set you up to be extra prepared or productive the following day. 
  • Wind-down: As sleep pressure builds, you feel less alert. This is the perfect and necessary time for relaxation — fortunately, you actually have to relax during this phase to prepare your body for sleep. Do something that will help put some distance between you and your work or the stress of the day, like taking a warm shower or bath, reading, journaling, or meditating.
  • Melatonin Window: Because this is the time your brain produces the highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, it’s the ideal window to go to bed, as it gives you the best chance to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.

Doing your best to stick to a bedtime and wake time that will coincide with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle can make a big difference, not just in how you feel but in your overall health as well. 

Keeping your schedule aligned with your circadian rhythm helps promote consistent and restorative sleep. But when your circadian rhythm gets thrown off, it can cause insomnia and other sleep problems. Circadian misalignment has also been associated with mental health problems, mood disorders, changes in metabolic function, and an increased risk of conditions such as diabetes and cancer.

So, what causes circadian misalignment? It could be anything from jet lag to shift work to otherwise irregular sleep schedules. Or it might be that you’re drinking caffeine too late in the day or exposing yourself to blue light at night. 

Improving Your Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Environment

when should i wake up: woman reading a book in her bathtub

It’s important to set a bedtime and wake up schedule that will give you enough sleep time to meet your sleep need. As you work toward better sleep and energy, think about how you can tweak your sleep hygiene — the behaviors that influence the way you sleep — to support circadian alignment and low sleep debt. 

The timing of light exposure plays a big role in proper circadian functioning, because light sends signals to your brain about the start and end time of your waking hours. When your optic nerve senses daylight in the morning, the brain releases cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which increase feelings of wakefulness and alertness. After the sun sets, darkness signals the brain to secrete melatonin to help prep the body for sleep. 

Understanding sleep as it relates to light exposure and your daily activities can help you adjust your schedule and habits accordingly. Here are some ideas for improving your sleep hygiene.

  • Keep a consistent wake time and bedtime: The RISE app will help pinpoint those times.
  • Be strategic about your light exposure: Expose yourself to light, preferably sunlight, as soon as you wake up. And remove most light — especially blue light — or wear blue-light blocking glasses 90 minutes before your target bedtime. 
  • Exercise regularly: In addition to providing cardiovascular benefits, physical activity during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night.
  • Steer clear of known sleep disruptors: Starting in the afternoon or in the hours before bedtime, avoid alcohol, caffeine, and late-night snacking. The RISE app can tell you the exact time, based on your habits and biology, that you should start limiting each one.
  • Take a hot bath or shower before bed: The warm water causes blood vessels near the surface of your skin to dilate. When you get out of the water, the dilated blood vessels are exposed to cool air, and your body temperature drops. This mimics the way the body’s core temperature tends to drop as it prepares for sleep. Research suggests the release of heat transitions us into sleep more fluidly.  
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary: Keep it cool (65-68 degrees). Keep it dark (use blackout curtains and an eye mask). Keep it quiet (use a white noise machine or earplugs).

If you’ve fine tuned your sleep hygiene but are still having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or find a physician who specializes in sleep health. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea can cause insomnia, as can other underlying health conditions, so it’s best to consult a medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

When Waking up Is Hard to Do

woman peeking through her eye mask

If you think feeling tired or groggy when you first wake up means you didn’t get enough sleep or that there’s something wrong with you, that’s usually not the case. The sluggishness that can lead you to repeatedly hit the snooze button is a normal part of transitioning out of sleep. 

Biologically speaking, sleep inertia is caused by adenosine, a naturally occurring compound that causes feelings of sleepiness. Adenosine builds up in your brain during the day and gets flushed out during sleep. But the chemical residue doesn’t just magically disappear the moment you wake up. It can take 60 to 90 minutes for it to dissipate and for its effects to wear off. 

In the RISE app, we label this your “grogginess zone.” And although you may not be able to escape it altogether, there are things you can do to keep sleep inertia to a minimum. 

Morning sun exposure, exercise, and hydration can help, as can a cup of coffee or tea because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in your brain. Keeping a consistent bedtime and wake time and low sleep debt can make sleep inertia feel less like incapacitation and more like a minor inconvenience, but your chronotype also plays a role.

Are You an Early Bird or a Night Owl?

Do you think of yourself as a morning person or a late-night person? Your answer indicates your chronotype or underlying circadian rhythm, and your sleep-wake preference. If you’re a morning or early chronotype, your body clock is shorter than 24 hours. That usually translates into a tendency to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier. 

A person who likes to stay up and sleep in later has what’s considered an evening or late chronotype and a body clock that’s somewhat longer than 24 hours. Broadly speaking, your chronotype is determined by age and genetics. 

Although cultural conditioning might lead us to believe that a morning chronotype is superior, there is no biological basis for such a bias. Morning people aren't inherently better, and night owls aren't inherently lazy. From a chrono-biological perspective, there is as much legitimacy to waking up at 5 a.m. as there is to waking up at 11 a.m. In the absence of societal demands, the exact time on the clock doesn't matter. 

But because pretty much no one lives in the absence of societal demands, night owls may want or need to find a way to shift to an earlier wake time. To reset your sleep schedule, get light exposure as early as possible and eliminate most light (especially blue light) in the 90 minutes before bedtime. 

A melatonin supplement and practicing good sleep hygiene — with an emphasis on the timing of your caffeine and alcohol consumption — can help as well. But if you’re not a morning chronotype, making this shift will be an ongoing, active process. Being consistent with the changes you're making is the key to keeping yourself from falling back into your natural rhythm of staying up and waking up on the later side. 

Don’t Ask, When Should I Wake Up?

RiseApp Melatonin Window
The RISE app will tell you the time of your Melatonin Window each day, and you can even receive a reminder.

A better question is: What time should I go to bed? Since work schedules and other life circumstances usually dictate our wake times, being strategic about what we can control — our bedtimes — is vital. And to get the most out of your day, try to stack your schedule with activities that match up with your circadian rhythm.

To make sure you have the energy you need during the day, set a bedtime that allows you to meet your sleep needs and aligns with your circadian rhythm. The RISE app simplifies this process by mapping your unique circadian rhythm and giving you a specific bedtime window that will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Remember, you don’t have to be an early bird to get your share of the proverbial worm. Simply getting the sleep your body needs is the surest way to a better day.


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

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

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.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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