In graduate school I had a semester when I had a lot of trouble waking up for a 9 AM seminar. I really liked my history of modern architecture course, but the hour was a challenge. To help me get up, I bought the loudest, most obnoxious alarm clock I could find, a General Electric clock radio styled like a station wagon from ca. 1977, with fake wood paneling on the top and sides, and an obnoxious, effective alarm.
My wife and I still have it; it's probably the longest-lived piece of electronics I own. But recently I've been experimenting with alarms on my iPhone. When I wake up early to work or meditate, I don't set a loud alarm; I use a sample of Brian Eno's ambient music, or a Haydn piano piece, or Yo-Yo Ma. I'm interested in two questions:
- Is it harder to get up with a softer alarm?
- Does the type of alarm influence my mood?
For me, getting up early to write is essential to my productivity, but I'm no more a morning person now than I was when I was trying to make it to ARCH 501C. Waking up is a gradual process: unless I reluctantly stopped working the night before on something, I don't spring out of bed, but work my way back into being conscious. So I set a series of alarms, none of them especially loud or jarring, and see what happens.
The interesting thing is, the softer volume and softer sound works. Given that I'm accustomed to thinking of alarms as effective only when they're loud and jarring, this is a revelation. (Of course it may also be that my older self has an easier time getting up; the point of this sort of self-experimentation is not necessarily to discover some eternal truth about yourself, but to constantly discover what works for you now.)
As for whether it affects my mood, I'm not so sure. I'd like to think that a softer wake-up would make me quieter or more contemplative, but that's not clear. Maybe any time before 6 is going to feel like a baby's room-- the sort of space where you should walk quietly and create as little disturbance as possible. It's definitely the case that I notice a loud alarm much more than I used to: I'm now so habituated to the lower volume that when I forget to turn down the volume on my iPhone, I'm really shocked and awed by how loud a Bach solo cello sample can sound at 5 in the morning.
It has gotten me thinking, though, about the word "alarm." Until I started this experiment, I always associated effectiveness with volume and obnoxiousness: my treasured Braun travel alarm clock, which I relied on to get me up on many a research trip, was a like a little sonic drill. (That thing was a masterpiece of minimalism.)
But does calling the thing that wakes you up an "alarm" create an avoidable sense of urgency and anxiety? Alarms are warnings, things that jar our attention, that provoke and demand a quick response.
Waking up can be like that if you're up late and have only ten minutes to get out the door, but it need not: it can be a far more gradual change of state, a coast rather than a crash landing. Part of my aim in getting up early, and waking up this way, is to preserve (or start the morning with) some of the calm and single-mindedness that I feel when the first bars of Brian Eno's Ambient Music for Airports starts to play.