How to Become an Early Riser: From Night Owl to Morning Lark

Research shows early risers are happier than late nighters, but changing from night owl to morning lark isn’t always easy. We put some expert advice to the test.  

By Kerry Slavens

At 6 a.m. on a bright spring morning, the chickadee in the tree by my window was wide awake and chirping to beat the band. On the street below, city workers clanged and banged as they emptied the metal bins. Voices of the women in a local walking club floated up through my window.

This was supposed to be the first day of my new life, the one where I would awaken early and spend three hours meditating and writing fiction and poetry (because dawn is a friend of muses, according to a Latin proverb) before getting ready for work.

But I’d already hit the snooze button six times, and the joyful noises from the chickadee had begun to sound irritatingly cheerful. I stumbled to the window, slammed it shut and reset my alarm for the more civilized hour of 7:30 a.m. 

Once more, I had failed to kick start my day as a morning person.

I wasn’t always such a laze about. In my teens and 20s, I was an early riser who relished those quiet hours when the house was hushed and peaceful. In the golden light of morning, everything always seemed so hopeful. Back then, I couldn’t sleep in if I tried; I was infamous for being the first one up on Christmas morning. 

But at some point over the years, my circadian clock — that biological mechanism that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle — changed. I became the kind of person who could easily sleep until 11 a.m. on weekends and who wore out snooze buttons during the week. My new philosophy could best be embodied by something cartoonist Jim Davis of Garfield fame said: “If people were meant to pop out of bed, we’d all sleep in toasters.” 

I might have been OK with that philosophy, and maybe I should even have felt grateful. After all, many of my friends in middle age were complaining about either insomnia or unwanted early morning awakenings. But I had the sense that my sleep inertia had begun to steal valuable hours from my “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver described it. 

I had things to do, and I had already lived out half of my potential lifespan. It was time to wake up and start working toward my goals. I needed to get serious about it — or forget it altogether.

From Owl to Lark

So I set off to arm myself with knowledge and tools to achieve my goal of being an early riser. 

I talked to a few early birds and then I turned to Google, which proved both a blessing and a curse. The first thing I came to was an anonymous quote posted by a blogger who was trying to be inspirational — I guess: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle … when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find this inspiring. If I were going to be eaten by a lion, I’d rather be sleeping than running.

I left the self-help advice behind and focused on the science.

It turns out sleep scientists also like to use animal metaphors. In the case of sleep cycles, they often refer to larks and owls. Larks are what scientists call “phase advanced people.” These are people who tend to feel tired early in the evening. Owls, on the other hand, are “phase delayed,” meaning they don’t feel tired until late at night. Most humans fall somewhere in between. These are called “intermediate chronotypes.”

Apparently, the larks do have an advantage over the owls, according to a 2013 study by Jessica Rosenberg at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. She and her team found early risers have more quality white matter in their brains, which speeds up the transmission of nerve signals. Simply put, the healthier your volume of white matter, the faster you are at thinking.

Another study conducted by the University of Exeter found people who are early risers experience greater levels of happiness and a lower risk of depression than the owls, who may be prone to a kind of permanent jet lag. This may also point to white matter, but it could also have a lot to do with the fact that our society is set up to accommodate early birds. School and work schedules typically begin between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. That’s pretty early for the owls among us. 

Early risers also perform better academically, according to a University of Texas study which found “morning” people had a grade point average (GPA) one point higher than the evening people. The researcher’s explanation? Early birds get to their classes on time and drink less.

Most researchers agree it is possible to shift your circadian rhythm but disagree about how much. Some believe it’s only possible to shift it by an hour. I was ambitiously looking to find myself an extra two or three hours each morning. So I embarked on a series of trials and errors.

The Circadian Shift

Some of the advice I found worked really well for me; while other advice just bombed. Here’s what worked for me — and what didn’t.

1. Have a good reason 

We all need a reason to get up in the morning, and we need an extra big reason to crawl out of bed while most people in our time zone are still sleeping. In my case, I wanted to feel better, gain energy, procrastinate less and accomplish the writing I didn’t feel inspired to do if I left it until the end of the day. 

I took heart that one of my favourite writers, American short story master Raymond Carver, was only able to finish his books because he started getting up early to write before he even began his work day. Novelist Haruki Murakami once told an interviewer that he gets up at 4 a.m. and works for five to six hours (then runs 10 kilometres or swims for 1,500 metres). Show off!

