Alarms are for wimps

by Ivan Mazour

AlarmsAs with most things, it seems I have accidentally overanalysed another topic, and developed a very strong opinion about it. This time it is about alarms.

As a child I was most certainly not an early riser. I remember, at boarding school, staying up till 4am playing XCOM, which must be one of the most addictive games ever made. I would wake up at 8.32 which would give me exactly 8 minutes to get ready and run down to Chapel. If you missed Chapel, you were in serious trouble, so I never did. This rather limited sleep time, however, did mean that my body would try to use some of my least favourite classes to catch up. English was the worst. I remember clearly being awakened by a teacher, right in the middle of class, having put my head down on my book to “think”, as I quickly explained.

I would always be tired, I would always be ill, and things were simply not on track. This was not a reasonable way to live. At some point towards the end of my teenage years, I had an epiphany. The computer games, or the movie I was watching, would still be there the next day. Amazing how simple this epiphany is, but it changed everything. Suddenly, now, whenever I felt tired, I’d just go to sleep. That desire to keep doing what I was doing was deprioritised. Sleep was moved up.

There was one very clear change after this. When I would get a full eight hours of sleep, nothing in the day was hard. There was no need to push myself. Whatever tasks I had, whatever hard work I had to do, it all flowed easily. The overall effectiveness of a day on eight hours of sleep was so much greater than that of a day on four hours of sleep, that it was clear that stopping the late nights was vital to my future success.

As I got older, my circadian cycle became more entrenched. I would have a specific time that I would feel tired, and if I missed this it would be many hours till I would sleep. And I’d have a specific time that I would wake up, with no choice about it. It would take many weeks to move these times, even by an hour. And if I didn’t hit the “sleepy slot”, or if I woke up early, then that day, and possibly the day after, would be a write-off. This was even more vital during my time at Cambridge, when if I got this right, I’d get through a day of 11+ hours of solid mathematics without breaking a sweat, but if I got it wrong, I would spend the whole day procrastinating, or staring at a formula I simply wouldn’t understand.

So I made a clear decision. The most important thing about my day would be getting the full eight hours of sleep that I clearly needed, and I would arrange everything in such a way that I would minimise the chances of that not happening. I moved my wakeup slot to the precise time that I wanted it, 7am, which meant that my sleepy slot became 11pm. I analysed my body’s response to resting, and the time it would take to fall asleep, and realised that this meant that I needed to get into bed at 9pm to be absolutely certain of being able to calm my mind, and get into a state ready for sleep. And then I made sure that nothing would ever interrupt this.

Now I make sure that my dinner meetings are booked for 7pm, giving me an hour and a half to chat with whoever I’m with, and half an hour to get home and go to bed. I sometimes give myself and extra half hour or hour if it’s vital, but I make sure I’m in bed no later than 10pm, and more importantly, that there is nothing ever scheduled that can prevent that.

And most importantly, I never use an alarm clock. An alarm clock means that my day will be pointless, guaranteed. If I wake up at any time other than the time I’m supposed to, I will simply not be productive to the level I know I can be, and that’s unacceptable. Alarms are for wimps. They avoid the intense discipline that you need to organise your life to always wake up at the right time. They’re the easy option. So turn off that alarm on your phone, prioritise going to sleep at a specific time each night, and get ready to have an amazing day, every day.


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Marcus B. Svensson February 22, 2014 - 12:00 pm

Make sure to revisit this post when you have had your first child… I believe by the you will find that you are in a different state of mind and control.

Ivan Mazour February 22, 2014 - 12:03 pm

Amusingly it was you and Osvaldo who both gave me this same response. Seems like Venda was a cause for sleepless nights too!

Nick Holzherr February 22, 2014 - 12:16 pm

Hi Ivan,

Always love your blogs. Three thoughts:

1. So you don’t go out any more?
Surely, if you go out with friends, often nights get very late. Having fun / relaxing is really important I think – and sometimes, probably due to adrenalin, I come up with my best ideas and have huge amounts of energy when I’ve had a really good night out. A lot of “contacts” also come from long chats late at night, often including alcohol, which mess sleep up totally. How do you balance that in your calculations?

Part of me would love to be a tee-total, 11pm go-to-bedder, but is that *genuinely* the most productive to achieve more holistic goals?

2. Better alarms
I’ve recently installed Sonos and use music for my alarms – it’s a really nice way of waking up. A good coffee, healthy breakfast and generally good wake-up routine is as important I think.

3. Caffeine & less sleep
Some of the most successful people on the planet sleep ridiculously low amounts and drink copious amounts of coffee (unfortunately I just don’t have the body for that. But I can regulate awake-ness through caffeine).

Ivan Mazour February 22, 2014 - 12:23 pm

Exactly! I also don’t have the body for that. In fact, my answer to this Quora question is about that, and has had 2.7k upvotes. I need 8 hours – I don’t have a choice about it. People who are 100% effective on less sleep should definitely ignore my advice, but for those people for whom sleeping less impacts their productivity, this is a really big deal.

I’ve tried coffee, and have found that although it can be a short-term fix for a lull, it causes sleep problems, and it means that you are abusing your body. Long-term it does not lead to anything good. Again, perhaps that’s only for me – other people can drink coffee and be fine, but if I have even a tea, even in the morning, I won’t be able to sleep properly. However when I’m in my routine, I fall asleep myself, and wake up myself, without any trouble.

