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How a Night Owl Can Become an Early Bird

You’re not entirely at the mercy of your body’s natural rhythms

AnAn old boss of mine was the most morning-y morning person that ever did morning. Her preferred bedtime was 8 p.m. sharp. She rose before newspaper delivery people and coffee cart operators and, also, the sun. By the time I got to the office each morning, she’d already lived an entire day, and I would spend the entirety of mine trying to catch up.

It was, as you can probably imagine, terrible — especially because I’d always preferred to stay awake late into the night, doing nothing in particular. My mornings were stuffed to the brim with things that needed tackling, overseen by someone who was cheerily baffled as to why anyone would need some time to sip their coffee and let their brain wake up. Soon after I started this job, it became painfully clear that if I wanted to keep up with my boss without dropping from exhaustion, I’d have to make a change.

I tried every trick I could find to turn myself into an early riser. I took melatonin pills. I quit drinking coffee in the afternoon. I forced myself to get into bed every night at 10, turn off my phone, and read for half an hour. I bought an alarm clock that woke me up with a gradually increasing light each morning, like a sunrise.

Luckily for my employment status, I made some headway. Eventually, turning off the lights at 10:30 — and not spending the next few hours mindlessly browsing the internet from bed — no longer seemed like such a struggle. But then, spurred on by my own progress, I got greedy. Could I go further? Could I ever get to a place where it felt utterly natural to bounce out of bed in the predawn dark — not just a tolerable schedule, but a preferred one?

It turns out I was a little overeager in what I could reasonably achieve. Each of us has a chronotype, a natural sleep-and-wake schedule that the body likes to follow, and no amount of lifestyle tweaks can completely erase that hardwired preference. “These are genetic,” explains clinical psychologist Michael Breus, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “They aren’t things you choose.” Still, he says, it’s possible to work around what nature’s dealt you with concerted, sustained effort. A self-avowed night owl might never be a full-fledged morning person, but it is possible to become someone who gets up early without hating your life. Here’s how.

Adjust sleep timing, not sleep time

In other words: If you’ve been getting seven hours of sleep a night, don’t expect to become a morning person by just shaving a few hours off the back end. Just as we all have different biological sleep rhythms, some people naturally need more sleep than others; an energy-boosting morning routine won’t counteract the effects of getting less than your body’s requirement.

“If you’re wired as somebody who needs eight hours of sleep it’s going to be very difficult to sustain yourself long term on five or six hours and maintain your ability to perform and feel well,” says David Brendel, a psychiatrist who treats sleep disorders. Most people, he adds, are at their best after seven to eight hours, but no matter what your ideal amount of shut-eye is, the important thing is to preserve it. If you want to get up earlier, shift your sleep schedule forward so you’re going to bed earlier, too.

Skip that 3 p.m. latte

It’s normal to experience an afternoon energy slump regardless of what time you woke up, but giving yourself a quick jolt of liquid pick-me-up can leave you staring at the ceiling later that night. Depending on your metabolism, caffeine can take up to six hours to leave the body, so if you’re aiming for an early night, limit your coffee (and tea, and soda) to the morning only, says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Janet Kennedy.

“Even if you do not feel the effects of caffeine, it will diminish sleep quality,” she adds. To avoid a night spent tossing and turning, Kennedy recommends a few alternative strategies to combat mid-afternoon brain fog: Drink a glass of cold water, go for a walk, stretch at your desk.

Don’t indulge too much on the weekends

Sometimes, progress means killing the things you love. In this case, that means letting go of those lazy weekend mornings where your primary goal is to stay in bed as long as humanly possible. (Sorry.)

“Often, night owls get into a pattern of sleep deprivation during the week,” Kennedy says. “They’re unable to get to sleep early enough for a full night before the alarm goes off, and then they oversleep on weekends. This creates a constant jet-lag that leaves night owls feeling exhausted and unproductive.” If you’re committing to this whole morning thing, commit to it for a full seven days. You don’t have to get up at the exact same time on Saturday as you would on a typical Monday, but try to keep it relatively close. It’s a drag now, but your body will thank you later.

Watch your thermostat

If you’re trying to get to sleep at an hour that doesn’t yet feel natural to you, you might as well do all you can to set yourself up for success: Clean sheets, a tidy bedroom, white noise, and cool air are all scientist-recommended hacks to help you doze off more quickly. A drop in body temperature is a cue to your body to start winding down for the night, so keep your bedroom somewhere in the 60s to move things along.

Get in the bedtime mindset with a “power-down hour”

Breus has a system he calls the “power-down hour” to help ready yourself for sleep: Count back an hour from your desired bedtime, and divide that hour into three 20-minute chunks. If you want to be under the covers by 10:00, for example, start the first segment at 9:00.

“First, you do the things you have to do. In my house, the first segment is getting kid’s backpacks together, finding sports equipment,” he says. The middle chunk is for hygiene — brushing your teeth, washing your face, whatever else is part of your nighttime bathroom routine — and then the last 20 minutes are for unwinding. “Do some sort of meditation or relaxation,” he says. “It could be prayer, reading, watching television, having sex, whatever you do to relax.”

Even if Breus’ system doesn’t appeal, find your own bedtime routine. The content doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the fact that you have one: “Routines help us unwind and train the body and mind to relax in response to cues,” Kennedy says. “If you always read before bed, reading becomes a sleep cue that signals sleepiness.” Reinforce those cues long enough, and eventually, they’ll become ingrained no matter how early you turn in for the night: “You’ll start yawning when you pick up the book, even if you don’t feel especially tired.”

And while it may be obvious, it’s worth nothing that that bedtime routine should ideally be phone-free. “Set a shutoff time at least one hour before bed,” Kennedy says. “Night owls should consider shutting it off even earlier, because they can easily get sucked in.”

Go slow and accept your limits

This is going to be a long, slow process, so be patient with yourself. Adjusting your sleep pattern “is not an on-off switch,” Breus says. “It’s more like slowly pulling your foot off the gas and slowly putting your foot on the brake.”

Making incremental changes instead of sweeping ones will also help you stay the course. Breus points to the old jet-lag rule of thumb: It takes about a day to adjust for every hour of time difference. In the same way, he says, if you don’t stick to your new sleep routine, your body will naturally fall back into its chronotypic rhythms, one hour at a time.

And depending on why you’re pursuing early-bird status, it might make sense to make changes from both ends: In addition to shaping your sleep schedule around your waking-hour needs, you can adjust your waking-hour schedule to fit your natural sleep rhythms. Maybe you can start your day off strong by working from home in the mornings, for example, and sleep during the time you would have spent commuting. Or plan your meetings for the afternoon whenever possible.

I’ve since moved on from my boss, and while my current job doesn’t require me to be quite so chirpy, quite so early, I’ve found that I actually like going to bed at a reasonable hour and walking, rather than trudging, to my desk each morning. My body and my life have finally met in the middle to find a sleep routine that feels manageable, and I plan on keeping it up.

Madison Malone Kircher is a staff writer at New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. Twitter: @4evrmalone

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