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Sleep At Night, Not In Class

Last week I outlined some time management tips for getting things done more effectively. One of the items on my list was to get everything out of class that you can; take detailed notes, listen intently to the lecture, and record lectures for later listening. These tips are great, but I’ll be the first to admit that even a life-hacker like me is prone to the hypnotic drone of a boring lecture. We all get sleepy in class, whether it be due to a lack of rest or uninteresting subject matter. However, it’s painfully evident that sleeping in class is one of the ultimate wastes of time there is in college. So let’s tackle the main reason we’re sleeping in class; not sleeping enough at night.

The absolute best way to make sure you’re awake and attentive in class is to make sure you were sleeping for more than six hours the night before. Being well rested is incredibly important; not only for staying awake in class, but for your overall health as well. Of course, you already know this, so I’m not going leave this entry with just an anecdote. Let’s learn how to hack sleep.

Sleep occurs in cycles. The full sleep cycle has five separate stages; four of the stages are classified as non-REM sleep, and one (the last one) is when REM sleep happens. When you lay down to go to sleep, your body starts out in a state of quiet wakefulness. Think of this as a pre-stage, it only happens right before the first cycle begins (hopefully!). As you drift off to sleep, your body starts its path through the five sleep cycles. During the first four, non-REM cycles, your brain activity is gradually decreasing, your heart rate is slowing, and the sleep your are in is deepening. When you hit the third stage, your body temperature actually drops a little, and by the fourth stage you are in your most inactive state. This is also the state of deepest sleep. These first four stages account for almost 75% of all sleep. The fifth state is the REM state; in this state your brain activity sharply increases, almost to the level it’s at when you are awake. Dreams occur in this state, and your brain immobilizes your body to prevent you from acting out your dreams.

So what does all this have to do with staying awake in class? The key point here is recognizing the best time to wake up. Sleep cycles are controlled by the body’s circadian clock, and on average a person will complete a sleep cycle in 90 to 110 minutes. You want to wake up right after a sleep cycle is completed; that is, you want to wake up during the first stage of sleep. Since you are in the least deep sleep at this period, the transition to the waking state will be much less jarring and you will get up feeling much more rested. So how do you figure out how to consistently wake up during this stage?

One traditional way to do this is to just experiment; keep a notebook by your bed and note your wake-up experience each morning. Try going to bed at the same time each night and waking each following morning at different times – five minute intervals is all it should take to start seeing a difference. Doing this should help you to understand how your personal circadian clock works and will lead you to finding the optimal time to wake up.

For iPhone users out there, there’s an app for this; it’s called Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock and it’s in the App Store for 99 cents. This app uses the accelerometer to monitor your movements during sleep. Since your body is in a different state of restfulness during each stage, the app can use the movements to detect when the best time to wake you up is. Recently the developers have told iPod Touch users not to use this app because of reported overheating issues; some people have written reviews contrary to this claim. That said, the risk is your own when using this app with an iPod. I’m a Touch owner myself, and I figure after jailbreaking I’m already a risk-taker, so I might give it a try.

Do take into account that circadian rhythms aren’t the only thing that influence how rested you feel. If you’re doing these experiments, remember that diet, hydration, exercise, and stress can all effect the quality of your sleep. Don’t slack off in these areas! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take my own advice and get some sleep!

Other sleep resources:

Awesome post on sleep at forums

#sleep at lifehacker

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