This Sunday, March 13th marks the annual rite of spring when you must deposit one full hour of your life into a time bank as daylight savings time (DST) kicks off. Our government requires you to do this so that you may enjoy longer daylight hours throughout the next 34 weeks of spring, summer and fall. Thankfully, you will get that hour back on November 6th when we once again fall back to standard time.
For the purpose of this post, I won’t get into arguing about the potential benefits that have been studied which supposedly justify making this semi-annual adjustment (e.g. do we truly save on our energy consumption). Instead, I’ll explain why making this adjustment is challenging for our bodies, along with some of the negative consequences that can result, and three strategies to make the adjustment a little easier.
Why the DST Adjustment is so Disruptive to your Sleep
Moving our clocks forward abruptly changes our exposure to daylight, which is the primary cue our bodies use to set our circadian rhythm (i.e. the natural 24-hour cycle which helps us feel awake during the day and sleepy at night). In doing so, our internal clock becomes out of sync with our current day-night cycle and for many people it can take several days or even weeks to fully adjust to this new schedule.
For those of you who travel over one-time zone on a frequent basis, you may have noticed that springing forward each year is harder for your body to adjust to than say flying from Chicago to NYC for business for a few days. The reason springing forward is more difficult than traveling one time zone over is because when we travel into a whole new time zone, our principle light cue moves with us. For example, if today you flew from Chicago, where the sun rose at 6:15 am this morning, to NYC and spent the night, the sun would rise tomorrow in NYC at 6:18 am. A mere three-minute difference. Thus, your body does not notice any significant difference in the principle light cue it receives.
When we compare that to the spring forward time change, we see a big difference. On Saturday March 12th, the sun will rise in Chicago at 6:07 am. After you adjust your clocks, the sun will rise on Sunday March 13th at 7:05 am. That’s a 58-minute difference and for many people who wake everyday before 7:00 am, you will go from waking up during early daylight to having to get up in the dark. Thus, your body is confused as to why you suddenly are forcing it out of bed an hour earlier everyday. This is why it can take several days to several weeks to adjust. For those living in the CDT zone, you will have to wait over a month, until April 17th, before the sun rises at 6:07 am or earlier again.
Studies Show there are Several Negative Health Consequences to DST
Springing forward has been shown to cause decreases in performance, concentration, and memory in addition to fatigue and daytime sleepiness over the days following the time change, all of which are similar to individuals who are sleep deprived. Furthermore, during the first week of DST there's a spike in heart attacks, according to a study in the The American Journal of Cardiology (and other previous studies). That's because losing an hour of sleep increases stress levels and provides less time to recover overnight.
Beyond the impact to your heart, a study by the American Psychological Association showed an increase in workplace injuries following the shift to DST and another study by the University of Colorado at Boulder that found an increase in fatal motor vehicle accidents the first six days after the clocks spring ahead.
For these reasons and others, some believe we should do away with DST altogether and have proposed a change to a simpler system of two time zones throughout the United States that never change.
Three Strategies to Make Springing Forward a Little Easier
1. Lengthen the Post-DST change Adjustment Period by Planning Ahead
Some of you reading this may have flexible work schedules. Back when I worked for an IT Consulting Company, I used some of these techniques. First, take a few minutes and review your schedule on Monday March 14th (and the following few days if possible) and try to move any meetings that happen during your first hour of work back an hour or more. Then block off the time so no one comes along later and tries to schedule something else. This will enable you to ease into the new time schedule by knowing you don’t have to be in the office at the normal time if you weren’t able to get enough sleep. If you can block off the time and get your bosses approval, you might even plan to go into work 45 minutes later the first day, 30 minutes later the second day and 15 minutes later by the third day (you can then make up the time by shortening your lunch break or adding the time back at the end of the day if necessary). If your boss balks at the suggestion, point him or her to this study that shows that one result of DST is more employee cyberloafing. Of course, you can always go in at your normal time if you feel well rested, but just knowing you have the option to start later will reduce stress and better enable you to get the rest you need. By mid week, you will have likely adjusted to the new time change.
Another option, if your job allows it, is to work from home on the first few days of daylight savings time. Not only will this enable you to save the commute time and ease you into the earlier start to your workday, but as noted previously, it will also keep you off the road with all those other groggy drivers, which may save you a fender bender or more severe accident.
