I know, I know. In an age when it often feels as though we’re all hovering just three feet above some raging hellfire, with a creeping sense of exhaustion and/or despair that seems closer to the rule than to its shining exception, the last thing you probably want to do is wake up early.
No! You want to sleep in, stave off the day’s inevitable chaos and responsibilities for as long as humanly possible. You want to say, “Self care!” — then snooze your alarm in a dizzied protest. I’m with you. I swear. I really am.
Well, sort of.
In the interest of complete transparency, I should admit here that waking up earlier is a practice I’ve personally taken up over the last year. My hope has been that I might carve out some more time in the morning and stop leaving home in such a dizzied frenzy.
I like to wake up at around 6:30 or 7 a.m., get ready, then do some quiet reading in bed before heading out the door for work. The result — and this part is anecdotal — is a clearer head, calmer disposition, and a face that isn’t flush from running around in attempt to catch the train on time. It eliminates that panicked feeling I used to get from rushing around to get somewhere on time.
Most importantly, it allows me to start my day on my own terms, rather than terms dictated by whether or not I have enough time to do something.
The many, many benefits to being an early riser
You’ve heard it all before. The sentiment is right there in that antagonizing internet mantra about how we all have the same 24 hours in a day as Beyoncé, who, aside from being Beyoncé and having a whole legion of professional help, also happens to wake up at the crack of dawn.
Early rising is a certain standard kept by many of the world’s most stratospherically successful people. And as you’ve likely heard through the overgrown economic grapevine, nearly 50 per cent of “self-made” millionaires get up at least three hours before the start of their workdays. Apple CEO Tim Cook wakes up at 3:45 a.m. Michelle Obama is up by 4:30 a.m. Oprah Winfrey, like Beyoncé, rises at 6.
The point is there are less distractions in the morning, so it’s easier to get things done. There’s no one to text. There’s no one to call. You aren’t really missing out on anything.
Plus, there are a bunch of other things early mornings bring — aside from career success and greater wages, that is.
A 2008 Texas University study, for example, found that early rising college students had higher GPAs, perhaps, in part, because waking up early makes you less likely to be a procrastinator. Other research has shown morning people are more optimistic, agreeable, and conscientious.
And then there’s the Dr. Christoph Randler, a biologist at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany, whose research found early risers tend to be more proactive people who are also better at anticipating problems. (Maybe that’s because they’re also likely to eat breakfast, that oft-neglected meal that launches your energy levels.)
If you can’t be a morning person, try building a routine anyway
By no means have I become a freakishly chipper morning person, though I admire the type who can crack a smile before 6 a.m. Some people are endowed with the preternatural ability to wake up obscenely early and be totally fine. Others just aren’t genetically predisposed to be early risers.
And that’s OK. Physiology does, according to Randler, play a role in one’s ability to wake up super early. But that’s just not how some people work, and we can’t really game our body clocks, nor should we try to.
The numerous benefits to waking up early, often communicated by tech CEOs and braggers who claim to need very little sleep, are also balanced against the very real threat of disrupting your circadian rhythm.
A 2003 joint study between the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical school found those who didn’t get enough sleep suffered blows to their reaction times and performance on cognitive tasks. And, you can’t just abruptly shift your wake up time from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. — that would be gambling your health to the possibility of advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, which can make you feel as though you haven’t slept at all.
But that doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility for getting up a little earlier. Studies have found you can shift your daily sleep-wake schedule by about an hour, as long as the change is gradual. You don’t have to be born with a certain biorhythm to get a head start on things. You can find a way to work your schedule.
How do I wake up earlier?
In the same way that you likely wouldn’t leap into a deep ocean with your clothes on, or without knowing how to swim, you probably shouldn’t just start waking up earlier without first making a few preparations. You don’t have to give your entire day a makeover. A few new habits — or the removal of some — can really make this whole thing a lot easier.
Here are some guidelines, in a loose chronological order, on how to start:
Cut caffeine out after 2 p.m.
For many of us, coffee is an essential daily ritual. It gives you a nice energy boost when you need it, and helps to carry you through the work day. But research has found that, if you want the best possible sleep, you should try cutting out caffeine after 2 p.m., or at least seven hours before you plan on going to bed.
Eat dinner earlier
Eating too close to bedtime, just as your parents always cautioned, can disrupt your sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, a late night meal will force your digestive system to work while you’re just trying to get some shuteye. It can cause indigestion, which isn’t great for your sleeping.
Go to bed earlier
Many researchers caution against waking up early without first doing some rearranging of your sleep schedule.
“I would not suggest getting up too early, because this can produce some sleep deprivation,” Randler told HuffPost Canada. Waking up early isn’t about shortening how long you’re sleeping for, but shifting when you sleep. “If someone wants to become a morning person, they should try to get to bed earlier — say, by at least 10 p.m.”
