No More Alarms

Leaning into my body’s natural rhythms.

September 10, 2019Filed under Blog#burnout#mental health#productivity#restMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: pretty much everybody. Everybody sleeps.

I may never regularly set an alarm again.

Last year, in the midst of getting increasingly burned out, I hit a point where I couldn’t set an alarm. I found myself needing 8½–9½ hours of sleep every night, and even in that range, setting an alarm often left me feeling exhausted for the rest of the day. As I have slowly but steadily recovered, I started setting an alarm again at times. But, at least for now, I’m done with that.

First, over the past few weeks, I found myself fighting the alarm. No matter when I set it, inevitably I’d end up awakened out of a deep sleep. I would spend the first chunk of my day struggling to be really alert and awake. This is, in a word, frustrating.

Second, I have long observed that even when I don’t set an alarm, I usually only sleep about 7–7½ hours. If I sleep longer, it’s usually because I need more sleep—whether because I’m recovering from a particularly long, hard run, or because I’m fighting a cold, or because I’ve been traveling, or simply because other things in life can leave me tired!

The two things came together for me last week, in the (obvious?) realization that I don’t have to set an alarm, and in fact I probably shouldn’t. My body has healthy rhythms. I can and generally should trust those rhythms. I can make adjustments over time by going to bed earlier or later, and by changing what and when I eat and drink, and how and when I exercise. But, given my body’s existing healthy rhythms, if I naturally end up sleeping 8¼ hours instead of 7½… that probably means I needed it!

I will still use an alarm judiciously: to make sure I get up on time when traveling, for example. (Even there, I tend to wake up on my own before the alarm goes off. Still, better to be safe than sorry: airline tickets are expensive!) What I am not going to do for the foreseeable future is use an alarm regularly.

A lot of the productivity advice out there insists that you must set an alarm if you want to get things done in life. I can attest that it can be helpful, and I leaned hard on setting an alarm and getting up when it went off throughout my time in seminary. But I also suspect that pushing myself1 that way for so many years was a significant contributor to my burning out.

At this point, I will probably get a little bit less done on a day-to-day basis than I did at times in the past. Certainly I am not able to commit to writing every morning as I did for a while. That tradeoff is fine with me, though. My health matters. If I want to continue working effectively and well at all the areas of my life throughout my long life, I need to steward my strength.

Some people struggle with laziness. This isn’t advice for them; the right medicine there is the book of Proverbs’ admonitions against lying abed all day! For those of us who are inclined to push too hard, though, turning off the alarm may be an important part of remembering our finitude. Learning to live with our limitations teaches us us trust God with the things we cannot do and helps us be more faithful and effective in the things we should be doing.

So, while I may revisit this question at some point… no more alarms for me.

  1. I initially wrote “my body” but changed it because my body and my self are one and the same, even if my body is not the whole of my self.↩︎