A final option is to simply take a day or two off which will give you another 24-48 hours to adjust before you have to return to work. I have a friend who does this every year. If you select this option, you should still try to begin adjusting your wake up time forward each day. Otherwise, if you sleep late on that Monday off, getting up on Tuesday or Wednesday morning will be just as difficult.
For those of you who have kids that you have to take to school on Monday morning, these options may not work as well since you may still have to be up early to drive them in. So you might want to consider the next two options instead.
2. Spring Forward Earlier
There are two options here. The first is to simply set your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier each day starting on Thursday March 10th. Thus, if you normally get up at 7:00 am for work, Thursday you will set your alarm for 6:45 am, Friday for 6:30 am and Saturday for 6:15 am and finally Sunday, just set your alarm back to 7:00 am after you have moved your clocks forward. I’ve often joked with family and friends that we should spring forward in 15 minute increments over four weeks to make DST easier. However, no one would want to have to reset their clocks that many times. Therefore, an easier way is to just set your wake up alarm differently for a few days. This is an especially good plan if you have to work on Sundays so that getting up earlier is less challenging on the first day of DST. This enables you to spread out the change slowly over four days. This is also a good plan for your kids who are in school, although getting them up earlier when they know they don’t have to may be an even greater challenge.
The second strategy is one I’ve used in the past when I was in school, and it can help those who don’t have to go back to work or school until Monday. Staring Friday evening after work, I move all my household clocks forward to the new time. Of course, my cell phone still tells me the actual time and I make sure to set alerts on my phone giving me extra advance notice of any place I need to be, like meeting friends for dinner Saturday night. However, I try to use the clocks around the house and my bedside alarm clock to begin planting the seed in my mind that it’s an hour later. I also try to go to avoid making late night plans during the spring forward weekend and try going to bed as soon as I feel tired on Friday and Saturday night. I then set my alarm to get up 20 minutes early on Saturday morning and then another 20 minutes earlier on Sunday. Using the 7:00 am wake-up example, set your alarm for 6:20 am on Saturday, 6:40 am (after the time change on Sunday) and then 7:00 am on Monday, your normal wake time for work.
This also essentially spreads the time change over three days and allows me to begin easing into the new time when it's less likely to induce stress and impact my sleep (since I don’t have to worry about work or school on the weekend). However, if you work on Saturday mornings this is not the plan for you. Instead set up your own adjustment time frame that will work best for your work schedule.
3. Limit Evening Light and Get Outside to Exercise
If you can’t adjust your work schedule or move your clocks ahead earlier, or you want to try other methods to help your body adjust more quickly, then another option is to dim your blinds after 6:00 pm and exercise in the late afternoon or early evening.
By dimming your blinds in the early evening, you can mimic the sun setting and help your body ramp up melatonin production, which will help you fall asleep.
As for exercising, although the exact mechanisms are unknown on how this improves sleep, one way may be by the body-heating effects of exercise, especially when performed in the afternoon or early evening. Here again, a study by the American Psychological Association noted that exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep.
To summarize, try to take as much control as you can by spreading the time transition out some by either springing forward early, ahead of DST, or by adjusting your work schedule after DST by following the strategies I’ve noted above. Or you can try the wellness tips I covered in my final suggestion to help your body more easily adjust. I realize some of you may argue that using the first two options just spreads out the painful process of losing an hour of sleep. If the spring forward change is no big deal for you, by all means, just follow the standard protocol and change your clocks Sunday morning. However, for those of you who get stressed out knowing you are going to feel the impact come Monday morning, these strategies will help you manage your environment rather than feeling like you have no control.
Let me know which strategy you choose and how it worked for you. If you have any other suggestions, please share them in the comments below to help my readers learn from your experience. And also feel free to share your opinions on whether we should continue to put ourselves and our health through this semi-annual change.
P.S. – Do you have trouble sleeping beyond the spring forward time change? If you suffer from insomnia, I have a unique treatment plan that combines both Eastern and Western therapies to help you sleep better. Contact me or schedule a free consultation to find out more.
P.P.S – For a humorous take on why DST may not be beneficial to your health or your energy consumption, watch this segment from Tonight with John Oliver from last year. I strongly recommend you save the link and take a few minutes to watch it as soon as you can. Laughter, after all, is another proven way to improve your health and wellness.