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How to be fully alert minutes after waking

bosepchuk profile image Blaine Osepchuk Originally published at smallbusinessprogramming.com Updated on ・5 min read

I use a SAD light as soon as I wake up to go from groggy and useless to fully alert in a couple of minutes. Most mornings I'm sitting at my desk and working within 7 minutes of waking up. It's one hell of a productivity hack.

What is sleep inertia?

I used to have a hard time getting up in the morning, especially in the winter. I'd wake up groggy and have to force myself to get out of bed. But getting up, turning on some lights, having a drink of water, and using the bathroom didn't seem to help me get my brain working. Sound familiar?

Everybody experiences a groggy feeling after they wake from a deep sleep. Scientists call it sleep inertia. It can last up to 30 minutes.

Coffee won't help

Most people reach for their favorite caffeinated beverage in the morning to help get their brain firing on all cylinders. But it takes caffeine 30-45 minutes to kick in and sleep inertia usually wears off on its own before that happens. Plus, your brain adapts to caffeine, which leads to reduced effectiveness as a stimulant (and possibly dependence).

What's a SAD light?

It's a special light therapy device designed to treat seasonal affective disorder, which is a kind of depression associated with low light levels people experience in the fall and winter.

Here's the one I have.

my desk with SAD light on

It puts out 10,000 lux, blocks UV, and the light strikes my eyes from above--all the important characteristics of an effective light therapy device.

Can a SAD light treat sleep inertia and/or morning grogginess?

I believe it can. I'm not aware of any studies backing this up but, in my experience, if I spend even a couple of minutes sitting in front of my SAD light, my grogginess completely disappears.

My normal procedure is:

  • to wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends)
  • get to my desk as fast as I can
  • turn on my SAD light and start working. (I work with the bright light shining into my eyes from beside my monitor. I become fully alert almost immediately)
  • after an hour I turn it off, have breakfast, and leave it off for the rest of the day

How I discovered this productivity hack

I used to spend a couple of weeks working outside every summer. I was part of a crew using helicopters to spray herbicide on young forests in northern Alberta, Canada (very fun job). We started our days in the dark so we would be ready to spray as soon as light broke.

I saw stuff like this every morning.

August sunrise in northern Alberta

We napped in the afternoons when it was too windy to spray and then worked until after dark.

Those were long days but I noticed that my brain worked surprisingly well as long as I was outside in the daylight. I also noticed that my chronic sleep problems disappeared when I was living and working outdoors. But that they would reappear when I went back to the city and I saw something like this in the mornings.

my desk with normal room illumination

So that got me thinking about the level of light in my office compared to outside. I learned that even a very overcast day is still much, much brighter than your average office. That lead me to read the research on seasonal affective disorder. I was fascinated and inspired to do an experiment.

My theory is that humans are adapted to living outdoors near the equator. Our ancestors woke with the rising of the sun and went to sleep when the sun set. I believe that living indoors and using artificial lights is messing with our circadian system. I also believe that I can help my body figure out what it's supposed to be doing in the morning by exposing myself to some simulated sunlight (when the real stuff isn't available).

My wife uses a different kind of light to help her wake up

Interestingly enough, my wife also has trouble getting up in the morning. I bought her a Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock that simulates the sunrise by slowly turning on a bunch of LEDs for about 20 minutes before her desired wake-up time. She loves it. It's a total game changer.

Some warnings before you try this yourself

I am not a doctor. And I am not qualified to give medical advice. I'm not telling you what I do. It's up to you and your doctor to figure out what's right and safe for you.

Beware of products claiming to be light therapy boxes. There are dozens of them on Amazon and elsewhere. They are completely unregulated and they might not be safe or effective:

  • dangerous levels of UV light are my biggest concern (you don't want cataracts and/or skin damage)
  • they might not work because they aren't bright enough or they emit the wrong frequency of light
  • this is a more complete list of warnings

The light therapy box I bought was nearly the same one used in a research study that proved that they work for SAD (it's same light from the same company with a different stand). There are much cheaper options out there but I wanted something that was proven to actually work.