Now your first point, however, I completely agree with. There is always a trade-off. Inevitably I end up having to have the occasional late night, though I do my very best to keep those to a minimum. It’s no fun to be the boring person who doesn’t want to stay out past 9pm on a Saturday. But I’ve got these down to 1-2 times a month, and I ensure that the day after I have no reason to wake up at a time other than the natural one, and that the evening after I have no plans at all. This way, I end up waking up early, with less sleep, and then going to sleep even earlier than usual, to reset everything back to normal. And I agree – you meet a lot of contacts, and make a lot of friends, by staying out a bit later. But I find that there are many other strategies for meeting a lot of people, and making a lot of friends!

Emmanuel Ruhumuliza February 23, 2014 - 1:43 pm

Hi Ivan,

Great blog post. Sleep is a subject area I’m very interested in, particularly the effects of sleep deprivation, from a psychological and social perspective. Despite this, it’s only recently that I evaluated myself. I, like many people, am also guilty of burning the midnight oil and believing all will be well in the morning so long as I simply “focus and prioritise”. Yeah, that just didn’t work. In the entrepreneurship circles, sleep has been made out to be perceived as some sort of weakness or sign of being ‘lazy’ and not ‘driven’ enough. False! I had the following thoughts:

I have tried polyphasic sleep techniques, dymaxion sleep etc and have sought for solutions to my need for more hours to do more in a day. I felt I am just too busy and can’t cut down on how much I do. Basically, I told myself I don’t need more sleep, rather, I need more time and I need to be more productive that way. I too had an epiphany, a simple one at that – maybe I’m not THAT busy but simply always tired, such that I do things slowly and in a very disorganised manner, leading to a pile of unfinished work. Waking up at 7am (with the help of an alarm, that was originally set to 6:15am), only to get my head in the game by 9:00am and slowly getting on with my day, being productive from 11am, was simply no life to be proud of.
I just figured I could extend my sleeping time, sleep at no later than midnight and wake up no later than 7:30am and be a lot more efficient than sleeping at 2am or 3am and punishing myself to hit the snooze button on my alarm clock at 6:15am.

Like Nick, I too occasionally go out with friends, and I honestly can’t stick to the sleeping-at-the-same-time everyday thing. I don’t think one day or two off your sleep schedule completely gets you off track, so I would personally say to those who have an active or social life late at night to not feel guilty about their lifestyle, but simply try as much as possible to get close to a routine. Routine is the key, in my opinion.
In terms of waking up, a wake up routine is equally key. It takes many days or even weeks to nail it, but once you get it, it is great for your body and your brain.

I am also a graduate (with top grades by the way) of the school of procrastination, and as you must know, it’s an overpopulated institution. Procrastination, usually, doesn’t ‘just’ creep up on you. We spend so much energy trying to justify it and often don’t realise that something as simple as getting a healthy amount of sleep every night can make the ultimate difference. A rested mind better adopts discipline. A restless mind forever seeks rebellion.

I have found that light therapy is actually a great alternative to the loud, repetitive and definitely annoying sound of an alarm clock or phone. People are different, so this is not a universal formula, but for those that would still like an external stimulus to wake up, I think this might help:

Alarms, may not necessarily be just for wimps, but they definitely are overrated and overused. The sooner we realise this and accept our need for ‘good sleep’ the better.

Ivan Mazour February 24, 2014 - 7:47 am

Hi Emmanuel – thanks for reading! I love the realisations. It’s so true, how being always tired makes you feel like life is so much more complicated than it actually is. It feels like your to-do list is taking over, your inbox is overflowing, and you just can’t handle it. Whereas when you’ve slept properly, it just all clicks into place.

On routine, I think that if I had to have many late nights, I would change my morning wake-up, to make sure I had plenty of sleep. I sometimes do this on holidays. The key is to ensure that you sleep naturally, and sleep for the full time your body needs. The actual slots are only relevant to the particular lifestyle you want to have.

“A rested mind better adopts discipline. A restless mind forever seeks rebellion.” Great line!

Tom Newbould February 24, 2014 - 9:42 pm

Hi Ivan,

Great blog post as others have said already. It resonated with me as at the grand old age of 37 with three young children I have found out that:

1. Sleep is precious and it is increasingly hard to get with my current family life: by the time the children are asleep in order to get quality relaxing time as adults we stay up later, however the children ensure we are woken up early!

2. I am less of a morning person than I used to be and often grumpy first thing. I got into a habit of not wanting to speak to people beyond saying hello for the first hour of each day. Ironically I often found I was at my best after 6pm, at the time when I should be winding down the day. I am sure this is related to sleep.

3. As you get older tiredness comes with the territory therefore you need to work harder to keep it at bay. Fortunately I have also found that workrate and the capacity to work has not diminished, and has in fact increased. I think this may come partly as a result of being family ‘provider’, for money at least (in case my wife reads this, yes, I know staying at home and doing all the things you do is harder!).

4. When I do manage to get more sleep and get up early it is amazing how much I can get done before 9am making the rest of the day more productive and also allowing an earlier finish. In the summer the early mornings are beautiful.

I will make sure I get more sleep! 🙂

Ivan Mazour February 25, 2014 - 7:59 am

Thanks for reading Tom! In my head, I’ve already drafted a blog post in a few years time when I have children, confirming that my bright-eyed approach to sleep was based on a total lack of understanding of what life is like after you have children.. It certainly sounds like at that point your life isn’t your own, so discipline or no discipline, sleep is a rare commodity. I do love the really early mornings, as you say in point 4. A few Saturdays ago I woke up at 4.30pm, and by noon I’d basically had a full productive day – it was incredible, literally like an extra day of life..


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