First things first. I am not purporting that you must be a morning person to be successful in life or productive throughout the day. Our natural sleep cycle — called our circadian rhythm — varies greatly from person to person. Depending on whether you feel most awake and alert in the morning, in the evening or somewhere in between, you have a certain chronotype, and no type is better than the other. In fact, some experts say it’s best not to force yourself into another type. If being a night owl works for you, don’t let the early risers shame you into thinking you’re doing something wrong. Sayings like “The early bird catches the worm!” point to a general orientation around the workday.
There are, however, benefits to seizing a few sweet hours in the morning before most of our life functions rev up. Evidence shows there are benefits to maximizing effort in the morning while we have our reset calories that start to burn off throughout the day the moment we wake up. One study shows that we handle stressful things better in the morning due to cortisol levels (source), but for complex tasks, it’s best to work when you’re less distracted — whether that is morning or evening. A lot of morning people will tell you they get their best thinking or writing or problem-solving done early in the morning, and it’s largely due to the lack of texts, emails, TV and noise that grows and grows through the day. This also leaves room for menial and thoughtless tasks that are best saved for the end of the day when our core body temperature is highest.
Waking up early is something that I — a classic night owl — have historically struggled with (but am getting much better at!). So I called on Koula Callahan, a trained and impressive morning person and the Director of Content at StoryBrand, to weigh in on what works for her, too. Here are some helpful ways for night owls to begin to shift to an earlier wake-up time.
Have a Morning Routine … But Stay Fluid
“I don’t do well with a routine that’s heavily regimented and structured because if I don’t do it exactly as I should, I feel like I failed,” Koula says. “The most important thing about my morning routine is that I don’t let myself get on any device.” There is a lot of science that backs the benefits to this, but Koula’s main one is that it gives her time to fill her mind and soul with things that are good and nurturing. “If the first thing I look at is my phone, it immediately fills my mind with comparison, stressful task lists, etc.,” she says. Other things Koula does in the morning: walk the dog without a phone, make a slow cup of coffee, meditate (“It’s like dental floss for my brain,” Koula says.), drink water, or write for about 10 minutes. The takeaway? Do something that nourishes your mental, physical and emotional health each morning, but know that it can change day-to-day.
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Don’t Stress About Bedtime (At First)
If you’re used to going to sleep at midnight, it’s unrealistic to think that your body will be ready to go to sleep at 9:30 p.m. If you expect that to be the case, you will get frustrated quickly. Instead, go to sleep at the same time, but get up earlier. You might be a little sleepy the next day (and the day after), but this way, your body will naturally start to want to fall asleep earlier. Day by day, go to sleep 15 minutes earlier than the night before. “I fully believe that no one is just born a morning person,” Koula says. “You have to be disciplined about your wake-up time in order to morph into a morning person because it’s just not natural to want to get out of bed before you have to. I have not always been a morning person. But after years of getting up and experiencing how much better I think and feel in the morning, I’m a convert. I’m also highly protective of my sleep — if I don’t get eight hours I am a monster. So I really plan my days around how much sleep I need to get.”
Create a Peaceful Nest
You’ve heard everyone tell you to turn off your phones and screens after a certain point in the night. There is a truth to that, but don’t beat yourself up if watching an episode of “Parks and Rec” helps you unwind. I try to nix mindless, purposeless scrolling at night and instead read a few non-current-event-related articles or listen to an uplifting podcast. Once my phone automatically sets to “Bedtime Mode” at 10 p.m. (maybe this is earlier for you!), I start reading an actual physical book. This helps lull me to sleep. If possible, open the blinds or curtains before bed to let natural light pour in in the morning!
For Koula, the nighttime routine is just as important as the morning one. “Your ‘wind-down’ helps prepare your brain and your body for sleep. Turning down the lights, getting quiet, taking care of your personal needs like skincare … conditioning yourself to wind down at a certain time each night will get you into a good rhythm.”
Technology is on Your Side
There are a lot of tools at our fingertips and on our bedside tables to help aid a morning person schedule. The sleep tracker that comes on your iPhone is a perfect place to start. Another great app to consider is Sleep Score, which tracks your sleep contactless from the bedside table, gives you actionable tips for improving your sleep, provides lots of data about your sleep, and it even comes with a smart alarm that gradually wakes you up at the best time during your cycle.
