How to Become a Morning Person in One Week12 min read
Accomplish more, be successful, attack the day – these are the promises of what’s in store for you if you become a morning person. I am not sure the promises necessarily hold. However, I have found waking up earlier has made me more productive, healthy, and happy because I have the extra time to do the things that make me productive, healthy, and happy. I now wake up at 5:30 every day, including on the weekends.
By clicking on this post, I’m assuming you want to be a morning person. Good, I wanted to be one, and now I am one. The remainder of this post will give evidence-based techniques, many even used by NASA, on becoming a morning person.
Step one is to figure out your circadian clock. Step two is to shift your wake time. Step three is to make waking up earlier easier for the rest of your life.
Let’s get into it.
Step 1: Figure out your Circadian Clock
What is the circadian clock?
The circadian clock is an internal regulator of your wake and sleep cycle. This wake-sleep cycle has effects at the cellular level coordinating physiological and behavioral activities in humans.
Notably, a non-optimized circadian rhythm can have serious health effects. Night shift workers, for example, show increased rates of several types of cancer, increased incidence of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, and a higher prevalence of behavioral health and psychiatric disorders.1-4
Another way to explain circadian rhythms is by individual chronotypes. A person’s chronotype is their preference to wake early or late. It has a genetic component but is modified strongly by sex, development, physical activity, and environment.5,6 The rest of this guide will focus on physical activity and the environment.
First, we need to determine what our chronotype is. There are a couple of well-validated questionnaires, particularly the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ). Unfortunately, interpreting the MCTQ results is difficult. Another good questionnaire that is available in the form of an online quiz is the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire.
The Questionnaire will put you into the category of definite evening, moderate evening, intermediate, moderate morning, or definite morning and some other cool information. I’m a definite morning!
How much earlier per day (according to science)
If you are a moderate morning or a definite morning, there is probably no more need to read this post; you are already a “morning person.” But, let’s say you are a definite evening or moderate evening and want to shift your wake-up time earlier.
Multiple experiments have tried shifting people’s circadian rhythms with melatonin and other methods. However, it seems that dramatic goals of an hour or more per night are correlated with deleterious effects on focus, concentration, and mood.9-11 A safer method is to shift wake and sleep time by 15 minutes daily. If you want to wake up an hour earlier, this is reasonable. If you want to wake up 4 hours earlier, it is still reasonable but will take more effort, focus, and diligence. A one-hour shift will take four days; a four-hour shift will take 16 days.
Step 2: Shift Your Wake Time
So, we know we want to wake up earlier; we know how much to shift per day; how do we actually start doing this?
Determine your goal
Step one is to figure out how much earlier you want to wake up in total compared to your current wake time. For example, in my experiment, I tried to wake up about an hour earlier than I usually did, from six to five. I brute-forced it, resulting in about a week of fatigue and poor concentration. Fifteen minutes per day would have been a better option, which I could have done over four days.
Shift slowly with the Sleep Time app
Humans sleep in four distinct stages. Stage 1 is the “lightest” stage of sleep as we begin to fall asleep. In Stage two, the body’s temperature drops, and our body movements cease. Stage three is the “deepest” stage of sleep, where pulse and breathing rate goes down to a minimum, and our brain waves, named delta waves, dominate, the lowest frequency waves of all four stages. Finally, in REM sleep, our mind seems to wake up (according to EEG activity), but our muscles are paralyzed. Throughout the night, we cycle through these four stages in 90-minute total cycles.12
I couldn’t find distinct evidence showing the benefit of waking up at one stage versus another. However, it makes sense that the best stage of sleep to wake up is stage 1. Stage 1 is our most “awake” state and the beginning of a new sleep cycle, so this is the time we should wake up.
The app I use is called Sleep Cycle, which uses the phone’s accelerometer or microphone to track your movement and sleep stage. You set a specific time range, for example, 30 minutes, and the application will awaken you if it determines you are in a lighter stage of sleep. Otherwise, it will alarm at the end of the 30-minute range.
Remember, however, that sleep cycles are usually 90 minutes long, so we need to help the app by planning our sleep and wake times at around 90-minute increments. So sleeping for 7.5 or 9 hours is a good target. However, there is that pesky “fall asleep time,” so I like to factor that in for hitting my 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep.
So, say you go to bed at 12 and want to set your alarm perfectly. A good alarm might be between 7:30 am and 8:00 am, which will be at the end of a 90-minute cycle and factor in the time to fall asleep. Or between 9:00 am and 9:30 am. I go to bed at 8:30 and set my alarm between 5:30 and 6.
Shift your bedtime as well (minimum 7 hours per night)
An excellent target for adults is 7.5 hours of sleep. I target 9. Getting enough sleep is more important than waking up at a particular time.
Using the previous example, say you usually go to bed at midnight and wake up at 8 am. Now, you want to wake up at 7 am.
How do you make that shift? In regards to hours this is what I would do:
- Download the Sleep Timer App
- Remember you should aim for 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep + 30 minutes of “falling asleep time.”
- Set the alarm range to end at your new wake-up time
- Decrease the alarm range by 15 minutes every morning
So, in the beginning, your alarm using the Sleep Cycle app would be between 7:30 – 8:00 am.
Now, we are going to start waking up earlier:
Day 1: Set your alarm range for 7:15 – 7:45 am
Day 2: Set your alarm range for 7:00 – 7:30 am
Day 3: Set your alarm range for 6:45 – 7:15 am
Day 4: Set your alarm range for 6:30 – 7:00 am
Bam! You’ve done it! Worms here we come.
Step 3: Make it Easier
The easy part was figuring out our chronotype, goal, and alarms. Now we have to perform. We have to wake up earlier. Here is how to make waking up earlier easy.
