As someone who’s spent nearly all of the waking years of my life with the deep understanding that I’m not a morning person… let me be the first to say waking up early has always been an uphill f*cking battle. When I wake up, my eyes tend to have about 20 years of crust sealing them shut, and my voice has been witnessed going 7 octaves lower, possibly summoning demons against whomever decided that 5am is a good time to ask me questions about my day. Just ask my husband.
When I say that I’ve been this way my whole life, you can also ask my grandmother, who can attest to me sleeping the morning away as a child and having to rip the sheets off me in order to stir me from what was a near impenetrable slumber. All this, to say: I know that there are some people out there who just “pop” out of bed ready for the day, and can’t stand sleeping in for a second (ahem, my goddamn husband and grandmother… whom I love to death and can’t help but deeply envy). I also viscerally understand, being a “night owl” myself, that some folks are much more inclined to stay up at night with a brain going at 100mph, and genuinely struggle falling asleep and waking up early.
That said, the moment I started to make changes to my morning routine was when I felt the biggest impact to the rest of my day. One of those changes involved waking up earlier. Once I started incorporating and earlier wakeup time and some other morning rituals, I started getting more things done, I had time to work out consistently, I even ate better and drank more water. It’s a work in progress… one I’ve been working on for a few months with trial and error. But I can already see an impact in my own life as a result of having a stronger morning routine.
“I hate mornings. Why should I change my morning routine?”
Here’s a great quote that captures the sentiment best:
Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.Lemony Snickett
Your gut reaction might be “I appreciate my sleep. I like my mornings as they are, and no earlier!” But if you are anything like me, there is probably a part of you that deeply envies the early-risers. There is probably a part of you that doesn’t like the stress of pressing snooze and waking up agitated, feeling like you didn’t succeed at waking up when you wanted. Then, because of sleeping in, you also lack the ability to do much in the morning other than get ready for the day and dive right into work… without a primer, without any chance to “warm up” to it. It’s probably sh*tty waking up feeling exhausted, too. There is a clear gap between who you are now and who you wish you were.
Here’s another quote by Annie Dillard, about the importance of setting good habits.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.Annie Dillard
We are creatures of habit. We tend to follow the path of least resistance, and tend to behave in ways consistent with our past behavior. I study people for a living, and try to understand what motivates people to take certain actions or make certain decisions. Most of this research relates to how they behave in digital environments, but it’s all informed by the same primal system that powers our daily decisions in real life.
By now you might see where I’m going with this. Having a good and reliable morning routine sets the tone for how that next hour is going to be, and that next hour informs how the next one is going to be… and the next one. By establishing a good morning routine, we set the stage for all that follows in the day after.
Make sense? Good.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s a two-part series on how even night owls can establish a good morning routine. With science!
Part I: A good morning starts… with a good night’s sleep
It’s no secret that waking up early means sleeping earlier. I don’t need to lecture you on that. But what if you’re like me and can’t f*cking fall asleep and stay asleep?
First of all, get that sh*t out of your head.
I’m talking about the shred of doubt that stops you from doing what you want to do. Sure, maybe some of you do suffer from actual medically diagnosed conditions which cause or include insomnia… in which case, you should definitely talk to a doctor to better understand your condition to combat it. However, the vast majority of you reading this do not have medically diagnosed insomnia and are probably just bad at protecting your sleep quality, and your self-doubt perpetuates that behavior.
I am not of the school of thought that you can will yourself to need only a few hours of sleep. However, most people can will themselves into falling asleep, as long as they protect their sleep quality.
I know this, because, for years, my sleep quality was horsesh*t, until I willed it not to be, and made it so.
Based on my own dumbass mistakes, research I’ve done, and conversations with friends, here are the four most common ways people sabotage their own restful slumber:
I’m not trying to get all high and mighty about what you might feel is a much needed night cap, but all of us have felt it the morning after a wild night out, drinking with friends. It’s not just you, alcohol hurts your sleep quality, big time. While, yes, alcohol is a depressant, (as in, a drug which slows and relaxes the body) the National Sleep Foundation reports that alcohol negatively impacts sleep in five major ways:
- It causes conflicting brain waves (delta activity – the good, brain rejuvenating activity vs. alpha activity – activity associated with waking hours) which prevent restful slumber
- It disrupts circadian rhythm by altering adenosine production, the hormone which helps you fall asleep and keeps you asleep
- Blocks REM sleep (the most “restful” kind of sleep)
- Aggravates sleep issues like sleep apnea and snoring by overly relaxing certain muscles
- And lastly… extra bathroom trips because alcohol is a diuretic (makes you pee more)
How to protect your sleep quality:
- Limit your alcohol consumption to a single drink in a day, and limit the number of days you drink. I love wine and beer as much, if not more, than the next person, but I do notice that, when I have more than one drink at a time, my sleep quality is drastically worsened. Personally, I only consume up to two drinks per week – and only one drink in a meal, and I find it works for me. I get to enjoy wine occasionally, without negatively impacting my quality of waking life.
- Or, if you have low alcohol tolerance, do not drink at all. Let me emphasize, this isn’t a challenge to increase your tolerance. It won’t help improve your sleep if you’re more tolerant to alcohol. Besides, it’s becoming more and more acceptable and fashionable to drink mocktails these days anyway, and if anyone gives you sh*t for it, this begs the question: are your friends only friends with you because you drink? Chances are, they aren’t, and they’ll usually let it go after a few minutes. If they don’t, this begs another question: are you surrounding yourself with people who enable you to have the lifestyle you actually want, especially if they’re preventing you from doing that right now? That’s for you think deeply about to answer for yourself.
