The trick to becoming a morning person
Not a morning person? Don’t worry – you’re in the majority, and help is at hand.
The world isn’t kind to night owls. For those who dread the alarm clock but easily burn the midnight oil, the standard working day can be a struggle. Most owls battle through early mornings on coffee and willpower, wondering why others spring to life so effortlessly at sunrise.
The answers lie in our deepest make-up, and they hold the key not just to a better night’s sleep, but also to your overall wellbeing. Dr. David Cunnington, a specialist sleep physician and co-director of Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, devotes much of his practice helping frustrated, tired night owls understand how best to work with their body clock.
“Everyone is born with a different daily internal clock,” he says. “If our routine is in tune with our own circadian rhythm, it keeps us more well. You tend to perform better if you try to fit in with it, rather than fight it.”
Interestingly, he says, while the world revolves around a 24-hour daily cycle, the average human’s daily rhythm is slightly slower – closer to 24 hours and 17 minutes. “This means just about everyone feels as if their alarm clock has gone off 17 minutes too early.”
Meanwhile, only three percent of the population has a dead-on 24-hour cycle, while the majority is born with a longer one. Owls, take heart – you’re in the majority. Says Dr Cunnington: “Those who leap out of bed early, raring to go, are in fact a minority. And yet society and the commercial world is geared towards the larks.”
Society’s emphasis on early morning productivity can make night owls feel at odds with the world – even inferior and lazy – and its such a prevalent problem that Dr Cunnington regularly advises bosses to introduce more flexibility in working hours, allowing their owls to start and finish the working day later.
“It flies in the face of the traditional ‘early bird gets the worm’ thinking,” he says, but it’s been consistently shown to be true that if you force an owl to come in early to work, you will get a worse performance from them,” he says.
“It would also be incredibly helpful for high school career counsellors to help young people understand their intrinsic rhythm and find an occupation that allows them to work with it,” he says. “In my practice I see wiped-out 40-year-olds in a vocation they are not specifically geared to. When you’re younger you can cope and battle through daily hours that don’t work with your body clock; but once you’re older you just can’t suck it up any more.”
Meanwhile, until the world becomes easier for owls, here are some tips for making friends with your body clock.
Don’t fight it
Most owls are told repeatedly: “just go to bed earlier.” If only it was that easy. “When owls try this, they just tend to lie awake, feeling frustrated,” says Dr Cunnington.
… but don’t become a vampire
Accept your longer daily cycle, says Dr Cunnington, but don’t let it spiral out of control. It’s easy for owls to stay up later and later, he says, so manage the factors that push you back further into those wee hours than you want to be.
Getting the light right
Light is a dominant cue for your body clock. Short-wavelength, or ‘blue’ light suppresses sleep-promoting melatonin, and exposure at night can further extend the circadian rhythm, exacerbating those night owl tendencies. Night owls need to avoid late night exposure to blue light-emitting devices such as phones, laptops and tablets.
There are products available to help, says Dr Cunnington. “Apps including F.lux block the blue light emitted by various devices. And in the future we can expect to have ‘smart lights’ that glow colder blue in the morning to help us wake up, and softer, warmer wavelengths when the sun goes down, to ease us into a sleepier state.”
Walk to the coffee shop
Sunlight and movement are the perfect start to an owl’s day, says Dr Cunnington. “A walk round the block with your dog is ideal to help you get started.” And if there’s a good café on the route, all the better, he says. “I recommend a coffee, too.”
Remember – the morning will pass
Owls can very easily let their low early morning mood bring the whole day down. “Recognise that you won’t feel great if you wake up earlier then your internal rhythm prefers, but don’t allow that to colour your whole day,” says Dr Cunnington. In fact, he says, most people take about two hours to get up to speed, regardless of their body clock. “Check in with yourself then, and you’ll have a much more accurate picture of your real mental state.”
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