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Q. I’m trying to cut back on my time in front of screens (outside of work). Obviously, my smartphone is my biggest hurdle. One issue I’m particularly bothered by is my morning routine. Since my phone is my alarm, I’m on Facebook and Twitter before I fully open my eyes. To put some space between me and my phone I’m looking for an alarm clock. I want one that doesn’t use batteries, but is going to be reliable. What are my eco-friendly, electricity- and battery-free options? Do they even make those anymore?

New Orleans, La.

A. Dearest Rose,

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For all its benefits, the digital age has sure ushered some invasive technology into our lives. Kudos to you for setting some boundaries with your smartphone – I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Twitter has no place in the bedroom. But with your phone banished from your bedside, how will you know when it’s time to start the day?

They do indeed still make electricity- and battery-free alarm clocks. You know the kind: Those cute, round, two-bell ringers most of us have probably seen primarily in cartoons. You simply use a key to wind up the internal mechanism, Rose, and the magic of gears and springs keeps your clock ticking until wake-up time. Check out a new one (just read the fine print – some now come tricked-out with battery-powered backlights), or, my favorite option, rustle up a charming vintage model.

For my money, the mechanical clock is your best bet because it’s totally off the grid. But let’s also take a look at a few more nifty technologies at work in the alarm-clock world. There’s the mud clock, a bedside planter powered by the reaction between zinc and copper electrodes in moist dirt. Then we have the water clock, a similar device that uses electrodes, fresh water, and a splash of lemon juice to create a simple battery. Pro: They make every morning a science experiment! Con: Mining zinc and copper isn’t exactly eco-friendly.

You may have also heard of a solar alarm clock, a timekeeper that uses a solar cell to wring power out of sunlight or even room light. But most models must rely on a backup battery, so it won’t get you completely away from the battery disposal question.

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Now, before you settle on your next clock, let’s talk about one more option – one that requires no plastic, no metal, or any other resources at all. Bear with me for a moment while I switch from clock hardware to personal well-being: Rose, do you think you could train yourself to wake up without an alarm? After all, our bodies have their own clocks, run by light and hormone fluctuations.

Ideally, this is how it happens: As morning approaches, the brain starts revving up the production of alertness proteins and hormones to wake you up gradually and naturally (the most restful, least stressful way to emerge from slumber). This doesn’t work for most of us, though, because we tend to be chronically exhausted, distracted by flickering screens morning and night, and prone to wildly shifting bedtimes.

Still, it’s entirely possible to teach your body how to wake up when you want it to with the diligent practice of good sleep hygiene: Go to bed at a consistent hour, rise at the same time every day, and get enough sleep. Modern life makes it tough, but even the gentlest alarm sounds quite jangly and jarring compared to a peaceful natural wake-up.


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