Finally, if you think you might have a sleep or mood disorder, don't self-treat with a light therapy box. Being unusually tired or depressed can be a sign of a serious health problem. If in doubt, get that checked out by your doctor just like I did.

Results

I've been using my SAD light for more than 7 years and it helps me work productively right after I wake up. Without the light box, I struggled to get my brain working for the first half hour of my day, especially when the days are shorter. So if you add that up, I'm more productive for an extra 2.5 hours or more per week.

I've also experimented with using my SAD light to help me deal with a poor night's sleep. It's helped a little but it's definitely not a cure.

Additional resources

Here are some resources to help you learn more about light therapy:

Takeaways

I've performed experiments on myself with a SAD light to hack my brain and improve my productivity. And I thought my fellow programmers would find that interesting.

Have you experimented with light to improve your productivity or influence your mood? If so, what did you learn? If not, would you ever try? Tell me all about your experiences in the comments.

Discussion

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buphmin profile image
buphmin

I have the phillips wake up light and it is nice in the winter, but by far the best thing for me to get going is to wake up and do some push ups or some other exercise that can get your blood pumping. And of course the #1 best thing to making waking up easier is getting enough sleep.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Getting good sleep is very important.

I've tried exercising first thing in the morning and I found it to be torture. But I have friends who swear by it. Everybody's different.

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antonrich profile image
Anton

I've heard that exercising right away may even be unhealthy. So, it's better to give body some time to wake up fully and then start exercising.

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buphmin profile image
buphmin

It's hard to say, obviously everyone is a bit different. I usually just do a set of 30 push ups and then start getting ready for the day. I would be surprised if that much had a significant impact on your well being, but I am not an expert. The goal is of course to find what works for you, even if it what works for you is just a placebo effect.

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clay profile image
Clay Ferguson

I think probably a lot of developers don't get enough exercise and, like me spend 99% of their time indoors. However i try to take a walk, or run, or bike ride in the evening, and when i do that i'm always very alert the next day somehow, if i also got 8rs of sleep which is super important.

For me vitamin B12 also boosts energy, and if i need to get more work done at an insane rate for whatever reason, caffeine and ephedrine works for me, but performance enhancing drugs as everyone knows should be used strategically and sparingly.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Interesting. How do you know when to use performance enhancers and when to stop? It's there a protocol you follow to avoid negative effects?

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clay profile image
Clay Ferguson

If i have an issue with my code, that keeps me from making progress on a given day I'll take half an ephedria pill, for the next day or two to get caught up. I know lots of devs supposedly take harder stuff like adderall, which i'm sure would be even 'better' but i'm not much of a nootropic and haven't even tried adderall.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Thanks for sharing. I know nothing about it so I just looked it up and WebMD says it's banned in the US, which is interesting.

Just curious: how does your experience with it compare to caffeine in coffee? Why would you take one over the other?

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clay profile image
Clay Ferguson

It's sold over the counter as the active ingredient in bronchodilators. It opens up your lung cells basically for increased oxygen intake. Heck, it could be just the oxygen alone that helps maintain focus and concentration...but it's also a stimulant, so it's doing multiple things at one time. I never take more than half a pill in one day, because it has a strong affect on me, but I think it's effects vary greatly from person to person, based on a person's existing natural neuro-chemistry.

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Kasey Speakman

Thanks for sharing. I often say that the hardest thing I do most days is waking up, and the second hardest is going to sleep (with so many things I still want to do). You have given me some ideas to try to speed up the first one.

This is not to say that my days are so easy. They are often a challenge. But transitioning to/from sleep has frequently been THAT difficult for me.

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bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

I would suggest a more natural approach, we are not robots

  • grogginess is the natural startup boot time, if the body needs more time let it, it has its good reasons
  • make some exercises and eat before work, pumping blood and getting enough energy is what healthy ppl do, at least from what I know :))

If you have that many stuff to do you can delegate, automate it and so on, we have to strive to do less work with more impact(efficiency).