You may find it helpful to have a Spotify list you love to play to ease you into the day, or maybe you need an affirmation you can tack on the wall beside your mirror to remind you and inspire you. Or you may feel as writer Joanne Sherman did when she wrote: “You may find you need a ‘carpe diem’ mug, and truthfully, at six in the morning the words do not make me want to seize the day. They make me want to slap a dead poet.”

2. Seek the light 

When light reaches your retinas, it tells your brain to stop making melatonin, that thing that makes you sleepy. Instead, it switches to making cortisol, which wakes you up. Because I began my sleep adjustment in the spring, morning light was readily available, but I knew fall and winter would be an issue, especially since I’m prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which just makes me want to burrow deeper under the covers.

After some research, I’ve pretty much settled on buying the Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock with Sunrise Simulation. It works by gradually lighting your bedroom 30 minutes before your designated wake-up time, so that by the time you get out of bed, you’ll feel alert and ready for the day. 

3. Find your rhythm 

Sleep has light and deep phases. Many researchers say the key to an easier morning is to wake up from the lightest phase of sleep, so the closer to the awake state you are when your alarm goes off, the better you will feel. How do you do this? You can use trial and error. For instance, if you feel like a sack of potatoes when your alarm goes off at 5 a.m., opt for 5:30 instead. If that doesn’t work, aim for 6 a.m.

That approach definitely didn’t work for me. I just kept hitting the snooze button. Instead, I decided to find an app to help me. I immediately rejected the Snap Me Up app, which requires you to snap a selfie of yourself to silence the alarm. No. Just no. I also rejected Sonic Bomb because it really is like a bomb going off, and it put me in an extra-bad mood for hours after awakening. For someone like me, who is a so-called sensitive sleeper, the more gentle the wake-up process, the better.

My research finally led me to Sleep Cycle, an app that analyzes your sleep patterns. Pick your target wake-up time and Sleep Cycle will gently wake you from your slumber during your lightest phase of sleep to ensure that you wake up feeling rested and refreshed. Here’s how it works. Using sound and vibration analysis, your phone’s built-in microphone picks up your movements as you sleep, then analyzes the data to determine which phase of sleep you are in. It then picks the best time to wake you up within a 30-minute period.

This app works best if you have regular bedtimes. If you change your bedtime by an hour or two every night, your sleep cycle changes too, and the app won’t be able to accurately identify your best waking time.

4. Treat yourself

Some people suggest meditation is a great way to greet the day, but I found it just puts me back to sleep. What works for me is good strong coffee, and it needs to be ready to go the minute my feet hit the ground (hello auto brew!). Some of you will find that eating right away helps regulate your blood sugar and gives you a burst of energy. I prefer to wait a few hours so I get my intermittent fasting in. I also know people who swear by going for a walk or run as soon as they get up, and I may go for an energetic morning stroll eventually, but for now just getting up and writing is all I can manage.

Speaking of managing, I can’t stress enough that you have to do this on your own terms. If you are embarking on changing your entire sleep cycle out of guilt, or because it’s someone else’s idea, it probably won’t work. “You do you,” as they say.

5. Design your bedtime 

I’m not much good on less than seven hours of sleep a night (most adults need between seven and nine hours, according to the Canadian Sleep Society). That represented a big challenge for me if I wanted to get up early, because I have a hard time going to sleep before 10 or 11 p.m. While I can’t always force myself to sleep on time, I found I’m far more likely to if I start my bedtime routine earlier and add some lavender essential oil to my bath.

I also occasionally take a small dose of melatonin (check with your doctor). And to cut down on my exposure to blue light, which messes with your circadian rhythms, last week I moved my iPhone to the next room overnight to avoid the temptation to look at it while in bed. On nights when I just can’t fall asleep early (or I’m out at a show or a party), I give myself extra time in the morning. 

The Wake-Up Call

There are many blogs and books out there that promise to make you an early riser in one week or 12 days or whatever. I began a month ago, and I’m still not confident enough to say it’s become routine. But it is getting easier, and I find that on days when I achieve my goal, I tend to feel sharper, have more energy and, most importantly, feel more in control of my life.

And despite all the good advice and great gadgets for waking up early, the best advice came to me through something a friend posted on Facebook about the five-second rule, popularized by author Mel Robbins in her book The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. When I’m really being a layabout, I steel my will and follow her advice, which is based on her philosophy that if you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds or your brain will kill it.

“The moment you feel an instinct or a desire to act on a goal or a commitment, use The Rule,” she writes. “When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action.”

If you do not take action on your instinct to change, she adds, you will stay stagnant. You will not change.

So, 5-4-3-2-1 … good morning!

This article is from the July/August 2019 issue of YAM.