Before I tell you about coming to the light, let me first explain why I wanted to become a morning person.
My favourite hours have always been just before midnight, when I get a surge of energy, and three or four in the morning. I read, I write. I enjoy the quiet stillness of having the world all to myself. But you can’t keep those hours when you have kids and a day job. So I stay up later than I should and drag myself groggily out of bed at the last minute into the rushing demands of getting my kids fed, dressed and off to school, of answering e-mails and racing to work.
I recently wondered though, if I couldn’t have those quiet hours late at night, perhaps I could have them early in the morning?
If advocates are to be believed, becoming a morning person could completely change your life for the better. In fact, it’s the key to getting everything you want out of life, according to the more hyperbolic proponents. “You can get up early. And doing so is a necessity in your awesome pursuit toward [being] legendary,” leadership expert Robin Sharma writes in his new book, The 5 A.M. Club.
I’ve always envied the qualities morning people seem to possess. Studies have shown that early risers do better in school, are more persistent and conscientious than night owls (who tend to be more intelligent and creative).
I’ve tried becoming a morning person before to no avail. I would set my alarm for a few hours earlier than usual and put it across my bedroom to force me to get up. On the days when it worked, I felt exhausted. More often than not, I would turn off the alarm and crawl back into bed.
Sleep researchers do say it is possible to become an early riser – “but it is not easy,” says Julie Carrier, a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine in Montreal.
There is a biological reason for when each of us gets sleepy and feels rested enough to wake up. It’s essentially programmed into us. The more of a night owl you are, the harder you have to fight your programming. The sleep schedule you maintain can also add to the difficulty, among other lifestyle choices.
Most people are neither night owls or larks, the term sleep researchers use for morning people. Everyone is born with a chronotype that determines their circadian rhythm, the body’s clock that determines when you are asleep and when you are alert. Everyone’s chronotype is encoded in their DNA (I no doubt inherited my preference for late nights from my mother, who is also a night owl).
Lifestyle also plays a role. If your sleep schedule is erratic, it will be harder to become a lark, Carrier says. The duration of exposure to sunlight can also affect sleep, although there are no large-scale studies that have examined the chronotypes of people who live near the equator compared to people who live in northern countries that go through long periods of sustained darkness, she says.
To become a morning person, you must start by getting enough sleep, which so few of us are doing, says Helen Driver, manager of the sleep disorders lab at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre. “We are chronically cutting back on our sleep time,” she says. “We’re just trying to fit in more and more things.”
A 2017 study of more than 10,000 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 79 released by Statistics Canada found that one-third of people sleep less than seven hours a night. Women on average slept 7.24 hours a night, while men got seven hours of shuteye. Both figures are near the low end of the seven to nine hours a night recommended by experts. (Only 3.3 per cent of people slept longer than nine hours a night). Those numbers show we are getting even less sleep than in 2005, when Statscan conducted its previous General Social Survey. Back then, men were getting 8.1 hours of sleep a night compared with women’s 8.3.
A similar trend south of the border prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare insufficient sleep a public-health epidemic in 2016. Lack of sleep has been linked to a number of troubling health outcomes, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
If you want to get up early, you need to go to bed that much earlier. Of course, it should be a gradual adjustment to change your circadian rhythm, says Carrier, who suggests I start by going to bed and waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual every day or so, depending on how well I’m adapting. “Nature is gradual,” she says, advising me that it could take weeks, if not months, to truly become a morning person.
It took Michael Ricafort, a 46-year-old who works in investment management in Toronto, a couple of months to become a morning person. Ten years ago, wanting to get work done early “before my day gets away from me,” he started going to bed earlier, he put his alarm clock on the far side of his bedroom and signed up for an early-morning fitness boot camp with friends to pressure him to get out of bed and get going. He now wakes up at 4:30 a.m., often before his alarm even goes off. “It’s kind of just wired now that I wake up,” Ricafort says.
Similarly, Abby Koning decided to try to become a morning person when she entered university three years ago. “I was thinking, I don’t want to be starting so late in the day,” says the 20-year-old from her home in Victoria. It took her about eight months of going to sleep early and maintaining her sleep schedule on weekends to fully make the adjustment.
The more of a night owl you are, the harder it is to change, Carrier says. Which brings me to the light.
She advises me to, each morning, expose my face to light for at least 30 minutes. When light hits your eyes’ retina, it signals the brain to stop producing melatonin, a hormone that makes you drowsy, and instead begin making cortisol, a hormone that helps wake us up. It is the best way to re-set your circadian rhythm.
I bought an alarm clock that looks like a white disc. About the size of a Frisbee, it wakes me up by emitting light, starting low and within seconds brightening to the intensity of an interrogation room. The first morning I used it, I stared at it, feeling like an idiot for the first few minutes – was this really how I was spending my time? For the first few days, I didn’t have the will to stare at it, so I unplugged it.
Carrier also suggests taking melatonin. I tried it one night, and was so knocked out I wandered the house like a zombie for an hour before going to bed. If I ever need to fall asleep very early, I’ll take it again. But it was not necessary to help me get to sleep 15 minutes earlier than normal.
The other trick Carrier recommends is getting up and moving around as soon as you open your eyes. Physical activity helps fight sleep inertia, that groggy feeling most people are familiar with from jet lag, she says.
For the past few weeks, I have been following her advice: I wake up, force myself to stare at my interrogation light, get up and turn my bedroom light on, do a few pushups or swing my arms around and then stare at the light again until I feel fully awake and alert, which is usually no more than five minutes.
I am a long way from not having to rely on this routine to wake up early. But it is slowly getting easier. Some mornings recently, I’ve even woken up without much struggle. I read a book or go swimming at a community centre near my house, or simply enjoy the quiet stillness I once thought I could only ever get from the night.
Can’t get up? Try these alarms
Having trouble getting up in the morning? Don’t hit the snooze button on your alarm clock, sleep experts say. Doing so confuses the brain – are we getting up or not? – and will make you feel foggy. These alarms are guaranteed to make a lot harder to fall back to sleep.
Dubbed "the world's most annoying alarm," this app requires you to complete a certain task, such as solving a math problem or snapping a photo of a room in your house, in order to make it stop ringing.
Snap Me Up
This app puts a smart spin on our love of taking selfies. To silence the alarm you have to take a picture of yourself. That means you'll have to move in to enough light to get the pic, stimulating the brain to let it know it's wake up time.
Walk Me Up
If you want to turn this alarm off you’ll have to get up and move around. Specifically, you’re required to walk 15 steps. Don’t try to fool it by shaking your phone. If it detects shaking, it will reset your step count.
Philips Wake-up Light
The circular clock face gets brighter and brighter while also emitting the sounds of birds chirping. It makes for a much less harsh awakening than most alarm sounds. Plus, the light helps to adjust your internal clock.
With its flashing lights and screaming loud buzzer, the Sonic Bomb could probably wake up the heaviest sleeper. Add in the “bed shaker” it comes with – a vibrating unit about the size of a hockey puck that you put under your pillow – and it is guaranteed to wake anyone up.
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