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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some resources to help you learn more about light therapy:
- A great non-technical overview of light therapy (website)
- A survey of 29 studies establishing the efficacy of light therapy for SAD (pdf)
- Research-backed guidelines for the medical uses of light therapy (pdf)
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.
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