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The Devil Is in Your Snooze Button

• October 23, 2013 • 6:00 AM

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It’s the enemy of both good sleep and productive wakefulness.

I feel like Faustus every morning. The warm darkness of sleep around me like a blanket, I listen as Mephistopheles whispers: Oh, Faustus, dear, I am here. I listen, but want so badly to still be asleep: What do I care, there is no here. There is neither here nor there in sleep, no anywhere really.

Faustus, Mephistopheles says, this time tugging softly at the blanket of darkness, dear Faustus, wouldn’t you like more rest? I never lie. You can have a few more minutes. I close my eyes against the day and answer: Oh, Mephistopheles, I’d do anything for more sleep, even a few more minutes.

The bargain is struck nine minutes at a time. I am Faustus, but the devil is my alarm clock or cell phone, whichever I’ve managed to set the night before. The devil offers me little extensions of nine minutes, and I happily accept three or four installments every single morning.

Instead of the natural sleeping then waking, the snooze drags us into unhealthy, unsatisfying fits of trying to sleep and trying to rise, but failing to do either.

Then Mephistopheles enforces the bargain. I stumble out of bed, at least 18, though usually 36 minutes later than when I had planned. I am late, and I will have bargained away all the leisure and pleasure of the morning: No time for taking a shower, no time for toasting a bagel or bread, no time for reading the newspaper, no time for brewing coffee at home. I wonder sometimes what my neighbors think of me: all those endless choruses of alarm chimes and bells not once a morning, but at least three or four times on repeat.

Snooze is the enemy of both sleep and wakefulness. Snooze is the devil that cheats us into thinking we’ll be more awake for those nine extra minutes of sleep, more rested for every one of those sleep extensions we accept from Mephistopheles. But it’s all a lie: Nine minutes at a time, the snooze cheats us of our waking life. It hasn’t always been this way. Alarm clocks are an ancient device, but the snooze button is a recent invention.

THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ways of waking: Even before clocks, there were crowing roosters and the rising sun. When water clocks first appeared centuries ago in Egypt, they were modified over time to include alarms. Bells and whistles were adjusted to specific levels in the container from which or into which the water fell. These noisemakers sounded whenever the water rose or fell to the appropriate level, providing a reliable alarm for keeping time. There’s some indication that even Plato used such a clock, sounding a water organ early every morning to mark the beginning of his lectures.

The history of horology is entangled with the history of commerce, so the next wave of time-keeping developments was tied to industry. Alarms came in the form of town clocks, factory whistles, and neighborhood knocker-uppers. Town clocks chimed the early morning hours; factory whistles sounded the hours of shift work; and knocker-uppers went around cities knocking on windows or doors at arranged times so that everyone could make it to work. None of these methods offered the opportunity for drowsing. Even when Seth Thomas patented a small mechanical alarm clock in 1876, there was still no snooze function.

For centuries we got by without the snooze. It was only in 1956 that General Electric-Telechron released the Snooz-Alarm, which came equipped with a control bar for snoozing. Westclox released their Drowse Alarm three years later, which featured the choice between snoozing for five minutes and 10 minutes. There is so much more truth in advertising with drowse than snooze, since what you get with each interval is less like sleeping and more like drowsing—a pitiful mix of hazy, haunted wakefulness.

The original Snooz-Alarm had a nine-minute snooze, which became the standard, though there is not much consensus about what dictated that arbitrary interval. There is some speculation that engineers were constrained by mechanical gears and had to choose between complicated double-digit intervals and the easier nine-minute dose. Nine minutes was the most you could get without designing a more sophisticated mechanism. For all the customizable features of modern alarms, from radio stations, specific songs, a multitude of tones, user-recorded messages, it’s surprising that no one has allowed us the freedom of timing our own snoozing for something less regulated than nine minutes.

A stitch in time may save nine, but every nine minutes of snooze wastes a little slice of our lives. Since 1956, we have been confusing snooze for sleep, sacrificing our waking life nine minutes at a time. Not only do we delay the start of our days, but we compromise the very sleep we are trying to steal. The healthy, continuous sleep cycles we need are thoroughly disrupted by the snooze. When we hear the first sound of the alarm, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that wake us, interrupting our natural sleep cycle to make us alert.

Surrendering to the temptation of the snooze erases that hormonal surge: our bodies try to reenter the deeper periods of sleep. Only those restorative levels of sleep take a lot longer than nine minutes to enter, so every snooze confuses our bodies even more. We think three or four snoozes are the equivalent of an extra 30 or 40 minutes of rest, but the patchy, interrupted sleep of snooze is worse than no sleep at all. Instead of the natural sleeping then waking, the snooze drags us into unhealthy, unsatisfying fits of trying to sleep and trying to rise, but failing to do either.

I LIVED WITHOUT THE snooze for the first two decades of my life. It was only during a particularly sleep-deprived period of college that I gave in to the temptation of tapping that button three or four times every morning. Like any addiction, it’s hard to break. I go to bed contracting with my future self to rise the precise moment the alarm sounds, but morning after morning my future self cheats my past self with one snooze after another. Day by day, I rise groggier and drowsier, taking hours instead of minutes to actually, truly awaken.

So how are we to resist the wiles of Mephistopheles? If the war on smoking was won partly by convincing smokers that every cigarette stole 11 minutes of their lives, then perhaps the war on snooze can be won by convincing sleepers they lose nine, 18, 27, even 36 minutes of their sleep lives every morning. We must realize that every snooze is not nine minutes gained, but hours lost: not only of productive sleep, but productive wakefulness.

Next time Mephistopheles whispers in your groggy ear, try rejecting his bargain. Don’t cheat yourself out of restful sleep or waking life. Sleep scientists suggest going to bed earlier or setting your alarm for later, but never giving into the cheat of the snooze. Rather than negotiating that Faustian bargain every morning with the snooze, try setting a second alarm for 30 or 40 minutes after the first. If you find yourself too sleepy to rise when you first intended, let yourself get real, restful sleep before trying again. It’s a war on snooze, but one we can win one morning at a time.


A version of this post also appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “The Devil Never Rests.” For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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