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How to Become a Morning Person

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Photo by Christopher S Penn

For as long as I can remember, I haven’t been a morning person, preferring to stay up late over prying my heavy head off the pillow in the cold morning.  I’ve been a night owl most of my life, with some of my best work and inspired thought happening after 10pm.  Throughout the years, I’ve been following the growing body of research that points to night owlish (or ‘larkish’) as a genetic trait: there’s apparently a specific genetic variant that can indicate whether someone is a night owl, a lark, or somewhere in between the two.  Unfortunately this indicator wasn’t included in my 23andMe genetic profile a few years ago so I’m not sure where I fall on the continuum.

But even if I knew where my genes wanted me to be, there isn’t much I (or most of us) can do about societal, professional, or family pressure to wake up early.  Every single day, one of our kids wakes up at or before 6:30am.  At least 3 or 4 mornings per week I need to be out the door by 7:20am for school drop-off prior to a can’t-miss 8am meeting.  And when I get home at night, by the time I’ve eaten dinner, cleaned up afterwards, spent time with my family, and put the kids to bed, it’s already after 9pm.  So in order to do anything beyond “the basics” in life – including strength training, meditation, writing, extra work, or anything else – I have a simple choice: I either do it late at night and suffer the next morning, or I get up 30-60 minutes earlier.  I choose not to suffer.

Now, for a night owl, the thought of waking up earlier than 6:30am is anathema.  But for the last several months I’ve been doing it, and not only has it gotten easier, but I’ve ‘dialed it in’ to be a habit that I feel has dramatically improved my overall well-being, productivity at work, and presence at home.  These days I’m up at 5:45am to drink a cup of loose-leaf green tea and get a focused kettlebell or bodyweight workout in – or some dedicated writing – before my kids wake up and the house starts buzzing.

I’d be lying if I said the transition was all kittens and rainbows.  It was actually quite hard, and is still not without its challenges occasionally.  But I’m consistent about it and am determined to make it work.  Oddly, on the days I “sleep in” until 7 or 7:30am I don’t feel quite as right compared to those when I’ve gotten up and have broken a sweat before the sun rises.

Here are the ways I became a morning person and how you can too.

LightUse light to wake you up, not sound.  While the best way to do this is via natural light from the sun (leaving your curtains open), I’ve found that to be too variable in the Northwest as the sun either comes up at 4:45am or almost 8am depending on the time of year.  Instead we use blackout shades to keep our bedroom as dark as possible, and a Philips Wake-up Light which is one of my all-time favorite gadgets.  This handy wake-up light starts increasing the light in your bedroom over the course of 30 minutes, so my eyes usually just pop open somewhere between 10 or 15 minutes into its cycle.  And when this happens, I don’t hit the equivalent of “snooze”, I get up!  It’s far nicer than being jolted out of bed by a loud buzzer.

Work backwards slowly, setting your alarm 10 minutes earlier every day.  Too often we try and make things happen too quickly instead of looking at things as a slow and steady progression.  Waking up earlier shouldn’t be like a “light switch”, it should be like a “dimmer” – something you do gradually until you get it just right.  Do this by setting your alarm clock 10 minutes earlier each day until you’re at your ideal wake-up time.  Note that this means going to bed earlier as well, not depriving yourself of much-needed sleep.

Always get more than 7 hours of sleep – and make it consistent.  For many, this is a significant lifestyle change, but it’s also one of the single easiest and best ways to improve your performance at work and your mindset throughout the day.  Instead of looking at caffeine as a “quick fix”, start looking at your sleep habits as the source of your focus and motivation.  If you’re new to sleep study, read 6 Sleep Habits to Help You Focus to learn more about this, including simple tricks like breaking up your nightly routine into multiple parts or using a white noise generator while you sleep (the White Noise app by TMSoft on phones or tablets works well for me – Apple, Google, Amazon).

Get some Vitamin D in the morning hours.  In winter months, or all the time, load up on Vitamin D (especially my Seattle readers) either by spending some dedicated time in the sun (ideally) or through supplementation.  Apply all the necessary precautions as I’m not a medical doctor: you’ll want to get tested to make sure you’re in normal ranges first, and then supplement up until you’re in the middle or top of the range (50-60 ng/Ml is about where you’ll want to be).  In terms of testing, any general practitioner can help test your Vitamin D levels, but there are also high-quality at-home kits (ZRT at-home test kits) or services like AnyLabTestNow and WellnessFX, both of which I’ve used and can recommend.

Blue lightBathe in blue light before noon.  While I don’t always have the opportunity go get outside during the day, I do make a habit of trying to.  This means outdoor walking meetings from Spring to Fall, and a fair amount of sunshine exposure on weekends.  But for those days and months where I feel my outdoor score is on the low side, I use a Philips Blue Light which I have had on my desk at work for a few years now.  Between 20 and 40 minutes per day is good enough for me.

