Unless you’ve been living under a rock on some desert island, you’re well aware of the ‘early bird’ and ‘night owl’ thing. Some of us strongly prefer “early to bed, early to rise” while the rest of us say “Screw that!” and stay up late and wake up late.
Supposedly, all of us have an innate preference. Apparently, it is complicated to change this preference. The ‘morning lark/night owl’ continuum is pretty short, supposedly.
In this article, we’re going to talk about becoming an early bird. If you’re a night owl (like this writer), the notion of getting to like the (*shiver*) early morning is one that you’ll fight to the death.
But we’re going to make things interesting.
We’ll also discuss the science behind the early bird and night-owl thing; the challenges of switching from one to the other, and the importance of proper sleep hygiene.
Let’s do this!
First, An Offer You Can’t Refuse…
For the remainder of this article, we’ll be conducting a hypothetical experiment. Let’s say that you’ve been working some midnight shift somewhere for the last decade-plus. It’s your night owlish dream-come-true.
Then, some company called ‘Made In Heaven’ discovers your fantastic talent and wants to hire you for twice the salary with full benefits (hey, why not have fun with the hypothetical?). You get two months of paid vacation, too. And, hey, why not a company vehicle of your choice? You got it. Here are the keys.
There’s only one catch.
Your new employers want you there at 7 a.m. sharp. Every morning. *GULP*. Your stomach hits the floor. Your mind screams, “What? What?! Oh, hell, n-…”
Now, you’re a realist. You have bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, you’re not going to abandon all reason and turn this job down. Besides, you’re already packed for that open-date two-month vacation to Tahiti. And that car…
7 a.m.? Who in their mothereverlovin’ mind would go to a job at 7 in the morning? On purpose?
It’s going to be a tough transition.
The Circadian Rhythm
“It is estimated that nearly 70 million individuals in the United States alone suffer from … disturbance to the self/wake (cycle) … (impeding) normal functioning and has potentially damaging effects on health and well-being.”
~ Facer-Childs, R., et al. (source)
In our hypothetical scenario, a dream job is just enough for a night owl to try and recondition their habits. And make no mistake: it is that hard. Even if they don’t realize it at the time.
Why? Because we’re talking about uprooting deeply ingrained brain pathways that control the sleep/wake cycle – also known as the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is not just about sleep/wake cycles, either. If it were, things wouldn’t be so bad. One’s circadian rhythm influences mental and physical functioning, behavior, and temperament. Circadian rhythms also affect body temperature, digestion, eating habits, and other bodily functions.
Abnormal rhythms link to many physical severe diseases and disorders, including diabetes, obesity, and sleep disorders. Mental problems related to irregular circadian rhythms include bipolar disorder, depression, and seasonal affective disorder.
All of the abovementioned functions are different in eearly birds than they are in night owls. Why? It’s all in the brain.
The Brains of Morning Larks and Night Owls
“This mismatch between a person’s biological time and social time — which most of us have experienced in the form of jet lag — is a common issue for night owls trying to follow a normal working day.”
~ Elise Facer-Childs (source)
Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. undertook a study to investigate the functional connectivity (‘FC’) in the default mode network (‘DMN’) of the brain. The study consisted of 38 “Early and Late circadian phenotypes,” 16 ‘morning larks,’ and 22 ‘night owls,’ respectively.
The DMN consists of “an interconnected group of brain structures” posited to operate as part of some neurological system. These areas of the brain were so named after researchers found “surprising” amounts of brain activity in people supposed to be at rest; that is, not engaging in any sort of mental exercise.
Brain activities associated with DMN activity include “daydreaming, recalling memories, envisioning the future, monitoring the environment, thinking about the intentions of others, and so on.” Importantly, research has detected associations between DMN activity and “mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.” More about this later.
The research team discovered differences in the brain regions linked to attention and cognitive performance between night owls and morning larks, as well. Concerning functional connectivity, morning larks tested higher in these regions of the brain. These differences, the research team says, account for the higher performance of morning larks in “task performance” tests.
In other words, the brain acts differently in both groups. More importantly, the research shows that morning larks, on average, perform better than night owls. Combine this finding with the increased health risks of being a night owl, and you have two good reasons for converting into a morning lark.
Maybe you don’t need that dream job to convince you, after all.
How To Become An Early Bird
Without further ado, here’s a quick self-guide to becoming an early bird.
Know Your Purpose
Why do you want to wake up earlier? Are you trying to get healthier? Be more productive? Or is it because of the benefits mentioned above?
It’s not easy to get up before everyone else. This is particularly the case if you don’t clarify your purpose for doing so. If your idea of a goal is “I need to get up earlier. Guess I’ll do that” – well, good luck.
Here are a couple of quick examples of having a purpose in this context.
– “I need to get that side business going. With that extra couple of hours, I can hammer out a strategy….”
– “Waking up a couple hours early will let me get to the gym. I’ll have more energy for the rest of the day, too…”
– “That brilliant writer at Power of Positivity said I’d become healthier and smarter….”
Extra points if you use that last one.
Manipulate Lighting Exposure
Now that you’ve got your purpose (right?), you must support your body during this transition. An area where many people fail in this regard is not changing up their lighting exposure.
Relatedly, there is another “cycle” worth mentioning here. The natural light and darkness cycles as the day progresses. These lightness/darkness cycles are a primary zeitgeber or environmental cue that reboots the internal body clock. Specialized cells in your eyes detect light levels and transmit this data to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN is a tiny area of the brain, located in the hippocampus that regulates the circadian biological clock.
So, how do you manipulate the lighting? First, if you have an iOS device, consider downloading the free app ‘Entrain,’ a mobile program that recommends changes to light exposure. Second, cut off the mobile devices before bedtime – or install (and remember to use) a blue light filtering program. Third, keep all lights in the bedroom dimmed down – and draw those curtains!
Wake Up At The Same Time
If you’re going to reset your sleep/wake cycle, you need to be consistent with your (ta-da!) sleep/wake times. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time, preferably every day. You should fully anticipate your body-mind fighting against this change of habit – this is normal. Eventually, falling asleep and waking up at these times will become much more manageable.
In the beginning, give yourself a bit of slack with your wake up time. Choose to wake up when it is still dark outside, allowing your body to get used to seeing darkness upon awaking and adjust accordingly. You may want to try not using an alarm clock. Set the intention to wake up at a predetermined time. You may find that your body wakes up automatically and without intervention.
Give It Time
While changing up your sleeping habits may not seem like a big deal, it is. Make no mistake. You are forcing the body to do something that it doesn’t want to do. Understand this and appreciate the inherent difficulty of what you’re doing.
All that you can ask of yourself is to make a firm commitment and do the work to become an early bird. Provided that you know what you’re doing, let the rest happen naturally. Set the right conditions and try to change this up with as little effort as possible. You’ll be amazed at just how resilient the body is when this is the case.