Despite a bad habit of staying up until 2am most nights, I hadn’t used an alarm clock for at least 6 years. Likely a decade. When I was up that late actively working on a project (versus binge listening to music or watching Netflix), I’d joke my ‘second day’ was from 8pm – 2am. Yes, I’d be worthless until lunch, but at the time my clients were 2 timezones away. I continued to be a night owl when I became a father. Once the kids were asleep and the day was behind me, usually 10pm, I’d be inspired to start one project or another.
When my oldest was still a baby in the crib, sometime between 6:30 and 7am he would fill his diaper so loudly it’d wake his mother and me. I’d get up to change him. As he grew older, he’d just yell for me: “Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa, Papa…” until I picked him up. Once he could walk, he’d get himself out of bed, toddle down the hall into my bedroom, work his way to my side of the bed, shouting “Breafkast Time!” at my sleeping head. In case I didn’t immediately respond, his little sister was hanging in the shadows. Every morning. 7am.
I’ve always equated the sleep deprivation of having a newborn in the house like that of finals week in college. It’s intense but you know you’ll be able to sleep in a week. Or twelve. Sleep deprivation and older kids is different. You can’t cross off the days until they’ll sleep through the night. They are. You aren’t. There’s no relief in sight and it’s the worst version of you they see in the morning.
On one especially challenging morning I had an epiphany, “I’m a better dad when I’m up before the kids than if they wake me up.”
A deceptively simple goal.
To achieve this, my sleep deprived mind reasoned, I needed to get up 30 minutes earlier. To do that, I needed to sleep more deeply and more restfully. With a more restful sleep, I could wake up refreshed and ready to help the kids. I researched natural sleep aids and picked up a 3 month supply of melatonin. At about 11p each evening I’d take one tablet and about 30 minutes later I’d feel drowsy and head off to bed. Easy. This regimen worked great for a couple of months. I’d fall asleep when my head hit the pillow and wake up alert. As I reached the bottom of the pill bottle, I developed a tolerance. Ninety minutes after going to sleep, my eyes would shoot open and I’d be wide awake. Higher dosages just made it worse. Some nights, lying wide awake at the ceiling, I couldn’t remember if I had taken it at all.
In September 2011, I heard about the Zeo Sleep Coach from Jamie’s links blog. The Zeo is an alarm clock that monitors your sleep cycles and goes off at the most appropriate point ahead of your alarm. Along the way, it quantifies your night’s sleep in a single “ZQ” score.
You’ll need to wear the supplied headband for it to work. The instruction card in the box warns your spouse will mock the fact you need a headband to sleep.
As I accumulated more sleep data, I could easily hit a 76, 78, or 80 ZQ. The card says, this was slightly lower than others in my age group. Nothing else. No odd periods of wakefulness through the night, no irregular sleep cycles, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a slightly lower ZQ score and the expected mocking. I tried to game the ZQ score. On weekends I’d score the occasional 90. With a maximum of 10 points per hour it was tough to crack 100. But I did. Nine times. All time high of 117. Looking deeper into the data, I could see my sleep cycles were consistently 90 minutes long. Shifting my awake time 30 minutes earlier didn’t fall within that window. I reset Zeo’s alam clock accordingly. When it worked – it worked brilliantly. I’d get up with the alarm, start my day, and be dressed and fed before the kids demand I help them with the same.
The Zeo had a 2 significant downsides. The first – it considered your alarm time as the latest possible waking-point rather than the most appropriate waking-point in your sleep cycle. The second – and one I believe will be a significant controversy of the 21st Century – Zeo stored sleep data on an SD card encrypted. The recommended way of decrypting the data was to create an account at myzeo.com and upload the encrypted data file to their servers. Having my personal biological data captured and encrypted by a device in my household that only I was using with the default method for me to access that personal data was through a for-profit company’s servers – that’s completely unethical. Accessing my personal data on a device I purchased shouldn’t require a soldering iron. Especially when it’s a csv text file. Especially when the company in question quietly goes out of business and their domain reverts to a GoDaddy landing page.
Thankfully by this time, I had 18 months with the Zeo and had cracked the secret to getting a good night’s sleep. Once I accepted it and worked through a sleep debt, I could consistently wake up unaided before 6:30a.
Three years ago, if you would have told me this secret to getting a good night’s sleep without the aid of technology (electronic or pharmaceutical), I would have replied with a hearty scoff and a, “No, that can’t be it.”
It turns out the boost of inspiration I get every night at 10pm is my mind’s counterintuitive way of expressing drowsiness. Something like that boost of inspiration you might get as your mind wanders in the shower. Rather than simply take note of the inspiration, I’d immediately act on it. The blue light of the computer monitor would compounding my alertness. Before I knew it, it’d be 2am
Now, I don’t start anything new after 9:30 and aim for lights out by 10:30pm. This guarantees 5 90 minute sleep cycles before morning. The night owl in me still scoffs. I let him. The last score he got was a 58 (still displayed on the dust-collecting Zeo). He’ll never appreciate how enjoyable and productive mornings are.
Those hours before sunrise became a kind of sacred space to me, and I’ve used them over the years to do whatever work has been most important in my life. – Steve Leveen