My most miserable jet lag experience was the afternoon I struggled for over an hour to liberate my rental car from a tiny paid parking lot in Chamonix, a ski resort town in France. I distinctly remember the feelings of hopeless despair and confusion as I poked at the buttons on the parking machine and made a seemingly endless pilgrimage around the local shops, before I finally acquired the 5 euro bill I needed to effect my escape.
That trip was for “fun,” but nowadays I travel mostly for work: I teach a particularly complex and difficult workshop (the Ally Skills Workshop). Travel is also difficult and painful for me, so I like to spend as little time away from home again as possible. This means that, no matter what the time difference is between San Francisco and my destination, I need to be fully awake and mentally sharp during business hours within a day of my arrival.
About a year ago, I started changing my time zone before I left on my trip. Each day before the trip, I get up one hour earlier or later, until on the day I leave, I am already getting up at the same time I’ll need to be awake at my destination. So for a trip from San Francisco to New York, I’ll get up one hour earlier for three days before my trip. And if I can, I’ll start transitioning back to my home time zone during my trip. One hour a day is still too quick for a full adjustment – I can still feel my home circadian rhythm kicking in for about 10 days after this – but it feels like just a little bit of restless or tiredness a couple of times a day, not the overwhelming sense of doom and despair I remember from that parking lot in Chamonix.
“Get up one hour earlier or later each day” sounds simple, but as the jokes about Daylight Saving Time transition show, doing this for even one day can be difficult. If you live with other people, care for others, or have set work hours, changing your time zone while at home may be difficult or impossible. I set my own hours and I live with my boyfriend, who is incredibly tolerant of me banging around in the middle of the night, or going to bed in the middle of the afternoon. Even so, I just miss spending time with him and my local friends when I’m adjusting my time zone, and being awake alone in the dark is no fun. So, it is by no means a perfect solution even for me – just slightly better than staggering around confusedly at the nadir of my circadian cycle.
I have a collection of tricks that help me stick to my schedule; they might work for you or you might find something else that works better for you.
Going to sleep earlier
Most of my travel is east, and for physiological reasons, it’s harder for most people to get up earlier than to go to bed later. Here are the things that help me go to sleep earlier, in order from first thing I try to last thing I try. On a good night I’ll only go through half the list before falling asleep.
Taking melatonin: The ideal timing and dose of melatonin for going to sleep earlier is 0.3 mg (more is NOT better), one to three hours before you intend to fall asleep. Larger doses don’t help and can make you sleepy for an entire day.
Dimming and darkening: Closing the curtains and dimming the lights two hours before my goal sleep time helps. I aim for complete darkness one hour before goal sleep time. Even if I don’t feel tired when I do this, I’ll start feeling tired soon. I will also adjust my F.lux schedule to match my sleep schedule instead of local sunlight. You might also try blue-blocking glasses or sunglasses if you have to be out in the light.
Lying down: Again, if I don’t feel tired when I do this, I’ll start feeling tired soon.
Reading a familiar book: I’ve read and reread everyone Jane Austen novel multiple times, so I’m never tempted to keep reading after I start to feel sleepy. My Kindle has a built-in light which on the lower settings does not interfere with the effect of darkness. The key here is: low light, soothing distraction from your thoughts, no incentive to keep going after you feel sleepy.
Listening to a familiar book read by a computer: Even more soporific is listening to a computer read Jane Austen to me. I don’t like listening to new books this way because I get stressed about missing out on the words (I have a slightly hard time understanding spoken words) but if it’s something I know backwards and forwards, I find the emotionless robot speech very soothing, especially at a slow speed. Currently, I use iOS’s screenreader feature with the Kindle app; before that I used the Kindle with built-in text-to-speech (now removed from current versions). I suspect that most audiobooks are rather too well read to be as sleep-inducing as the computer-read version. I like switching up the voice occasionally, especially if they’ve got an accent from the country I’m traveling to.
Listening to sleep hypnosis: A friend gave me some sleep hypnosis recordings from Andrew Johnson and I love them. My absolute favorite time to use them is when I’m trying to sleep on a plane and I don’t want to be incapacitated in any way by taking supplements or drugs. I use them with my noise cancelling earbuds – earbuds so that I can sleep on the plane with them in, while listening to my sleep hypnosis recordings. But sleep hypnosis also works for going to sleep earlier when you’re stressed out or worrying.
Taking zolpidem: The side effects of zolpidem make me avoid taking it until I’ve been trying to sleep for at least an hour and failing. I’ll often bite the 10mg pill in half, take half now, and take the second half only if I’m still awake in an hour.
I used to take Benadryl or Unisom to help go to sleep, but the side effects are too negative for me, so I don’t do this any more. I haven’t tried marijuana edibles, but lots of my friends swear by them for going to sleep. Drinking alcohol makes me feel sleepy, but usually I wake up when it wears off, which doesn’t help. Sometimes watching a boring TV show will help me go to sleep when I’m sleeping at my usual time, but it doesn’t seem to work when I’m fighting my own body clock. The Bob Ross painting shows are a good choice for a lot of people.
Getting up earlier
Bright light: A sunrise lamp can really help with waking up if you sleep alone or if your partner doesn’t mind the light. If that doesn’t work for you, turning on the lights ASAP in the room you’re spending time in helps. I like to do a gradual increase of light that mimics the sunrise. This is a situation where you want blue light. I also adjust my F.lux screen temperature to mimic sunrise for my schedule.
