Morning People Vs. Night Owls: 9 Insights Backed By Science
I Tried to Be a Morning Person for 30 Days. Here's What Worked (and What Didn't)
If you spend any time online, you'll inevitably come across an article (or 15) spelling out steps to reach the near-mythical status of becoming a morning person.
It all sounds so simple: Stop hitting snooze. Set a positive intention for the day. Open the drapes and let the sunlight stream in. Easy enough, right?
For me, not so much. I’m not a morning person and never have been. I could sleep until noon in college. Class at 8 a.m.? No chance. Now I’m fortunate to work in an industry where work doesn’t really begin until 9 or 10 a.m., so I usually wake up around 8 a.m. (save for the rare morning workout).
Still, the idea of becoming an early bird has always intrigued me. As I attempted to fit more into my days—work, a social life, exercise, and some necessary alone time—I realized there was only one way to keep up with all my obligations without losing my mind: wake up earlier. Plus, research shows morning people tend to be happier and more agreeable.
One month ago I set a goal to wake up at 6:30 a.m. every weekday (I let myself sleep utill 8 a.m. on weekends). I did my research, read countless articles, and sourced advice from early-bird friends. Here are the tips that worked—and the ones that didn't.
1. Make a schedule.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing: “I can’t possibly get up earlier because I have zero willpower.” But it turns out morning people aren’t using willpower to rise and shine; they’re using habits.
“Habits eliminate the need for self-control,” writes Gretchen Rubin in her book Better Than Before. “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision-making.”
In other words, early risers don't think about getting up—they just do it. A friend echoed this idea when I asked him how the hell he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to work out. "It's not a question; I just do it," he told me.
The most effective way to wake up early is to go to bed early.
To help establish this new habit, I followed the advice of Jeff Sanders, a productivity coach and author of The 5 A.M. Miracle: Dominate Your Day Before Breakfast. He suggests creating a nightly schedule. After all, “the most effective way to wake up early is to go to bed early,” Sanders says.
Sanders's "stop time" is 8 p.m., when he turns off all technology (to avoid melatonin-suppressing blue light) and starts preparing for bed. Since I wasn't trying to wake up at 5 a.m. (!), I designated 9:30 p.m as mine. I entered my new routine into my calendar and set alerts on my phone to pop up at each increment. (Another tip from productivity pros? If it's on the calendar, it happens.)
9:30 p.m.: Start getting ready for bed.
10 p.m.: Get in bed.
10-10:30 p.m.: Read! (Something I'd never made time to do—a nice benefit of going to sleep early.)
10:30 p.m.: Turn lights off.
6:30 a.m.: Wake up after eight hours of sleep!
The Verdict: Giving myself a bedtime was surprisingly tough. (I don't think I've had one since age 10, and man, did I hate it back then.) That said, I really liked following a schedule. The alerts helped me remember to get ready for bed when I'd otherwise continue watching TV or messing around online.
However I'm a 27 year old living in New York City, so a few nights per week I'd still be out at drinks or dinner with friends at 9:30 p.m. and simply ignored the alerts. Other nights I couldn't fall asleep at 10:30 p.m., so I'd just keep reading or break the no-screen rule and scroll through Instagram. In these cases, I let myself sleep in the next morning.
This is OK. Life happens. Plus, much of the advice suggests making the shift gradually. So after one week, I moved my bedtime back to 11 p.m. and my wake-up time to 7 a.m. See ya one day, 6:30 a.m.
2. Wake up to natural sunlight.
Most morning-person articles stress how important it is to have natural sunlight. But I live in a small studio apartment with a windowless nook for sleeping. I know this sounds cozy, and it is—until you want to wake up (there’s basically zero morning light). To solve this problem, I tried the Philips Wake-Up Light, which claims to mimic a natural sunrise and gradually wake you up in a natural, refreshing way.
The Verdict: I wish I could say this worked, but the light from this lamp looked weird and artificial. And for some reason, it was accompanied by the sound of squawking seagulls. I couldn't figure out how to turn off the sound, so I just unplugged the whole thing. Hopefully one day I'll simply be able to open my blinds.
3. Stop hitting snooze.
I know, it’s basically un-American to not hit snooze. (One survey found more than half of us do it every day.) But hitting snooze to get more sleep actually has the opposite effect: It makes you groggier by interrupting your body’s natural sleep cycles. Plus, it’s just not a great way to start your day: “Snoozing inadvertently becomes a reactive choice, which leads to further reactivity,” Sanders says. “When you begin the day reacting to your environment instead of proactively shaping it, you find yourself on the defensive.”
Snoozing inadvertently becomes a reactive choice, which leads to further reactivity.
I also read you should choose a pleasant alarm noise—something soothing or fun, not a blaring beep. So I programmed my alarm to play Taylor Swift’s "Blank Space" every morning at 7 a.m. (yes, for me that's fun).
The Verdict: Swearing off the snooze button was hard, and even though I really enjoyed waking up to T. Swift singing about Starbucks lovers, most mornings I'd still hit snooze once or twice. What did help: placing my phone farther away on a bookshelf at the end of my bed. If I had to get out of bed to turn off my alarm, I was more likely to actually stay up.
4. Work out first thing.
One productivity guru suggests doing the one thing you dread most right after you wake up. That’s because research shows willpower is strongest in the early a.m., then steadily depletes over the course of a day. This manifests itself in that “ugh, it’s 6 p.m., and I don’t feel like going to the gym” feeling.
I aimed to exercise at least four mornings per week. I like to keep my evenings open for working, relaxing, or seeing friends, and I knew how much better and more accomplished I'd feel after getting my workout out of the way.
The Verdict: No. Just no. Forcing myself to go to the gym for a grueling workout right after waking up didn't make it any easier. But a 30-minute home workout was a lot more doable. (I did this video a few mornings and felt awesome—and sweaty—after.) I also learned that I really like having about 30 minutes before exercising to get my mind and body right—have a cup of coffee, wander around my apartment, even check my email.
After a couple weeks of at-home workouts, I was even able to catch a 7:30 a.m. class at my gym. Definitely beats rushing out the door five minutes after I wake up.
5. Do something positive and productive.
Getting out of bed on the right foot can impact your mood for the entire day, research shows. That's why experts suggest planning a healthy and positive activity. For some, this may be a workout, but I liked other simpler suggestions: meditating, writing down three things I'm grateful for, reading an uplifting article, or listening to an inspirational podcast. It could even be something as simple as enjoying a delicious cup of coffee or breakfast.
The Verdict: This actually worked! I started by simply spending some time thinking positively about what I had to look forward to that day—finishing a project at work, a fun workout class, or date night.
Looking forward to these things helped boost my mood on mornings I was dragging.
After one week, I spent 15 or 30 minutes per morning reading a chapter of a self-help book; playing some uplifting music while cleaning my apartment; or, if I worked out, listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast on the way to work. Looking forward to these things helped boost my mood on mornings I was dragging. A few times I even stopped by a coffee shop before work to read and savor a latte. A great cup of coffee + a great book = a great way to start the day.
Something else that worked? Having something to look forward to in the evening. If I had an obligation that prevented me from working out after work—dinner with a friend, happy hour with coworkers, a concert—that became far and away the biggest incentive to get up and get things done in the morning.
Becoming a morning person was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I am definitely not there yet, and I'd say I've stuck to my plan maybe three or four nights per week (max).
But I’m OK with that. Studies suggest that only around 18 percent of people are truly "morning types," while 27 percent are "evening types." The majority of us fall somewhere in between.