That means you should still give yourself at least seven hours of sleep per night, but just shift the sleep earlier. Maybe you do it gradually, by sleeping and waking up five minutes earlier, then ten, and so on, so the change isn’t jarring. Whatever works best for you.
Put the alarm clock far from the bed
So this one isn’t completely based on research. But if your alarm clock is far enough away from your bed that you need to stand up to turn it off, maybe you’ll be less likely to throw yourself back under the covers after. You’ve already done the hardest part (getting out of bed), so the rest is easy.
What do I do once I’ve woken up earlier?
There’s value in a morning routine. No matter what might have happened the day before or what will happen the day ahead, you can always be sure your routine will be constant, ritualistic, dependable. Most likely, it’s the only time of day you’ll devote solely to yourself, which is why it’s important that you have one.
“Just going outside for a walk seems like an incredibly positive thing!” said Randler. The eternal struggle with rising early is often getting out of bed. But Randler’s research has found that going outside in the daylight, early in the morning, can reset your circadian clock and “shift you toward morningness.”
It’s like when the light pierces the blinds and jars you awake, or when the morning air seems to jolt your body to life. Sports and outdoor activities in the morning, Randler says, like running or walking, “may help to get blood pressure raised and/or cortisol enhanced.”
Take a shower
There’s nothing better than a warm shower at night to help send you off to bed. (Night showers, experts say, help you sleep.) But there’s also a case to be made for showering in the morning. If you tend to have troubles waking up, taking a shower in the early morning might help you.
Dr. Janet K. Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and sleep expert, told the New York Times that morning showers can help to boost alertness. They work best if they’re a bit cooler than usual, so as to avoid drastically shifting or jumpstarting your body’s temperature so early in the day.
Start up a morning habit
Until now, we’ve avoided using that infamous phrase about early birds and whatever-about-worms. But the most apparent benefit to waking up early is that you’re giving yourself more time to do something else — to jumpstart your day and wake up your brain.
Morning routines can lend themselves well to productivity, since how you begin your day has an inevitable impact on how the rest of it will unfold. It might feel weird at first, introducing a new habit into your life so suddenly, but the trick is to tackle it in small, incremental steps — to introduce it slowly and gradually so it remains manageable.
Maybe that looks like micro-commitments — reducing the habit to a smaller version of itself and working toward making it bigger. Start with 10 minutes in the morning, then 15 the next day. Commit for seven days, then another seven. Here are a few habits to test out:
- Meditate — You don’t need to be a yogi or spiritual expert to meditate. In an article for Fast Company, a brain scientist explained that nearly 80 per cent of the most successful leaders she’s worked with do mindful meditation, which can improve focus and executive function, as well as reduce negative thinking that can plague you in the morning. A 2010 study also found that just 12 minutes a day of meditating could increase mental resilience.
- Read — It’s hard to find time to read throughout the day. Maybe you’re too tired to read when you get home from a long day at work, or you drive to school and can’t take advantage of a hands-free public commute. Try spending 15 to 20 minutes each morning chipping away at that book that’s been sitting on your night table for the last three months.
- Catch up with a friend — Maybe you’re more likely to wake up if you have plans to see a friend. Waking up early gives you the chance to grab a coffee with someone, or to chat on the phone for a bit before you head out the door.
- Work out — It can be difficult to find ways to squeeze a workout into your day. But research shows there are some benefits to doing it in the morning. Starting your day with exercise can make you more active throughout the day, lower your blood pressure, and help you to sleep better at night (among other things).
- Journal your first thoughts — Write down your dream so you remember it, or the first thing you think of when you get up.
- Do a stretching routine — If you don’t feel like going for a run or lifting weights or doing pushups, stretching can help to wake up your brain and muscles in the morning. Just a small yoga routine can help get blood to your brain and wake you up.
- Get your most important task done — It’s tougher to be distracted in the morning, which is perfect for the prolific procrastinator, who can take advantage of the extra time to get their most important work done early. Send that email you need to send, or finish that application you’ve been slacking on.
- Do a crossword — Crosswords aren’t just for fun. They can also boost verbal skills, cut your risk for dementia, and improve memory and brain function in older adults. Why not do it in the morning, while you’re relaxing in bed with a coffee?
- Actually eat breakfast — When was the last time you did? Most people consider breakfast to be the most important meal of the day (it improves energy, concentration, metabolism, stabilizes blood sugar, etc.) but many don’t give themselves enough time in the mornings to prepare one. A 2019 study found that just 58.3 per cent of Canadians eat breakfast every day. Waking up earlier would give you more time to.
- Just relax — Mornings can sometimes be best taken advantage of by doing nothing at all. Before the busy day arrives, it’s nice to just relax. Parents can spin those empty minutes of freedom into some much-needed alone time, for example. Maybe you can catch up on your favourite TV show, or listen to some music. Starting your day stress-free will surely determine the tone for the rest.
20 Ideas For 2020 is our series that explores easy ways to take action on the ideas and changes you may have already been thinking about.
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