She tried relying on her Apple Watch, but the vibrations didn’t wake her up. Then she bought an alarm that promised to be loud enough to rouse deep sleepers. It woke up her roommates. Finally, Hughes woke up one day around 2 p.m. and realized she had slept through not only the 10 a.m. shift she had picked up from a colleague at her retail job, but her own 1 p.m. shift as well. So she decided to shell out the big bucks to start electric-shocking herself, but only a little bit, in the mornings.
Her instrument of choice is called the Pavlok Shock Clock, as she explains in a viral TikTok video, a $150 bracelet that can administer a mild shock. Over time, it is supposed to train deep sleepers to wake up to sound or vibration alone. Her hopes for easier mornings are high, she said. But reception to her story has been mixed. “There were a lot of people on TikTok being like, ‘No one should need this to wake up. Something is clearly wrong with you,’” Hughes said. “I was like, ‘I know that.’”
Or maybe she just needed the right wake-up call. Sleep is more individual than traditional wisdom suggests, according to Jamie Zeitzer, an associate research professor of psychiatry and sleep medicine at Stanford University. During the pandemic, many of us shifted to sleep schedules that better suit us, he said. Now, we struggle to adjust to our work schedules, and never is it more obvious than when that alarm first sounds.
Some people are “good sleepers,” Zeitzer said. They sleep enough hours on a regular schedule that fits their biology. But the rest of us might experience “sleep inertia,” which means even after we wake up, some parts of our brains are still dozing. That makes it really hard to spring out of bed, and the best way to combat it depends entirely on who you are, he said. Our age, habits, likes and dislikes all influence what we need to wake up effectively, be it light exposure, jumping jacks or a dose of good old-fashioned fear.
After a Washington Post reader wrote in asking for help finding a wake-up call that works for him, I tested a number of alarm apps and gadgets under $50. There is no one-size-fits-all fix, but here is what you have at your disposal.
Alarm clock apps
I tried five popular alarm apps from the Apple App Store. The good news is that two of them, Alarmy and Sleep Cycle, had free features I found helpful.
Alarmy pairs its alarms with tasks that help you shake off sleep inertia. You can solve math problems, play a memory game or walk across your house to scan the bar code on a book or tube of toothpaste. Sleep Cycle, meanwhile, let me set a window to wake up rather than a specific time, and the slowly rising alarm volume made the whole process less jarring. Both apps charge for extra features.
The other three apps were Alarm Clock Wake up Music, Alarm Clock HD and Alarm Clock for Me, which I found less useful. Many of their features were already available on my smartphone, and I would rather not navigate around the ads in their free versions.
The bad news is that all five apps can share your personal data for advertising. Alarmy can share your location to help third parties track you across apps and sites, according to its App Store listing, while Sleep Cycle says it can use your health data to “help improve the world,” which includes sharing that data with unnamed partners after you consent.
People and firms benefit from personalized ads, said Frank List, chief executive of the company that makes Alarm Clock Wake up Music and Alarm Clock HD, and the apps ask for permission to track on iOS. The other three apps did not respond to requests for comment. If you have privacy concerns, use a physical alarm clock. Keeping our phones out of reach at bedtime also helps avoid the itch to check notifications, Zeitzer noted.
People who are hard of hearing or never respond to audio alarms may find success with a shaker. One of them is a tiny disk that plugs into a bedside digital clock. When my alarm sounds, the disk under my pillow vibrates, and the extra onslaught seems to work better than sound alone. Smart bracelets like an Apple Watch or FitBit have vibrating alarms. For a less pricey option, try a wrist alarm like the Shake-N-Wake from Tech Tools.
Super loud alarms
Some alarms are known for being super loud. A website for the Screaming Meanie alarm puts it coyly: This thing will “never go unnoticed.” When it went off, my husband and I shrieked out loud. Your neighbors might not like it, but this is a great option if you live in a single-family home or a cave in the wilderness.
“I had no idea what time it was,” is something you will never convincingly say again after buying an alarm that projects the time onto your wall or ceiling. If you tend to sleep in after hitting snooze and losing track of time, this is one solution. But if you struggle to fall asleep, it could get a little tortuous. I caught myself staring at the numbers on my ceiling while I tossed and turned.
Hard to get alarms
Zeitzer said he used to put his alarm clock at the foot of his bed so he would have to get up to turn it off, which worked, until he figured out how to turn it off with his toes.
An alarm with wheels solves that problem. Take Clocky, a cute but evil robot that vaulted itself off my nightstand, knocked over a cup of water and promptly got stuck in a corner. Clocky is not very smart, but he made me laugh so I plan to keep him around.
Whether it is a loud sound, physical challenge or sudoku puzzle, the best way to wake up is the one that works for you. Or, as Zeitzer put it, one that is “conducive to who you are as a person.” Happy hunting.