It’s not easy being a night owl. Like it or not, much of the world operates on an early bird’s ridiculously eager schedule. “Our society tends to reward the larks,” says psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM.
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Whether you’re dragging yourself to an 8 a.m. meeting or trying to deliver your kids to school without earning them (another) tardy slip, living in a lark’s world can leave you short on shut-eye.
What’s a lover of the midnight oil to do? Dr. Drerup offers advice on how to shift your natural rhythm so you can finally break up with your snooze button.
What’s your sleep chronotype?
Our natural sleep/wake cycles are known as our circadian rhythm, and they can vary a lot from person to person. 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.
No chronotype is inherently better or worse than another. There’s nothing wrong with staying up late and sleeping in, Dr. Drerup points out. “If that schedule fits with your lifestyle and your obligations, it’s not necessary to change it.”
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.
Unfortunately, we can’t pick our chronotypes. Genetics plays a part in whether you identify as a night owl or a morning lark. Still, says Dr. Drerup, your habits and behaviors can reinforce those natural tendencies. And those habits aren’t set in stone. “By making behavioral changes, you may be able to shift your sleep schedule preferences,” she says.
How to reset your circadian rhythm
How, exactly, do you become more of a morning person?
1. Shift your bedtime
Count back from the time your alarm rings, aiming for a total of seven to nine hours a night.That will be your target bedtime — eventually.If you’re used to turning in well after midnight, willing yourself to suddenly fall asleep at 10:00 p.m. is sure to backfire, says Dr. Drerup.
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. “It’s important to adjust your sleep time gradually,” she says.
2. Make it routine
A quiet bedtime routine is key to helping you fall asleep 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. “Give yourself time to wind down and prepare your mind for bed.”
3. Lighten up
“Our circadian rhythms are responsive to light and dark,” Dr. Drerup explains. Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning helps you feel more alert and also helps shift your internal rhythm toward an earlier wake time.
Natural light is the best, so get outside or open your bedroom window. If you can’t get outside or your room is natural light-deprived, try a light therapy lamp that mimics the spectrum of natural light.
4. Make mornings more pleasant
Try to schedule something to look forward to in the morning so that getting up feels like less of a slog, says Dr. Drerup. Perhaps a hot cup of coffee, sipped in silence, and the daily crossword puzzle. Knowing that something pleasant awaits can help you take that first, painful step out of bed.
5. Move your alarm clock
Hitting snooze is all too tempting, so remove that option, Dr. Drerup says. 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,” she says.
6. Get moving
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.
7. Be consistent
You don’t have to be a slave to your schedule. If you want to stay out late at a Friday night party or sleep in on vacation, that’s OK. “Life happens,” says Dr. Drerup. “But try to keep your new schedule as consistent as you can. Limit the ‘exceptions,’ or they’ll snowball and push you back toward your old schedule again.”
8. Consider the upsides
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.
Get help shifting your sleep clock
If you’ve made these changes and are still struggling to drag yourself out of bed, consider consulting a sleep specialist, advises Dr. Drerup. “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,” she says.
While shifting your schedule takes some effort, it’ll make it easier to accomplish that first task of the day: waking up. You might never be someone who lives for the sunrise, but mornings don’t have to hurt.