Control natural light (or blue light) in the late afternoon.  For many years I was pretty bad at this, sitting in front of a computer screen until it was time to go to sleep.  So often I would struggle to fall asleep and wouldn’t understand why… until I started learning about blue light and its effects on circadian rhythms a few years ago.  A key to falling asleep quickly, and therefore being able to wake-up on time, is to reduce the amount of blue light you’re exposed to after the sun goes down.  I use two different tricks to do this: 1) I use a software utility called f.lux on all my PCs and Macs so my blue light exposure is automatically reduced after sundown if I have to work.  2) I use orange-tinted UV glasses when I’m using my Kindle Fire HDX or iPad, which has the same general effect of reducing blue light.  These can look a little silly but make a huge difference.

Go grain and sugar free, and skip the alcohol.  One of the best way to reduce the “brain fog” that so many night owls feel in the morning is to shift your body from being a “sugar burner” to a “fat burner”.  This means removing the types of foods that have an adverse affect on your blood sugar, most notably grains and sugar.  This has made an absolutely HUGE difference for me – when I was eating grains regularly, I would wake up hungry and with a slight headache, my body indicating that it needed fuel.  Whereas now that I no longer eat breads or anything with added sugar, I don’t feel the need to eat for a while.  Alcohol will also make it harder to wake up in the morning for many people, so if you’re going to drink even a single glass of wine, you should experiment with how it affects your wake-up times and adjust.  There are lots of great posts on this at www.marksdailyapple.com for those uninitiated to Primal or Paleo eating.

Set everything up the night before.  If you want to just pop out of bed and not have to think about what’s next, set everything up the night before exactly where you’d expect it to be when you’re half-asleep.  This might mean putting your workout clothes at the foot of your bed, or straightening up your office and opening your document on your laptop so everything is ready to go when you are.  If the first thing you have to do when you wake up is figure out what to wear or struggle with finicky technology, you’ll probably be less motivated to make it work.

Control your room temperature when it’s time to get up.  This is a small trick, but if your thermostat isn’t set to warm your bedroom up early enough, you’re going to find yourself waking up to a cold room.  And a cold room gives you a great reason to stay in bed a little longer.  Most people don’t like to be cold.  I set my Nest thermostat to be at about 70 degrees by 5:45am so my bedroom is toasty warm.

Create a morning ritual that motivates you. Habits are usually hard to keep, but rituals can be fun.  If waking up means immediately doing something you dislike, you’re going to have a hard time self-motivating.  This is why I added a tea ritual to my morning routine.  I found that getting up and immediately starting a workout, even with 15 minutes of movement preparation at the beginning, wasn’t good enough for me.  I look forward to having my cup of green tea first thing in the morning, and looking out at the darkness knowing that I’m doing something good for myself.

If you’re going to workout, trick yourself into thinking you’re doing something light.  I have a mind trick I like to use with myself which is to think: “moving at all is success”.  Waking up to an intense 60 minute workout is a lot harder than waking up to the idea of slow movement or stretching.  So long as I get up and do something, I consider it success – but 9 times out of 10, once I start moving, I start wanting to move more.  So I rarely have a training session in the morning that I didn’t push myself in some way despite tricking myself this way to start.

These tips are just scratching the surface on the things you could do to in order to start acting like a morning person.  It may be that we can’t completely change our natural inclinations, especially those who are hardcore night owls, but for those who feel OK doing so and have the determination, becoming a morning person should be mostly possible.  Just like with many things, “I can’t do it” or “it’s not for me” isn’t really an excuse until you try.

Let me know how things go!

Written by Mike Torres

January 26th, 2014 at 3:01 pm

  • DeEtte D

    Mike: Thank you for these useful tips. I became a morning person last year using similar techniques. I now swim 5 days a week, starting at 6 am – it’s awesome!

    One question for you, do you know the difference between SAD blue lights vs white lights? Last year, I used the same blue light as you (Phillips Blue Light) and loved it. It was a loaner; when I purchased my own, I got a bright white light because it was recommended by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics. But, for me, I kind of liked the blue light – possibly because it was easier to use while working at the computer. Do you have thoughts on the difference?

    Center for Environmental Therapeutics: http://www.cet.org/eng/DayLightSimulator_ENG.html
    Day Light lamp: http://www.day-lights.com/us/usindex.html

    Thanks Mike!

    -DeEtte

    • Hi DeEtte! The research I did wasn’t really conclusive on white vs. blue light (and there are others as well like green). It’s probably more of a personal choice (what can you handle shining in your face while you work) as well as some personal experimentation as to what works best for you. As with so many of these things, it’s like one giant experiment 😉

      • DeEtte D

        Thanks! I am so grateful for these useful ideas that you post. I had actually been wondering if everyone else has to put so much effort into becoming a morning person, and voila – I saw your post! I would have guessed that you’d just be a morning person naturally – no effort 🙂

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