Sleep Cycle is another great option that offers less detailed sleep data, but more sound options for their smart alarm function. Other ideas: Play a guided meditation on apps like the Calm app as you’re falling to sleep. Digital white noise or rain sounds played softly through a smart speaker can help to block background noise in your home and outdoors. Light sleepers, y’all know what I am talking about.
Water! Water! Water!
One of the best tricks to feeling energized when you wake up is to immediately (like right away, on an empty stomach) drink as much water as you can muster — four cups is ideal. For me, drinking a large glass of chilled water is more effective at waking me up than a cup of coffee. There are a lot of benefits to this. In a basic sense, six to eight hours of sleep is a long time without hydration, so morning water necessarily rehydrates us. But it also jumpstarts your metabolism, kickstarts your organs, balances your immune system, flushes toxins the body naturally casts out at night, and starts to produce a bunch of red blood cells.
A main symptom of dehydration is fatigue and tiredness. So if you awaken early after maybe not as many hours of sleep as you’d like, preemptively squash that grogginess by fueling your body with water starting on an empty stomach. Plus, the brain is 70% water and if it doesn’t get enough, it can’t perform or remember at its best.
You don’t have to run a 10k at 6 a.m. Even two minutes of jumping jacks or a few walks around the block in the morning is enough to wake up the body, start the metabolism and ignite that mental clarity. Need a few quick, effective 10-minute workouts? We’ve got you!
Return to Your Intention
There is likely a reason (or reasons) you want to get up earlier. Some might want to be more clearheaded and ready for work. Others might want to create alone time for introspection without distraction. Some might want to knock out exercising in the morning. Others might want to be more present for their children before school. Whatever your reason or reasons, return to them often and remind yourself of why your alarm is set.
Treat Yo’ Morning Self
I set my automatic coffee maker each night so that when my alarm goes off, I know that fresh, piping hot coffee awaits me downstairs. This is a small tactic that makes me look forward to jumping (well, jumping, is definitely a stretch) out of bed. (SB TIP: Wait 30-45 minutes to let all the water start to work its magic before you dive into the coffee.) Other versions of a morning treat would be to make your favorite smoothie or put on the latest episode of The New York Times‘ The Daily or The Wall Street Journal‘s The Journal. Speaking of journals, writing in the morning has been a formative habit for me and many others I know.
Make a Happy List
Every morning, after water and coffee, I put on some relaxing music — like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon — and start to write out three very short lists. First, I write three things I am proud of. Cooking that meal last night instead of ordering takeout. Making that pesky dentist appointment I’ve been putting off. Turning in an article before a deadline. Running three miles without stopping. Thinking about accomplishments — small or big — is a great way to start your day with positive self-talk. Next, I write three things that make me happy. Mini M&Ms. The morning sun. Houseplants. Conversations with my mom. My new running shoes. Write down anything that comes to mind — it does not have to profound. These change a lot throughout the weeks, months and years, and I always love going back to look at these lists. The last one is my “motivated” list of three things I want to get done that day. I start with the bigger project or task, and then work my way to the menial things like “order new contacts” or “get a case of wine at Trader Joe’s” … wink wink!
Professional Benefits To Rising Early
“The mental clarity that most people have in the morning is much sharper than later in the day,” Koula says. “Getting up early gives you the white space to think strategically and critically about your priorities. Since you’re coming out of a sleep state, you’re functioning more from your limbic system (motivation, emotion, learning, and memory) in the mornings, so it’s usually the best time to get creative work done.” Rolling out of bed at the last possible minute — even if you’re just joining a morning Zoom meeting — forces you to start your day feeling rushed, scatterbrained and anxious. “You’re immediately forced to switch into the analytical part of your brain so you skip over that creative, fluid thinking time,” Koula points out. “There’s also tons of research that shows how [that creative time] improves your mood, makes you more likely to get promoted and paid more.” (source)
Don’t forget that many of us just aren’t wired to be larks, so a shift from night owl to lark is not going to happen overnight (see what I did there!?). Be patient with yourself. If you want to stay up late sipping cocktails on your neighbor’s porch, do it! If you’re at the beach and you want to sleep in, sleep in! Just try to keep a schedule as best you can, because it’s easy to fall out of sync once your sleep cycle has shifted. Even a 30-minute shift to an earlier wake-up call can provide some much-needed alone time to start your day with intention and calmness.
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