Showering immediately: Taking a shower as soon as I get up is super helpful to distract me from the miserable sad feeling in my body. I like having minty-smelling soap and similar “refreshing” smells.
Listening to energetic music: I’m a techno/electronica girl; putting in the headphones and cranking Röyksopp makes my artificial “morning” a lot more bearable.
Taking a walk: As soon as it is light outside, I take a walk. There’s some kind of weird perverse pleasure to being up and about at dawn that helps with my energy, and the earlier I can get real sunlight in my eyes, the better. Physical exercise, bracing air, interacting with people, seeing new things – all of these things help in a way that isn’t as effective as going to a dark empty indoor gym.
Do annoying work: For me, I’m already grumpy and mad and there’s nothing fun I can do anyway because everyone I normally hang out with is asleep, so that’s the perfect time to do annoying tasks that make me grumpy or mad. This is often accounting or tax-related. An additional benefit is that I often get angry, which keeps me awake. Doing something fun and enjoyable will often result in me relaxing and feeling sleepy, so I save that for closer to bed time.
Communicating with friends in other time zones: If I have friends in other time zones who are awake, I send them pictures or chat or talk on the phone if they’re amenable. It helps to feel less alone.
Eating on schedule: Your digestive system is part of your circadian rhythm, and eating on schedule with your new sleep/wake schedule helps. It’s not fun to eat when I’m not hungry, but it helps with waking up as well as adjusting to the new schedule. It’s hard to sleep if my stomach has decided it’s time to eat, so I eat when I am awake to avoid waking up hungry later.
Eating dark chocolate: Eating 70% or higher cacao content chocolate gives me a little bit of sugar and the right kind of caffeine to feel a little more awake and happy. The taste is also interesting and complex and helps me feel awake and interested.
Drinking coffee or tea: Most of the time, coffee and tea make me nauseous and jittery while leaving my tiredness and depression intact. In extreme cases, I will drink a half-caff cappucino or mocha, but I usually avoid that unless I’m traveling 5 or more hours east.
Taking pseudoephedrine: I discovered quite by accident that, for me, pseaudoephedrine completely stops the feelings of depression and sadness I have when I’m getting up too early. When I’m up at 2am the day I fly to Europe, a 12-hour Sudafed makes an incredible improvement in my quality of life. An additional benefit of the 12-hour Sudafed is that I start to feel tired when it wears off, which helps with going to sleep earlier. None of this is surprising when you remember that pseudoephedrine is related to methamphetamine.
I’ve taken amodafinal before and it seemed to work fine with no side effects, but I haven’t tried it for jet lag. I assume it and modafinal work great since they were kind of invented to keep people awake with low side effects.
I don’t travel west as often, and usually it is much easier for me to adapt my schedule. But when I do, a difficult challenge is when I wake up just a few hours before I’m supposed to wake up, when I can’t take a sleeping pill because I’ll be groggy later on. Here are some tips for sleeping later and going back to sleep when you have to be up in a few hours.
Take melatonin a few hours before waking up: Melatonin can not only help you go to sleep earlier, it can also help you sleep later. I set my alarm for 1-2 hours before I suspect I will wake up (my usual wake time) and take 0.3 mg of melatonin, then read a book in the dark until I go back to sleep. The major downside of this approach is that it gives many people exceptionally vivid dreams. For me, this means I spend the last few hours of sleep having intense dreams in which I am determinedly trying to get some specific task done, like writing an essay or unpacking my suitcase, which I find exhausting and frustrating. It also means waking up at least once in the night. I haven’t tried time-release melatonin but it sounds like it would work better than this jerry-rigged situation.
Blocking light: Even a tiny shaft of sunlight between the curtains can ruin my attempt to sleep in. I cover not only my eyes but also my skin – sometimes it feels like the sun on my skin is waking me up, and apparently the skin has photoreceptors too?
Use any non-pharmaceutical going to sleep aid: Keep it dark, read a boring book, listen to sleep hypnosis, keep lying down, etc. When I’m having a bad night for anxiety, I’ll set up my iPhone with the screenreader and Pride and Prejudice and put in my earbuds and just leave it playing in my ears all night. (This is how I got through the two weeks following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)
Believe in stage 1 sleep: The first stage of sleep often feels like I’m still awake – I can sense what is going on around me, remember things that happen, feel the passage of time, etc. – but I’m actually technically asleep. This kind of sleep isn’t fantastic and no on can do well on light sleep alone, but it does serve some of the purposes of sleep and it makes me feel more rested and restored than not sleeping at all. I often get only stage 1 sleep when I’m trying to sleep on a plane. For me, knowing and trusting that stage 1 sleep is effective helps a lot with relaxing and continuing to get some sleep instead of none at all.
Staying up later
Does anyone really need advice on staying up later? I think most people get lots of practice at this. Short version: do interesting, exciting things, take stimulants, get bright light, listen to exciting music, talk to people, read thrillers, eat food. I will also do annoying frustrating work like accounting to keep me from getting too relaxed and feeling sleepy.
Do you have any tips for adjusting your time zone? Leave them in the comments!