Smart Lighting Finally Fixed My Terrible Sleep Habits

Illustration: Polygraphus/Getty Images

All my life, I’ve used an alarm to wake up in the morning. When I was a kid, that alarm took the form of my parents, which was always effective since they don’t typically have a snooze button. In college I had an alarm clock, but knowing that my 7:30 a.m. session of Thermodynamics was expensive was also a good motivator … most of the time. But then my first job had a relatively relaxed “arrival window,” and I suddenly had an option I had rarely enjoyed before: Snoozing.

My brain took this new option very, very seriously. Slowly but surely, I internalized this new freedom. I started thinking it was okay to snooze, just once or twice. What’s an extra 18 minutes? Twenty-five minutes is a REM cycle, right? I should probably just sleep for a full hour and a half so I don’t wake up groggy. It started to get out of control, snoozing over and over. Eventually, I would reflexively turn off my cell-phone alarm completely — with no recollection of it ever going off — then fall back to sleep and wake up in a panic about 20 minutes before I had to leave the house.

I had to do something about it.

As an engineer, I took a somewhat scientific approach to solving this problem. I began researching alarm clocks that would simulate sunrise, recognizing that I was always more capable of dragging myself out of bed during the summer months when the sun got up earlier than I did. Waking up with an artificial method can be a gamble; the sleep phase you’re in can make a huge difference in how you feel waking up, regardless of how much sleep you’ve actually had. Some scientists warn that your alarm clock is actually a health hazard, an opinion I’m sure many would readily agree with. The secondary (and self-inflicted) issue was that I had trained my brain to ignore my alarm thanks to my profuse use of the snooze button. I hoped that introducing light would help my brain accept the time I needed to get up more readily.

So we opted for the Hue system from Philips, which requires both smart bulbs and a “bridge” for the bulbs to communicate with. There are simpler options out there, but we wanted something that we could program and use for multiple purposes. Our kit came with three lights, which we stationed in our master bedroom (one for me, one for my husband) and in our then-3-year-old’s bedroom. The light bulbs easily integrated into our lamps, which meant we all got to keep our preferred lamps and not add more clutter to our nightstands.

The initial entertainment value was high — the app allows you to select color schemes based on your photos, their built-in themes, and more. The lights can be used together to create a scene, like the two in our master taking on sunset tones, or independently. But the real task was using them to improve our sleep. There were three ways we were able to do this.

I am now living proof that lighting really can help you wake up better. We used the “Wake Up” routine in the Hue app to start my light gradually about 30 minutes before I actually needed to wake up. My traditional alarm would then go off when my light had essentially made my room look like the sun was up.

At this point I determined there would be no more snoozing, and I retrained my brain to believe that my alarm actually meant something. It was much easier to reverse my bad snooze-button habit with light on my side, teaching my body that it was time to get moving. This has made a huge difference in my ability to wake up somewhat gracefully all year; it’s absolutely essential in the winter, but still helpful in the summer as well.

The lights can also do the reverse task, signaling to us that the day is winding down. We’ve used routines to turn on the lamps and mimic the sunset, which can even be adjusted to use the actual sunset time at your location every day. Starting bright and going dim, changing from glowing tones to soft blue, is a great indicator to our bodies that it’s time to start thinking about bed.

For my son, 3 years old at the time, sleep seemed to be very optional. He had no problem getting out of bed long before the sun — if he felt ready, then it must be morning! Taking a two-hour nap every day probably helped. He was enjoying using the Hue, set very dim to the color of his choice, as his nightlight. But we decided to take that one step further and institute a house policy: green means go.

If his light was green then it was “morning” and he could get out of bed for the day. Our first thought was to have this happen at the same time every day. After one weekend of that we quickly determined that we’d rather have that option under our control. It was a very successful method, as he willingly looked at books or played until his light turned green. I only had a slight power trip, essentially hitting “snooze” for my toddler and waiting five more minutes to turn his light green on a lazy Sunday morning. Eventually he determined that additional sleep might not be the worst thing and he learned to go back to sleep if his light wasn’t green yet. More sleep for everyone!

When I was young I remember my grandparents having mechanical timers on some of their lamps, with little plastic stops set at certain times. They used them primarily when they were going out of town, so that it looked like someone was home. My cousins and I found them very entertaining, with their little removable pieces, so I doubt they functioned correctly very often.

Hue has made this concept a lot easier, allowing us to set up programs and scenes that we use every day, even when we aren’t home. From the outside, our home looks very similar whether we are there or not. The increased security of our lights simulating appropriate human activity can be an effective deterrent, which helps us sleep better when we’re away.

We’ve been using our smart lights for years now, and I can honestly say it’s had a positive effect on the sleep habits of everyone in our house. Smart lights also work with other apps, allowing you to build up a smart home system if you’re ready to take your home to the next level of automation. When many smart-home products might seem daunting, or just silly, I’d say that incorporating smart bulbs has been helpful, easy, and totally worth it.