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How I Get It Done

How I Finally Trained Myself To Wake Up Early

Can a chronic late riser reform her ways with the help of apps and flying alarm clocks? We put innovative alarms to the test to find out.

[Photo: Flickr user Jason Rogers]

I've had a lifelong struggle with waking up in the morning.

No matter how much sleep I got at night, getting up for school was always torture. As soon as I learned my ABCs, I was pleading for "five more minutes."

Things got worse as I got older. I got into the habit of sleep procrastination—staying up late, reading, watching bad movies, writing in my journal—just to avoid going to bed and by logic, waking up the next day. Every morning, my mother had to shout at me that I had to 15 minutes to get dressed and be out the door but it was always worth it to get those extra five minutes of sleep. At least I thought it was. My morning bleariness and disorientation led to a lot of unsigned permission slips and overdue library books left at the door.

People feel bad for insomniacs and for those who suffer from sleeplessness. But sleep inertia sufferers, the feeling of extreme disorientation or grogginess after waking, do not elicit equal sympathy. "Just get out of bed, and drink some coffee!" People say. It’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve ever fallen asleep while brushing your teeth.

In order to help my fellow morning zombies, I’ve tested products aimed at the deepest sleepers and the most stubborn snoozers. I am writing this at 7:30 a.m.—proof that some of these can help the hardest sleepers rise (if not necessarily shine).

Problem: I’m Just Generally Miserable in the Morning

Solution: An App That Gently Wakes Me Up At Exactly The Right Time

Maybe I've just been waking up at the wrong time all these years? The first thing I tried was Sleep Cycle ($1.99 for iPhone). It wakes you up when it thinks you should be based on your lightest sleep cycle. Like a regular alarm, you set it for the time you need to get up, but instead of going off at say 8 a.m., it tracks your movements (you have to place your phone next to your pillow and hope you don't knock it out of bed), and wakes you up by playing music when you're in your lightest sleep cycle at the time closest to your scheduled wake up time.

I followed the instructions and set my phone next to my pillow before bed. The next morning, I was surprised to find myself gently nudged out of my sleep an hour earlier than usual but a lot less groggy and cranky. You can snooze it, it will keep bugging you until 8am when you'll be awake. This sounds nutty (how is this different from a regular alarm?) but it's been really great thus far.

Problem: I Sleep Through My Alarm

Solution: Get A Super Annoying Alarm Clock The Literally Forces You Out Of Bed

Sonic Alert makes serious products for the hard of hearing and hard to wake. When I explained my myriad waking issues to the representative from Sonic Alert, he said I should try the Sonic Bomb Super Shaker Alarm Clock ($52.95). Here’s how it works: Slide the vibrating disc under your mattress by your head, set the alarm clock and warn your bedmate. In eight hours, you’ll be wrenched into terrifying consciousness by what feels and sounds like a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The Sonic Bomb definitely woke me up (and scared the crap out of me) but since it requires a lot of cords and plugs to power both the clock and the vibrating disc that goes under the mattress, I had to have it near my bed, not under the mattress.

Each morning I tried the Sonic Bomb, I woke up in terror and shut it off and went back to sleep.

Want something a little less terrifying? Part toy, part alarm clock, the Tech Tools Flying Alarm Clock ($37.99, Rakuten.com) will get you out of bed—otherwise you can’t shut it off. It shoots a flying propeller up into the air and in order to shut the dang thing off, you have to dig around to find the plastic piece and replace it on the clock. It weirdly worked better for me than the Sonic Bomb because the propeller shot it across the room which forced me to get out bed to replace it on the clock to shut it up.

Problem: I Just Keep Snoozing

Solution: An App That Makes You Prove You're Out Of Bed

Many of us with sleep inertia have no problem hearing our alarm clocks—we just keep hitting the snooze button again and again. Step Out of Bed ($1.99 for iPhone) will not shut off until you get out of bed and take 30 steps. This app has changed my life, it makes me actually move out of my bedroom and into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Getting me up and out of bed is a huge step.

Android users might want to give Alarmy (free) a try. This irritating but effective alarm app will not shut off unless you get out of bed and take a picture of a pre-selected object in your home. I didn't get to try this one out since I have an iPhone, but as long as you use a photo of your coffeepot rather than something next to your headboard, it should have the same effect as Step Out of Bed.

Problem: I Can’t Stay Out of Bed

Solution: Create A Bed You Won't Want To Get Back Into

Even the savviest app can’t contain allure of a warm bed, fluffy blankets and a soft mattress on a chilly winter morning. Sleep experts recommend that you immediately make your bed after waking up in order to discourage climbing back in. That has never worked for me, even when I make the bed, I'll still crawl back it.

What has worked for me is an idea that I got from advice I once received to prevent overeating—to put a napkin on your plate once you're full to discourage you from picking. On mornings when the warm cozy bed is too alluring, I place a pile of books on my side of the bed. Even the most hardcore sleeper won’t want to cat nap on a pile of hardcovers.

So after trying out all of these methods, is anything actually getting me up in the mornings? Yes, but it still takes a lot. Here's my new morning routine:

  1. I set Sleep Cycle for 8 a.m., knowing it will start to wake me about half an hour before.
  2. I set the Flying Alarm for 7:50 a.m., to give me a nice jolt and actually get me out of bed.
  3. I set the Step Out of Bed to make sure I actually move out of my bedroom and into the bathroom.

I realize that its insane but I wasn't lying when I said my morning problems are truly dire.

Since researching this piece, my mornings have totally changed. My husband has known me for 10 years and did not think he would ever see the day when I was up and around an hour before I needed to get somewhere. I'm still not a morning person, by any means. I'm more like Frankenstein's monster—up and mobile but not really cognizant of what I'm doing. I may take the expert advice from the other piece I wrote about sleep, and make a list of everything I need do to and take with me in the morning so that I don't have to think too much in the a.m.