Caffeine & sugar consumption
Coffee is my personal “hair of the dog that bit you.” For years I would drink coffee in the morning around 9AM, refresh my cup around 11AM, then again at 2PM, around the time of day I felt the most drag-ass. I also love coffee as a beverage. I drink it black sometimes just for the flavor. But, little did I know, it was the act of over-caffeinating that made me tired, that made me need it in the morning even more than I needed it the day before.
Too much sugar as a whole really wrecks your metabolism and insulin production as well, and causes serious glycemic spikes and crashes (and some sugar substitutes do as well – check for their glycemic index). Combine that spike and crash with caffeine and it’s a recipe for chronic fatigue. I’m talking about your energy drinks (yes, the supposed “sugar-free” ones too), Starbucks caramel macchiatos, not-so-sugar-free lattes, frappucinos, etc. Sugar and many sugar substitutes can cause a wicked crash. So, you end up more tired in afternoons, which causes you to drink more caffeine, which causes inability to sleep when you’re trying to get to bed!
How to protect your sleep quality:
- Cut the sugar out – especially from your caffeinated drinks. Seriously, try it. You might think you need sweeteners but after a while you’ll start tasting food again after years of being crippled by sugar addiction. If you absolutely must have something sweetened, use a sweetener which does not cause a glycemic spike (look for the words “zero glycemic index” or “low G.I.”). Stevia or xylitol are examples of those types of sweeteners.
- Avoid caffeine consumption after noon. People have varying levels of caffeine sensitivity (it sometimes takes me 3 cups of coffee to feel the effects my friends feel with 1 cup) but the general rule is keep caffeine to mornings. Ingest it any later than noon, and the caffeine may not wear off when your body should be winding down.
- If you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee or energy drink after 12:00, consider drinking a gulp of cold water instead. Most people tend to under-hydrate, plus caffeine is also a diuretic. Chances are you’re dehydrated. You’d be surprised how much cold water can wake you up. (As an added bonus, when you drink enough water, your skin holds its elasticity better and doesn’t dry out… meaning, less acne & fewer wrinkles!)
- Consider having tea or half-caf/decaf coffee, instead. Tea has some caffeine, though not as much as a cup of fully-caffeinated coffee.
- If you find that you still get jittery after any caffeine in the morning and stay jittery for most of the day, either scoot that cutoff time earlier, or… here’s a wild idea: don’t have caffeinated drinks at all. You might have a higher sensitivity to caffeine than you think you have.
Staring at blue light from a bright screen all day (via computer) or right before you sleep (via phone or TV)
Blue light refers to the short wavelength at which most back-lit devices (that is, computer screens, phones, tablets, etc) project light. Our brains are programmed to perceive short wavelength blue light (or, to describe it vividly, “cool white” light) as “daytime” light, which suppresses melatonin production. If you work a 9-5 job staring at a computer screen all day, you are literally fooling your brain into thinking it is daytime, all day, even in the evenings, by staring at white light. Even if you don’t work on a computer all day, you probably stare at your phone quite a bit at night, or watch Netflix. Hey, I don’t judge, I do it, too.
How to protect your sleep quality:
- Wear blue-light filtering glasses when you have to work for long periods of time on a screen, to prevent affects of chronic blue-light overexposure. Personally, I wear a pair of Felix Gray blue-light filtering glasses every now and then, especially if I anticipate working after sunset.
- Use “Night Shift” or “Night Light” modes on your devices to ensure the backlight projects more reddish, long-wavelength light. And as annoying as it looks at first, trust me, you get used to it. Go as red/yellow on the spectrum as you can without impacting legibility.
- Put your phone on the other side of the room and read a book instead. If your phone is your alarm clock, this works two-fold: it forces you to leave your phone alone while you try to get to bed, and it forces you to get up in the morning to turn off your alarm.
- Consider having a “phone-free” zone in your bedroom (assuming you don’t have a job where you are on call). If you have an alarm clock that isn’t a phone, use it. You might find the freedom from “dings” and “buzzes” during those quiet evening hours to be extremely liberating.
- If you must be on-call, consider turning off unnecessary notifications on your phone so that it doesn’t distract you from the important job of chilling the f*ck out.
Bad or no lighting in your bedroom
Maybe devices aren’t your issue, but the color temperature of the lights in your house. Again, cool light might not allow you to sleep right away. I used to be all about incandescent lights as an alternative (and they definitely are charming AF) but LED lights have really gotten better over the years. You can find them in different color temperatures, they require less energy than incandescent lights, and they last forever.
Similarly, if your lights are off and you have blackout curtains, your morning will be very dark, and your brain might perceive the darkness as “too early” or “night” and not have the cues it needs to wake up.
How to protect your sleep quality:
- Consider getting a timer for your lights (like this one on Amazon) so that they turn on just before your alarm clock goes off.
- Get blackout curtains to block out street lights, and buy “warm” LED lightbulbs to light your home in the evenings. They make your house feel cozy AF, too.
- If you’re willing to splurge on lights that mimic outdoor light (to better sync your circadian rhythm), and you like the added bonus of controlling your lights remotely, get “smart” lightbulbs. I personally have the LIFX smart lightbulbs because they don’t require a hub, and they cost ~$24 per lightbulb. If you’re using it for just a lamp in your bedroom, it really won’t break the bank.
Really, the four main culprits of bad sleep are the products of two overarching causes: diet and lighting. If you optimize your diet and your lighting, you might find you have a much easier time falling asleep and getting your next stay started.
Any that I missed? Let me know in the comments how you battle common sleep woes.
And when you’re ready, check out Part II of my I’m not a morning person series.