The Snooze Dilemma

Waking up is hard to do.

So, to snooze or not to snooze? Well, it turns out that snoozing, like many enjoyable things in life, is critically bad for you. And you shouldn’t do it. Here’s why.

First of all, waking up is hard because your body goes through a series of changes. While you sleep, temperature, heart rate and blood pressure all decrease, and you get high on serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that explains why your bed feels so much cozier in the morning than at night. If you align yourself properly with your circadian rhythm, by waking up at roughly the same time every day, your body knows. And in the hour before alarm time, it starts to drag you out of that pit by warming up your metabolism. This is an ideal situation, and explains why you sometimes open your eyes just minutes before your designated wake up time. If, nevertheless, you’re still sleepy and hit the snooze button, this gets in the way of that natural reboot process, creating a chemical imbalance in your body, which is now pumping dopamine, the antagonist of serotonin. The end result is a befuddled mess. On the other hand, if you’re not getting enough sleep in the first place and you’re off your natural rhythm, snoozing might become irresistible. But in this case, you risk falling back into deep sleep, only to be ripped out of it nine minutes later. That works against every natural process evolution has devised to ease you out of sleep, and wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Also, it generally prompts you to just snooze again. And again.

In other words, snooze time is never good. Unfortunately, when you need to make that assessment you’re a groggy half-human who’d kill for sleep. But snoozing is not always a snap judgment: some people construct elaborate snooze routines with multiple alarms that start up to an hour before their actual wake up time, thinking that’s the only way they can make it out of bed. Instead, they just subject themselves to an hour of useless, fragmented sleep that does nothing to soothe their bodies.

But wait, why is snooze time traditionally fixed at exactly nine minutes? Apparently it has to do with standardized gears inside alarm clocks in the 1950s: the snooze cog had to fit with existing ones and it could be set at either 9 or 10 minutes. The choice fell on 9, because 10 minutes was thought to be enough to “fall back into deep sleep”.
Another explanation that I like better has to do with cheap electronic components: with a 9 minute snooze, a digital alarm clock only has to “watch” the last digit to know when to go off again. This allows for simpler circuitry to be devoted to the function, and ultimately makes the clock cheaper to make.

Resisting the temptation to snooze is not easy. It’s an interesting problem because it creates a conflict between your present self (“I want to wake up on time tomorrow”) and your future self (“I want to sleep right now”), a staple of behavioral economics. So, alarm clock manufacturers have learned about this and sell an array of devices that nudge you into waking up. The Clocky alarm, for example, lets you snooze once, and then literally comes to life, jumps off your nightstand, and finds a place to hide, all the while blasting an ear-ripping alarm sound. You’re then forced to go find it and switch it off.
The Puzzle alarm is even more taxing on your fragile, unstable cognitive functions: the moment it goes off, it explodes a jigsaw puzzle and won’t stop until you have correctly solved it. But honestly, I don’t think anyone actually wants to incorporate a ridiculous-looking, self-hiding alarm into their lifestyle: a week into using it your rational, present self will just go ‘what the hell’ and give up. By then you’ll either have learned the lesson or gone back to snoozing.

Still, the best anti-snooze alarm of all is, hands down, the SnuzNLuz. It gets you on your toes by making donations to political causes you hate, every time you hit the button.

Alas, it doesn’t really exist. It has a product page at Thinkgeek.com, but it’s nothing more than an April Fool’s prank. But, ThinkGeek has turned joke products into reality before, so you never know.

Perhaps the SnuzNLuz has taken a cue from Stickk, a website that encourages you to commit to a goal by setting up a financial stake. No wonder, it was founded by a group of Yale economists and it capitalizes on the fact that we are all instinctively loss averse.
If you want to commit to going the gym regularly, for example, you can set up a weekly attendance goal and create a contract; whenever you fail to report in, Stickk will send some of your money to an anti-charity of your choice (options include the NRA, the Pro-Choice Foundation, and the Manchester United Fan Club).

So, what should you do? At the risk of sounding obnoxious, you should really try to get enough sleep in the first place: chronic sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do to your body, as it impairs your cognitive functions, your memory and your learning abilities. And you should never snooze anyway, not even when you’d sell your soul for five more minutes. How? By understanding that under no circumstances, and in absolutely no way, snoozing is going to make your day any better. Yes, you’ll get that brief, blissful feeling of being wrapped into the sheets again, but you’ll pay the price. We’re not good at resisting temptation, even when we know that doing so will pay off, but it’s never too late too learn. People who can delay gratification do better in life.
You might just start by learning not to snooze.

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2 thoughts on “The Snooze Dilemma

  1. My dog you’re so right, I’d kill to get 5 more minutes of sleep. Problem is since I work night I have to go to bed in the afternoon which makes me feel sad cose others are having fun and enjoying themselves while I have to sleep, so I sleep less hours thus coming to a point where on my day off I sleep over 10 hours or so. Thanks for the article.

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