Consistency is paramount
One meta-analysis looked at various characteristics of sleep, including day-to-day variability or not waking up and going to bed at the same time. The researchers found a correlation between increased day-to-day variability and higher BMI, weight gain, depression symptomatology, stress, and overall metabolic and health impairments.19
Remember how night shift workers are likelier to have all those things wrong with them? Well, one reasonable possibility is that their circadian rhythms aren’t optimized. Their wake and sleep times vary too much. On the weekends, they go back to regular cycles. During their work-time, they see the light at weird times; they eat at odd times and exercise at strange times.
Consistent timing of your sleep cycle is the most important thing to making this adjustment work. Of course, in the beginning, we vary our wake time. However, we are only changing it slightly (by 15 minutes); after that, you can stay consistent at the one time.
Dramatically changing your sleep or wake time from your previous circadian rhythm can be so detrimental that it has even been given a name, Circadian Rhythms Sleep-Wake Disorders. Keep your rest and wake-time consistent, even on the weekends, because one of the most detrimental things you can do for your sleep quality is to stay up 2, 3, 4, or maybe even 8 hours past your average sleep time. Of course, that’s ok to do occasionally, but not when we are trying to shift our circadian rhythm, not when trying to get those worms.
As a final additional point, the value of a consistent wake and sleep time is so important for our health that many successful treatments of depression include focusing on regulating the circadian rhythm to be more consistent, such as bright light therapy, wake therapy, and social rhythm therapy.18
Go to bed and wake up at consistent times.
Early light is hugely important
Light is one of the best ways to alter your circadian rhythm and one of the most interesting ways. This makes sense. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans were woken and sent to bed by sunlight or lack thereof. We needed that light to forage and see other dangerous animals. When it was dark, we couldn’t see fruits or vegetables or angry bears.
Get ready for some fancy science words: it seems that the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus is the central circadian pacemaker in mammals, and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) receives direct input from the retina. The retina is a part of your eye processing light from the outside world.
Interestingly, cells have been identified as a subset of retinal ganglion cells, cells in your eye, that seem to be photoreceptors for circadian responses but not image-forming responses.16 So this light response is so important that our eyes have possibly developed cells that don’t even care about making an image or a picture; they just want to know, “is there light? Ok, then I’ll tell the brain so we can figure out when we should wake up and go to sleep.” This function is so vital that some blind people with no perception of light have a much higher incidence of poor sleep, and it’s thought to be possibly from a malfunctioning circadian clock.17
Dr. Huberman and the CDC recommend light exposure within the first hour of waking up. It seems our internal clocks are especially sensitive to light at that point, precisely the wavelengths of light emitted by the sun’s angle at sunrise. More importantly, however, is the brightness of the light.15
Lux is the unit measurement of light; on a clear day outside, the light level can be as high as 130,000 lux. If it’s cloudy, it is still very bright as measured by lux, with light levels still staying above 15,000 lux. Indoor lights, on average, were only 134 lux. And guess what, that 134 lux is not enough to get your brain and cortisol in motion. A window filters and reduces the light, and sunglasses dampen it as well; outside is the best bet.13,14 Based on these data, here are some guidelines for an early morning outside light exposure:
- If it is bright outside with no clouds: 5-10 minutes
- If slightly cloudly: 10-20 minutes
- If it is densely cloudy: 30 minutes
Finally, bright lights before bed can delay us feeling sleepy because bright lights wake us up early in the morning. This is the only time blue-blocking glasses may have a function before bed. It seems the part of our brain responsible for regulating our circadian rhythm is more sensitive to shorter wavelengths of light, including blue light. However, as before, intensity is more critical. Two hours before your set bedtime, try to minimize light. I have one lamp on and light a candle in the bathroom.
Otherwise, here are some more tips that I won’t dive into as much, or this post would become another 20 pages longer, although I want to; I find these bio hacks for circadian rhythm fascinating. Anyway, here are some more tips that are all based on peer-reviewed articles, enjoy:
- Temperature regulation: use a cold shower to wake up to shift your circadian rhythm to a more awake state early in the morning. Use a hot shower to help you get to sleep.20
- Morning and Night Routine: Classical conditioning is a powerful thing. Start to get into the habit as soon as you hear your alarm jumping out of bed. Have a nighttime ritual such as reading, brushing your teeth, showering, and then going to bed.
- Use food: Eat breakfast first thing when you wake up, save the coffee for 90 minutes after you wake up, and eat dinner at least 3 hours before your new set bedtime.21 People who eat breakfast tend to have better dietary choices and cognition.24,25
- Exercise: exercise during the day, no exercise within 5 hours of your new bedtime.22
- Avoid alcohol: waking up earlier will be hard enough; if you are serious about becoming a morning person or sleeping better, avoid alcohol. Alcohol tanks rest quality because it significantly hampers REM sleep, one of the most critical stages of sleep.23
- Determine your circadian rhythm and natural sleep and wake time with the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire.
- Set your new goal “wake-time” and transition 15 minutes every day closer to that goal using the Sleep Cycle app.
- Make this process easier by being consistent, exposing yourself to light at proper times, temperature regulation, morning and night routines, eating food at certain times, exercising, and avoiding alcohol.
I hope this was helpful! Good luck on your journey to eating lots of worms.
- Haim, A. & Zubidat, A. E. Artificial light at night: Melatonin as a mediator between the environment and epigenome. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 370, 20140121 (2015).
- Fonken, L. K. & Nelson, R. J. Endocrine effects of circadian disruption. Ann. Rev. Physiol. 78, 109–131 (2016)
- Bedrosian, T. A. & Nelson, R. J. Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits. Transl. Psychiatry 7, e1017 (2017).