It’s not easy being a night owl. Whether you’re dragging yourself to an 8 a.m. meeting or trying to deliver your kids to school without earning them a tardy slip, being a night owl who operates on the rest of society’s schedule can leave you short on shut-eye.
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So, how can a night owl become an early bird? Psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM, offers advice on how to become a morning person so you can finally break up with your snooze button.
Though it may feel like your night owl ways are set in stone, Dr. Drerup says your sleep-related habits and behaviors — known as sleep hygiene — can make a massive and meaningful impact on your body’s natural tendencies.
“By making behavioral changes, you may be able to shift your sleep schedule preferences,” she says. Here’s how.
To become a morning person, you first need to become an early-to-bed person. But how? Count back from the time your alarm rings (or the time you want it to ring), aiming for a total of seven to nine hours a night. That will become your new target bedtime — eventually.
“It’s important to adjust your sleep time gradually,” Dr. Drerup says. If you’re used to turning in well after midnight, willing yourself to suddenly fall asleep at 10 p.m. is sure to backfire.
Instead, aim to go to bed 15 or 20 minutes earlier than usual for a few days. Then, push it back another 15 minutes for several more days, and so on until you reach your bedtime goal.
A quiet bedtime routine is the key to helping you fall asleep earlier (which is the key to helping you wake up earlier).
At least an hour before lights out, dim the lights and power down your electronics. Find something soothing to do, like taking a warm bath, reading a book or listening to a (not-too-stimulating) podcast. That means not watching an action film or spending an hour doomscrolling on social media right before you tuck in.
“Anything that activates our brain as we’re trying to wind down can keep us going,” Dr. Drerup shares. “Give yourself time to wind down and prepare your mind for bed.”
Your body’s circadian rhythm — aka your internal clock — has pretty particular needs.
“Our circadian rhythms are responsive to light and dark,” Dr. Drerup explains. Being exposed to bright light first thing in the morning helps you feel more alert, and it also helps shift your internal rhythm toward an earlier wake time.
Natural light is best, so get outside or open your bedroom window. If you can’t get outside or your room is deprived of natural light (darn you, basement apartment!), try a light therapy lamp that mimics the spectrum of natural light.
Being exposed to light during the rest of the day is important, too. It’s one of the ways your body knows when it’s time to sleep and when you’re supposed to be awake.
“During the daytime, try to get outside and get some natural light on days when there’s sunlight,” Dr. Drerup suggests. “That helps keep your circadian rhythm on track.
Hitting snooze is all too tempting, so remove that option. Try putting your alarm clock across the room so you have to get up to turn it off.
Some apps make it even harder to sleep in by forcing you to engage in mentally stimulating activities like solving a puzzle to stop the beeping.
“Do whatever works to keep you from hitting snooze,” Dr. Drerup advises.
If you’re a night owl, an early morning jog might sound like punishment. But if you can get yourself into the habit, exercising in the morning can give you energy to jump-start your day.
Try to schedule something to look forward to in the morning so that getting up feels like less of a slog, Dr. Drerup suggests.
Perhaps a hot cup of coffee, sipped in silence, while you take on the daily crossword puzzle? Maybe eating a healthy breakfast while you read a book? Knowing that something pleasant awaits can help you take that first painful step out of bed.
Sleep isn’t just about quantity; it’s also about quality. It can feel impossible to get up in the morning if you’re tossing and turning and waking up all night long.
Everything from your diet and stress levels to your partner’s tendency to snore can get in the way of a good night’s sleep, so make sure you’re taking steps not just to go to sleep but to stay asleep. You may need to:
It may seem like an endless list, but making just a few changes can make a world of a difference in terms of the quality of your sleep.
Routine is key, Dr. Drerup says, and deviating from it too much can throw things back into disarray.
“Try to keep a consistent wake time,” she continues. “Whatever schedule you’re keeping, be consistent with it.”
That doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible with your sleep schedule. If you want to stay out late at a Friday night event or catch some extra ZZZs on vacation, that’s OK — every once in a while.
“Life happens,” Dr. Drerup acknowledges. “But try to limit these types of exceptions to your new schedule, or they’ll snowball and push you back toward your old schedule again.”
When you feel tempted to hit snooze and go back to sleep, it’s helpful to remember why you’re trying to make this change in the first place. Make sure you identify your reasons so that you have to remind yourself of them.
Do you want to become a morning person so you can be more productive (or just less of a zombie) at work? So you can spend more time with your family on weekends? So you don’t wake up at noon feeling like you’ve wasted half the day?
“Thinking about your reasons can help keep you motivated,” Dr. Drerup says.
Your natural sleep/wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, plays a big role in your sleep schedule — and it can vary a lot from person to person.
“Our internal rhythm influences when we start to feel sleepy and when we’re inclined to wake up,” Dr. Drerup states.
People fall into different groups, or chronotypes, depending on whether they feel most awake and alert in the morning, in the evening or somewhere in between — and unfortunately, you can’t pick your chronotype. Genetics can play a part in whether you identify as a night owl or a morning lark.
But no chronotype is inherently better or worse than another. As Dr. Drerup points out, there’s nothing wrong with staying up late and sleeping in: “If that schedule fits with your lifestyle and your obligations, it’s not necessary to change it,” she says.
The trouble comes when your late bedtime clashes with your early morning obligations. If you’re regularly getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, your health and well-being can suffer.
Adopting (and really enforcing) healthy sleep habits can help you reset your circadian rhythm and change your sleep/wake schedule. But if you’ve made these changes and are still struggling to drag yourself out of bed, consider seeing a sleep specialist.
“We can help figure out if there are barriers keeping you from making these behavior changes, or if you might have an underlying sleep disorder,” Dr. Drerup says. This could include, for example, a circadian rhythm disorder.
While shifting your schedule takes some effort, it’ll make it easier to accomplish that first task of the day: waking up.