This technique sounds like a hack, and I would bet that it has bad side effects on the long run (years), but I will keep it in mind for hackatons or nasty days.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

There's nothing natural about sitting in front of a computer for the better part of each day in semi-darkness (aka standard office illumination).

Light therapy has a good record of safety. But this approach isn't for everyone. I just wanted to share what I do.

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bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

I was speaking about the part before sitting at the office, you are forcing your body in an unnatural way (after sleep).

All the offices I worked on had good lighting, so I never saw that problem, in a shared space or at home. At least at home I have few LEDs in each room with at least 900lumens each.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Office lighting is nowhere near the intensity of sunlight.

Office lighting - 320 - 500 lux
Full daylight but not direct sun - 10,000 - 25,000 lux
Direct sunlight - 32,000 - 100,000 lux
Source: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lux

FYI: lumins and lux are different measures.

We don't tent to notice just how dark offices are compared to outside light levels because our eyes are good at compensating. But our brains seem to need bright light to keep our body clocks in check. That's why blind people tend to have this very problem at a much higher rate than sighted people.

But, just to be clear, I'm not trying to get anybody to change what they are doing. I just wanted to share what works for me.

Cheers.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

I've got stuff to do. Lots of stuff and only so many hours a day to do them so I try to maximize my productivity.

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chiefnoah profile image
Noah Pederson

That sounds like a really good way to burn out really quickly...

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hawkinjs profile image
Josh Hawkins

Sometimes life just makes it work that way. Say you've got kids, a family you want to spend time with, bills to pay, deadlines to meet, hobbies to enjoy... You've got to get the work done early so you can spend your free time with family on their schedule, or doing whatever it is you want to do.

I typically work before the sun is up to early afternoon so I can spend afternoons with friends or exploring while the sun is still shining. It's all about what time of day you want to be your free time and when you want to sleep.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Nice points, Josh.

Noah, it's not about burning out. I have plenty of downtime. But at my latitude (54.5 degrees) is very difficult to get moving when the days are short. Almost everyone here is affected to some degree and if it's really bad you get a SAD diagnosis.

I read the New York has 10 times more SAD that Florida and I live hundreds of miles north of New York so it follows the we'd have much more SAD here.

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gypsydave5 profile image
David Wickes

But at my latitude (54.5 degrees) is very difficult to get moving when the days are short.

I saw this and thought 'is that like Alaska or something?'

Much more mundane - it's Newcastle-upon-Tyne!

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

It's as far north as I'd ever live. The darkness in the winters is really hard on me.

The bulk of Alaska is North of 60 degrees.

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thomashighbaugh profile image
Thomas Leon Highbaugh

Its actually called apricity but modern psychology renames everything, pretends its a discovery and markets pills for it. Though your methods of coping with it are sufficient, personally I use my nicotine habit and Belgian Malinois' need for water the neighbor's shrubbery as an excuse to get a bit of exercise, which works better than anything for me. YMWV as anything that deals with mood or sleep.

I don't live far enough north for my apricity to become too severe (California) to require much more than 20 - 30 minutes outdoors regardless what the weather is (including in the snowy mountains which we do have in this state, but please stay where you are) and I am wide awake. I measure this, like most things I can commit to metrics without much inconvenience, so far the significant difference I feel when the fall equinox passes has not bore itself out in data, as the measurements we can even use are naturally as imperfect as those measuring are limited in perceptive capacity. Except of course if I were to take a measurement of my subjective mood, but that would be highly imprecise and thus I invest the time in other ways.

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jel111 profile image
dumdumdev

I almost want to say it's genetic. When I wake up I am ready to go or I didn't get enough sleep. To me, it is really that simple. I know that my family are all early risers and are "on" from the time we wake till the time we sleep. On the other hand, my wife isn't and a few friends are the same way she is. I will also say that I have never lived in a place further North than Chicago so there that is.
I may be just too far south to notice.

