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How I fixed my sleep and wake-up pattern with Hue's hidden automations

The default sleep and wake-up routines are very limited. These Labs formulas are better.

Published onJune 1, 2023

Philips Hue light bulb 2 in hand
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

I have always been attracted to light. I naturally wake up to it every morning and I start winding down with it in the evening. Dim rooms, gloomy weather, and short winter days; none of these are my favorites. So when I moved from sunny and Mediterranean Lebanon to cloudy Paris two years ago, I knew I was in for a bit of a system shock. But I had one tool in the box that I believed would help fix my sleeping and waking-up pattern: Philips Hue lights.

Technically speaking, what I’m about to explain here can be done with many other smart lights, and might even be easier or more customizable on other platforms. So why Hue? Simply speaking, I already own the hub and lights, so I used them. I picked them up a few years ago while building my smart home because of their power-on behavior setting and non-Wi-Fi connectivity. (I lived in an area with many power cuts and slow network connectivity.)

Going back to my issue with natural light in Paris, my main concern was my inability to adapt to shorter winter and longer summer days. Once those concerns became a reality, I quickly set up my Hue lights to fix them. Here’s how.

Waking up on dark winter mornings

The problem with Hue’s wake-up routine

I’m used to waking up between 7 and 8 AM from natural light, drinking some water, and being ready to tackle the day. No alarm, no endless snoozing cycles, no coffee. Come November, it became clear that that was no longer possible. I was waking up groggier and less refreshed; both my body and brain weren’t on top of their game. I was even startled by my husband’s 8:30 AM alarm several times. The reason is that sunrise time slowly pushes forward and forward until it gets to around 8:40 AM during the winter equinox in Paris. So how am I supposed to wake up from natural light around 8 AM if it’s still dark as night outside?

Both the 'Wake up with light' and 'Custom' sunrise automations weren't good for me. So I went digging for a more powerful solution.

Enter the sunrise mode on smart lights, or as Hue likes to call it, the “Wake up with light” automation. I set up our bedroom lights to fade in from 8 AM to 8:30 AM. While this was efficient at waking me up, it did so a little brutally (I was often up by 8:05 or 8:10 AM) with lights that were too bright and got brighter as the thirty minutes of fading progressed. The “Custom” sunrise automation could’ve done the job, but I wanted more control over the final scene’s brightness.

A better solution: The Personal wake-up lab formula

Looking for that granular control, I dug into the rather hidden Hue Labs section and discovered the Personal wake-up formula that is much more customizable. This allowed me to pick the scene I preferred to wake up to (a natural-to-warm light is best), the maximum brightness I wanted the bulbs to reach (70% is more than enough for me), and the fade-in duration. I’m not sure why exactly, but I realized a shorter 15-minute fade duration was better than a longer 30-minute one.

And with that simple step, like clockwork, the bedroom lights came on at 8 AM every morning, then grew in intensity for 15 minutes to reach 70%. And like clockwork, I woke up every weekday morning between 8:00 and 8:15 AM. Magic. The grogginess didn’t completely go away, but it was significantly reduced compared to the pre-Hue wake-up days. I’ve been using this for two winter seasons now, and it’s still as efficient as it was on the first day.

Like clockwork, the bedroom light comes on at 8 AM and I naturally wake up as it fades to 70% brightness.

Now to be clear, this isn’t a solution for everyone. My never-a-morning-person husband who sleeps next to me in the same bed and needs multiple alarms and reminders to get out of bed didn’t see the same magical results, but he did stir and start waking up by 8:15 AM almost every day. Before we turned on the routine, he would still be steadfastly asleep by then.

Winding down on bright summer evenings

The problem with Philips Hue’s natural light scene and sleep routines

The opposite situation happens in the summer. Days are a lot longer than I’m used to, and I often find myself surprised to look at the clock and see it’s already 10 PM while it’s still bright outside. Sunset here in Paris happens on average two hours later than what I was used to in Lebanon. I can’t possibly go to bed at 11 PM or even at midnight when my body is still fully alert and not yet ready to wind down.

Hue offers a regular “Go to sleep” automation, but once again, it wasn’t customizable enough for me. I wanted more control over my lights and multiple stages of winding down. I also had to make sure that this would only trigger when the lights are already on instead of firing off every day, regardless of whether or not we were home or the lights were off.

Hue's new 'Natural light' scene is a poorly-executed good idea. Luckily, there's a better lab formula to fix that.

Philips also has a new “Natural Light” scene that seems ideal until you realize its limitations. It jarringly switches between scheduled scenes in around one minute with a quick fade animation. It can’t be attached to my Hue switch, so I have to manually enable it daily. It applies to all lights in a room/group, with no option to pick or remove specific lights. And it acts like a scene: dare pick another scene and the natural light is no longer active.

A better solution: The time-based light lab formula

Obviously, I went digging into Hue Labs again and found the more powerful Time-based light formula.

This one is a lot more intricate than the default sleep automation. Just like the natural light scene, it allows me to divide the entire day into five unique chunks, each with a different scene. (The only thing missing is an extra sixth slot for the night, so I had to use my fifth slot for that.)

Unlike the natural light scene, though, it also lets me pick individual lights and its fade-in duration is customizable. I’ve set it to five minutes, so the transition doesn’t feel jarring at all. When this lab formula is toggled on, it is always active. Even if I manually switch to another scene at some point, the preset transition will happen at the chosen scheduled time, so it’s impossible for me to mess this up or mistakenly disable it.

Now, when the lights are on in my living room — and only if they’re on — they automatically transition through the scenes at the five preset times. In the morning, they’re white and at 70%. During the day, they switch to full brightness because this is where my desk and office are. After work, they go back to a 70% white scene. By 8:30 PM, they switch to a relaxed and warm hue at 60%. And finally, come 11:30 PM, they dim down to 30% brightness.

As the living room lights automatically switch to a warm color at 30% brightness, I start relaxing and getting sleepy.

The last 30% warm scene is the one that does the trick for me. It relaxes me and tells my body it’s about time to sleep. Although it worked from the first evening, I find that it’s not as foolproof as the wake-up routine, because sometimes I’m still too amped up or I’m watching an interesting TV series and I can’t fight the urge to binge one more episode, but that’s on me. Anyway, it has had a higher success rate at making me get up and go to bed around midnight compared to relying on outdoor light and leaving the indoor ones untouched at full brightness.

Have you used wake-up or sleep routines with your smart lights?

229 votes

These small features make all the difference between a gimmicky “smart” light that just changes colors and can be controlled via an app or voice assistant and a proper smart light that can help you throughout the day. I love that I can set these and forget them, then let my lights do their thing without any manual intervention. The only time I had to tinker with them was to turn off the wake-up routine when I was traveling and when the winter days were over.

Your smart lights changing hue and brightness throughout the day should be a default feature, not a last-minute addition hidden in an obscure place.

However, I’m a bit annoyed that both of these features are hidden deep in the Labs section where you really have to go digging for them. The Labs interface isn’t the most intuitive either — if you don’t hit the Update button, your changes don’t register; and if you set up a formula but don’t turn it on, it doesn’t work. Your smart lights changing hue and brightness throughout the day should be a default feature, not a second-thought addition hidden in an obscure place.

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