Carole Turley Voulgaris is a doctoral candidate in urban planning at UCLA and usually only blogs about transportation planning. She served a full-time mission in the Germany Frankfurt mission from 2003 to 2004. Carole currently lives in Seattle with her husband, who is a late-riser and has convinced her of the virtues of sleeping in.
A few weeks before the end of my mission, I was chatting with a couple other missionaries about what we most looked forward to about life after the mission [fn1]. One elder said, “When I get home, I’m going to head to my room and go to sleep. And when I wake up, it won’t be because my alarm went off. It won’t be because my companion woke me up. It won’t be because I feel guilty. It will be because I’m not tired.”
Wow. The idea of waking up and feeling well rested just sounded so amazing. We missionaries were tired a lot.
I thought of this conversation again the other day as I was looking through some background literature for a paper I’m writing about the effect of teens’ commutes to school on how much sleep they get (spoiler: they get less sleep as they spend more time commuting). Angela C summarized some of the literature on teen sleep deprivation a couple weeks ago, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Teens need about the same amount of sleep as very young children (which is more than adults need) [fn2]. But, although little kids generally do get as much sleep as they need, teens tend to be chronically sleep deprived [fn3], at least in part because they are shoehorned into an adult’s schedule that has them staying up later than little kids do, but waking up at about the same time [fn4]. To make matters worse, there is pretty good evidence that teens circadian rhythms are offset from those of adults and children by two or three hours, so the early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy doesn’t fit well with a teenager’s biology [fn5]. The unique sleep needs of adolescents last into a person’s late teens [fn6].
Do you know who’s increasingly in their late teens these days? Missionaries.
The daily schedule for missionaries hasn’t changed much since I was a missionary (when sister missionaries in particular were generally a couple years further into adulthood than they are today). They wake up at 6:30am. Then they have 30 minutes to exercise, 30 minutes to shower and get dressed, 30 minutes for breakfast (pro-tip: if you eat quickly, you can take a longer shower and actually have time to do your hair), one hour for personal study, and one hour for companionship study. So you don’t actually leave your apartment until 10am (later if you aren’t teaching in your native language, in which case you can take 30 to 60 extra minutes for language study in the morning). That’s fine because you’re not going to have much luck scheduling appointments before 10am anyway, much less with knocking doors. Then, you’re out proselyting until 9:00 or 9:30pm. When you get home, you write in your journal, plan for the next day, and get ready for bed. You go to bed at 10:30pm.
Going to bed at 10:30 and waking up at 6:30 does not fit well into the natural sleep pattern for most 19-year-olds.
Mission presidents have a ton of latitude in adapting mission rules as needed, so here’s what I would do if I were a mission president [fn7]: Give missionaries the option of moving some or all of their personal study time to the evening. Their proselyting hours wouldn’t be affected at all, but if both companions were to move all of their study-time to the evening, they could stay up until 12:30am and sleep the next morning until 8:30am. If one companion wanted to take D&C 88:124 really literally, then she could go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at 6:30, but her companion could at least do her personal study at night, from 10:30 until 11:30 and then sleep in until 7:30 while the early-bird does her own personal study. Or you could just move 30 minutes of companionship study time into the evening, do the rest in the morning, and adjust bedtimes and wake-up times accordingly. The possibilities are endless!
I don’t think it’s crazy to think a change like this could be adopted. I was in the middle of my mission when there was a church-wide change to the missionary schedule to allow for 30 minutes of exercise in the morning. So the idea of messing around with missionaries’ schedules in support of their health isn’t unprecedented.
I can think of some side benefits to this idea too, in addition to just having healthier, better-rested, and more mentally alert missionaries. First of all, it would give missionaries a chance to experiment and figure out whether their studying is more effective in the morning or in the evening – a helpful thing to know about yourself if you’re going on to college after the mission.
Also, maybe it would move us away from the idea that waking up early is a virtue in and of itself (D&C 88:124 notwithstanding). There was one sister in my mission who made her companions wake up even earlier than required. If 6:30am was a righteous time to wake up, then 6:00am must be even more righteous! The sacrifice would lead to even more blessings! I ended up serving with a few of her former companions, and when they would suggest that idea to me, I would argue that waking up early is just as much against mission rules as staying up late would be. And also, no thank you, I am not willing to work through lunch either.
Finally, I think a change like this would better recognize the ways in which these missionaries are adults and the ways in which they are still children. Under the current schedule, we treat missionaries like children in the sense that we’re dictating what time they can wake up and go to bed, but in doing so, we’re forcing these adolescents into a schedule that makes more sense for adults. With my proposal, we’re treating them like adults in the sense that we’re giving them a little more autonomy over their own sleep schedules, and in doing so, we’re allowing those that need it to adopt a sleep schedule that’s more appropriate for the adolescents that many of them still are.
[fn1] I realize that even just admitting to having had this conversation might lead some people to classify me as a bad missionary who wasn’t fully committed to missionarying. They’d be wrong though. I was a terrific missionary :)
[fn2] Teufel, J. A., Brown, S. L., and Birch, D. A. (2007). Sleep among early adolescent students. American Journal of Health Studies, 22(1), 10-17.
[fn3] Wolfson, A. R., & Carskadon, M. A. (1998). Sleep schedules and daytime functioning in adolescents. Child Development, 69(4), 875–887.
[fn4] Wahlstrom, K. (2002). Changing times: Findings from the first longitudinal study of later high school start times. NASSP Bulletin, 86(633), 3–21.
[fn5] Hagenauer, M. H., Perryman, J. I., Lee, T. M., & Carskadon, M. A. (2009). Adolescent changes in the homeostatic and circadian regulation of sleep. Developmental Neuroscience, 31(4), 276–284.
[fn6] Jenni, O. G., & Carskadon, M. A. (2004). Spectral analysis of the sleep electroencephalogram during adolescence. Sleep, 27(4), 774–783.
[fn7] It is unlikely that I will ever be a mission president (because I’m a girl) or even a mission president’s wife (because my husband isn’t Mormon, so that would be weird), which is why I’m sharing my idea here in the hope that a future mission president will read it.