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gypsydave5 profile image
David Wickes

Long ago, before there were SAD lights - before there were lights - our ancestors discovered one simple life hack to help with this problem.

They just stopped working.

Because, back in the day, there was literally nothing to do in the winter. You'd done the 'growing food' bit, along with the 'gathering food' stuff in Autumn. So they dug in, lit a big bloody fire, and waited for the minor miracle of Spring to come around again, and tried to avoid dying in the meantime.

To keep themselves alive and less bored by the horrors of not dying, they also came up with every Winter festivity ever so they could eat nice, fatty food and tell fun stories to each other while gathered around the fire. Fun times.

Then capitalism and the Protestant work ethic took over, aided and abetted by electric lights, heating and the magic boxes we use to earn a living. All of a sudden you have to work 9 to 5 (or 6, or 7) whatever the weather, whatever time of year it is, whatever the 10,000 year human pattern of existence is screaming to your poor body and mind.

Where we used to sleep twice a night, we now try to minimize our time asleep to make ourselves more efficient, treating our bodies and minds like commodities - resources to be exploited, but also to be made conforming to industrialized patterns of work.

Look, I'm not saying you shouldn't be using your SAD light. It's obviously working for you and I'm pleased. Don't take this as criticism of your life, please - some of us use coffee, some do press ups - we all (probably) do something like this.

But I really think we should take a step back and wonder whether we can always work the same way, every day, every season, every year. If you're only being kept awake and moving by some technological or chemical crutch, isn't this a bit of a 'smell', to use the language of our industry?

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

I like your story. You are talking about our more recent ancestors than I was in my story but, by my understanding of anthropology, you are more or less correct.

It's hard to know where the line is with technology and drugs. Everybody probably thinks buildings are good. Temperature control and regular office lighting are probably okay. But what about full spectrum office lighting for a little extra boost? What if we increase the intensity of the office lighting to match an overcast day? What if we pump in more fresh air? What if we filter the air to remove pollutants? How about if we increase the lighting intensity to match full daylight? What about caffeine? Adderall? Cocaine?

Who gets to decide and on what basis do they make their decisions?

Caffeine tends to be a socially acceptable stimulate. Adderall? Not so much.

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maxwell_dev profile image
Max Antonucci

A simpler trick I use is placing my alarm across the room. Having to stand up and hurry over to turn it off usually gets me up well enough all on its own, no coffee, extra lights, or work desk required.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Yeah, I wish that worked for me. Thanks for sharing.

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niorad profile image
Antonio Radovcic

Do you get 7-8 hours sleep each night? If it's less it may also explain the grogginess.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

Yes, I do. And I practice excellent sleep hygiene too.

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niorad profile image
Antonio Radovcic

Ah then you probably also read "Why we sleep" 😝

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

No, but I've read others and did an online sleep improvement course. This book looks interesting; thanks for mentioning it. I've added it to my reading list.

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niorad profile image
Antonio Radovcic

Yes it's interesting. Will gift the german version around my family and friends once it's out.

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antonrich profile image
Anton

Lately, when I wake up I immediately start thinking about programming. Recently, I even solved a problem when I woke up. But I'm learning things actively so I don't know if that the effect of active learning.

Light therapy is legit. But you gotta have some little exposure to UV light. It's healthy. Too much UV == bad. Too little UV == bad. Just a little bit == good.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

I've woke up with the solutions to a number to programming problems over the years.

And when I was programming for my own company and putting in crazy hours I used to dream about it.

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Abraham Brookes

My first major app was a lighting app, like f.lux but for your home lighting. It used LIFX bulbs and their web API to modulate your lighting throughout the day and night. It worked like a charm! I get the best sleep from using it, there's real weight to using light wavelengths to influence your sleep cycle.

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bosepchuk profile image
Blaine Osepchuk Author

That's a cool project. Did it automatically change the color of the lights throughout the day on its own? Or did you have to activate some kind of presets (sunrise, daytime, sunset)?

Thanks for sharing.