We all know the adage. “The early bird gets the worm.”
Not only do they get the worm, but morning people tend to have it all. A cheery attitude at 7am segues into a day full of productivity. Studies show that early birds are high-achieving goal-setters who can count thought leaders like Tim Cook and Oprah Winfrey in their midst. It’s no wonder we view night owls as lazy by comparison.
However, night owls often get an undeserved bad rap. Night owls outperform early birds on cognitive ability, and there’s evidence they tend to be more creative. What’s more, one study disproved Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying that “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Night owls are just as likely as early birds to be healthy and wise, and in some cases they may even be wealthier.
Nonetheless, we live in an early bird’s world. Early school start times and demanding work schedules often require us to be up and at ‘em well before a night owl would prefer. And despite the above evidence to the contrary, the idea that night owls are lazy remains a popular stereotype. As a result, many night owls try to become early birds to combat societal pressure.
If you call yourself a night owl, you’re not without hope. It is possible to adjust your schedule somewhat to become more of an early bird, but it’s not easy. We’ll get into the how below, but first, it’s helpful to understand the why.
What, exactly, makes one an early bird or a night owl in the first place? It all comes down to your chronotype.
What’s a chronotype?
Basically, your chronotype refers to whether you’re an early bird or night owl. Your chronotype describes your body’s natural timeline (putting the chrono, or “time,” in chronotype) for the daily primal activities you engage in as a human, such as when you eat or sleep. Your chronotype is determined by your genes—specifically your PER3 gene.
Some researchers believe there are actually four main chronotypes, including bears and dolphins along with night owls and early birds. Night owls and early birds only represent about a quarter of the population each. Most people are “bears.” They feel energetic during the day and fall asleep at night, so society’s schedules tend to fit in with their own and early birds’. For night owls, however, it’s a different story—thanks to the connection between your chronotype and your circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s innate sleep-wake cycle. Among other things, your circadian rhythm dictates your body’s natural temperature fluctuations during the day, or your thermoregulation process. Your core body temperature rises in the morning to wake you up for the day. It lowers at night, preparing your body for sleep.
For early birds, their body reaches its peak temperature at an earlier point in the day than night owls, giving them more energy earlier in the day and making them fall asleep earlier at night. As you can see, your chronotype is hardwired into your sleep schedules, helping explain why they can be so difficult to change.
Even so, with consistency and an action plan, you can shift your circadian rhythm an hour or so and be an early bird with the best of them. Here’s how to do it.
How to become an early bird if you’re a night owl
Changing your circadian rhythm starts with changing your schedule. Then, it’s about taking steps during the morning and at night to make that schedule feel more natural.
Changing your schedule
- First, set your desired bedtime and wake-time. Make sure you leave room for 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep. Then, plan to gradually change to this new sleep schedule. Move up your schedule 15 minutes per day, just like you would to combat jet lag.
- Adjust your meals, too. Your chronotype plays a role in when you get hungry, so you need to train your appetite to fit your new sleep schedule. Eat all of your meals earlier, according to how much earlier you’ll be going to sleep.
Pro tip: Remember that your chronotype is part of who you are. When you try to change it too much, you’re messing with nature. For you to succeed, you’ll need to follow this new sleep schedule strictly—every single day of the week, including weekends. If you go to sleep 30 minutes later one day, it can throw the whole thing off.
What to do in the morning
- Wake up to bright light with a wake-up alarm or light therapy box. Wake-up lights mimic the gradual rise of sunlight, filling your bedroom with bright light and waking you up before your alarm bell ever goes off. Light therapy boxes are designed to help people with circadian rhythm disorders or seasonal depression adjust their energy levels. The box mimics the effect of 10,000 lux of natural sunlight. To help wake yourself up, sit in front of the light for 15 minutes or so in the morning.
- Get out of bed and do something. Open the windows and turn on the lights. Spend some time outside in the real morning sunlight.
- Exercise. If you can switch your exercise routine entirely to the morning, all the better. Exercise wakes up your body and mind, physically energizing you.
Pro tip: While these steps will help you wake up earlier, be aware that your optimal performance times are unlikely to change. Night owls tend to be more productive in the afternoon and early evening, while early birds do their best work early in the day. Do what you can to shape your work schedule around your night owl needs, moving heavy-duty tasks to later in the day and filling the morning with easier tasks that require less concentration.
What to do at night
- Adjust lighting to make you sleepier at night. Lighting is one major external cue that your brain uses to know when it’s time to stay awake and when it’s time to sleep. After all, the word circadian comes from the Latin for “around day.” Invest in smart light bulbs for your home. At night, you can adjust the color temperature and brightness to mimic sunset, cuing your mind that it’s time to start getting sleepy.
- Turn off your electronics at least 1 hour before bed. These devices emit bright blue wavelengths of light that your brain misinterprets as sunlight, keeping you up even later.
- Use a natural sleep aid. As you shift to your new sleep schedule, consider taking melatonin before bed. Once you’ve adjusted to the new schedule, you can stop taking it.
- Stop exercising several hours before bedtime. Instead, fill your evening with calming, restful activities like aromatherapy and meditation.
- Avoid meals later in the day. The digestive upset can mess with your sleep. If you crave a late-night snack, make sure it’s made of one of these sleep-promoting foods.
Pro tip: Changing your chronotype requires consistency above all. Follow these steps consistently, and you’ll be well on your way to feeling energized in the morning. No one will know you’re a night owl in disguise.