“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” –Benjamin Franklin
Our society is designed for the proverbial early bird. Nine-to-five work schedules. Pre-dawn school bus pick-ups. Six a.m. bootcamps. Hostile corporate takeovers before breakfast. Want to catch the worm? Better be the first one up.
Anecdotal and scientific research indicate that early risers are more productive and even happier than the rest of us. Depressingly, the discovery of an “early bird gene” implies that it’s not easy for everyone to reap these rewards.
So what’s a night owl to do? Is there hope for those of us who don’t wake up chirping with the sun?
My natural tendency is to stay up late and sleep until I’m rested. Since I was a toddler, my body clock has resisted going to bed early — not just because of a fear of missing out, but because I feel fully alert well into the wee hours.
For years I struggled, fighting an inner battle between not being able to fall asleep at the “right” time and a sense of responsibility to never be late for school or work. The result of this lack of sleep, compounded over many years, was fatigue, crankiness, and, ironically, insomnia. I dealt with it by telling myself that I was just “one of those people” who could run on five hours of sleep each night.
In 2010 I started a job that required me to be in the office and fully alert at 5 a.m., a schedule that further messed with my wonky sleep cycle. Five hours of sleep per night was suddenly cut to three. One morning I woke up, got dressed, packed lunch, and walked halfway to the train station before realizing it was barely 1 a.m. I’d only slept 45 minutes and was running on auto-pilot, heading to work three hours early.
After that “wake-up call,” I committed to fixing my sleep/wake habits. I figured I may never be a natural “morning person,” but I could at least spare my physical and mental health by making some lifestyle changes.
Whether you simply want to reap the purported benefits of rising early or you’re forced to wake early because of job or family obligations, it is possible to ease the transition from night owl to early bird. Here are some tips that worked for me:
1. Practice good bedtime habits.
A good night’s sleep is an integral part of waking up early. It sounds obvious, but start getting ready for bed before you want to go to sleep. So, if your goal is to be in bed by 10 p.m., don’t wait until 9:58 p.m. to brush your teeth. The last thing you want is to go to bed feeling alert, so give yourself a buffer window to unwind after any nighttime chores. Use this time for relaxing rituals, such as drinking a cup of tea, yoga or meditation, or reading. Bonus points if you don amber-tinted sunglasses.
2. Streamline your morning routine.
What morning tasks can you knock out the night before? Set the coffee pot on a timer. Prep your lunch. Pack your gym bag. Wash and style your hair. Pick an outfit. Write out your to-do list. These are all small (but necessary) time-sucks that can be done before bed. Yes, it frees up a few minutes for extra sleep, but more importantly it relieves some early-a.m. stress. The to-do list was especially helpful for me.
3. Don’t hit the snooze button.
When the alarm goes off, just get up. An extra 10 minutes won’t do anything but make you more groggy.
4. Wake up to something you love.
You’ll be more likely to get out of bed if you’re getting up to do something you enjoy. Some ideas: Drinking a great cup of coffee, listening to your favorite radio station, taking a morning walk, showering with your favorite body wash. It really is the simple pleasures in life that keep us going.
5. Detach from technology — at night and in the morning.
Remember that relaxing buffer window I mentioned in tip #1? Did you notice there was no mention of checking email or watching television? That was on purpose. Try disconnecting from your devices an hour before bed and, if possible, eliminate them from your sleeping area altogether. Similarly, don’t reach for your smartphone as soon as you wake up. If you use it as an alarm, just turn it off, and get up without checking email, Facebook, or the weather. A friend of mine likes to say that her bed is used for three things only: sleep, sex, and reading. Not bad advice.
6. Get moving.
Morning workouts can be great motivators and leave you feeling energized. Even if you don’t want to – or don’t have time to – break a sweat first thing in the morning, getting some exercise over the course of the day can positively impact sleep and energy.
7. Cut caffeine.
That’s right— cut out caffeine altogether. Some people recommend avoiding it after a certain time or limiting the total amount of caffeine you consume in a given day. But I had the best results when I eliminated it completely and didn’t allow myself to rely on it at all. Once my body adjusted to the new sleep schedule, I was able to reincorporate caffeinated coffee and black tea for their taste.
8. Expose yourself to natural light and fresh air.
Do this as soon as possible after you wake up and throughout the day.
9. Make gradual changes.
If possible, shift your sleep/wake time in small increments. Waking up just 20 minutes earlier each week is easier than setting your alarm back a full three hours at once.
10. Be consistent.
Waking up early shouldn’t be a Monday-to-Friday chore. For sustainable changes, consistency through the weekend is key. Like caffeine, once your body adjusts you can play around with weekend sleep/wake times. But in the beginning try to stick to a schedule.
11. Be patient.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to be a “morning person” overnight. It’ll take time and a bit of experimentation to find what works for you.
12. Don’t complain — and don’t force it if you don’t have to.
Shifting your sleep cycle requires a shift in mindset as well. Complaining that you’re tired or lamenting that you had to leave the party early doesn’t make the transition any easier. Focus on what you’re gaining — productivity, a dream job, a new baby, etc. — in exchange. And if you’re not getting anything out of waking up early, examine why you’re doing it. A very basic goal in life is to not be miserable. Don’t be a “morning person” if it makes you and those around you miserable. Naturally waking up early isn’t “better” — it’s just different. Embrace your true nature by maximizing your productivity when you’re most alert. Time — morning, afternoon, or night — is what you make of it.
Tell us: Are you an inveterate early bird or natural night owl? Have you had to change your ways? Share your experiences and advice in the comments below or tweet us @ExperienceLife.
Maggie Fazeli Fard is a staff writer for Experience Life.