I Tried Waking up at 5AM for Two Weeks and Here’s What I Learned
When a night owl attempts to become a morning person
I have a love-hate relationship with sleep. It’s been a relentless struggle of mine (it almost feels like a chore at times) to merely fall asleep. But once I drift off, it’s an entirely different story. To make light of how severe things can get, let’s just say I strongly—passionately—commit to this state of unconscious bliss: “Do not disturb…or else.” I enjoy sleep, clearly. I just dread the process of getting there, especially when I target a bedtime earlier than 12AM.
My typical bedtime is 2:30 in the morning. See, my lightbulb moments happen when it’s lights out for everyone else. To me, 11PM is early. The night is young. 12 midnight is my brain’s warmup period (the nice stretch before the marathon) and it’s only at one in the morning when my creative juices truly start flowing. I can’t pinpoint when exactly the shift in my sleeping patterns occurred, but through countless failed attempts at resetting my body clock, I learned that my mind is never ready for sleep until it is out of ideas and out of fuel, the effects of which spill over into the following day.
No surprise here: I am not a morning person. I, in fact, steer clear of those who are as a means to spare them from a resting bitch face (over-pronounced between 7AM and 10AM for reasons we already know) and an inability to keep up with high-energy interaction early in the morning. In jest, as long as the sun’s out, I’m on energy-saving mode and my only saving grace is a cup of coffee. When the evening comes around, that’s when I’m at a hundred again. I work through the night, retire in the wee hours of the morning, get four to five hours of sleep, wake up and get ready for the day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
“Walang Ganyan sa Probinsiya”
My family would rather not resign to the fact that I am a night owl. My father, in particular, has tried to drill Ben Franklin’s saying, “early to bed and early to rise makes and man healthy, wealthy and wise” in my head for as long as I can remember.
Back story: my old man grew up in Bacolod City. A regular day in the household of my strict and traditional lola meant not only waking up early, but rising before the sun does. Everyone does chores before breakfast, finishes some work before lunch, accomplishes the rest before dinner at seven and it was lights out by eight. My father says this is the reason his parents managed to find a balance between work, play, vocation, several hobbies, family time and personal time. That’s a mouthful, right? And a near-impossible feat in this day and age. According to my dad, it’s how my grandparents stayed sharp all those years, too.
With that, my dad attributes a person’s overall success and efficiency as a human being to this kind of morning discipline. Over in his own household, meanwhile, he has a daughter who sleeps at three in the morning, is still in bed by eight and enjoys sleeping in on weekends. Just imagine his frustration.
Science Is on the Side of Morning People
And why wouldn’t it be frustrating? The facts are very in-your-face. Year after year, new studies pop up left, right and center reiterating that early birds win in life. On occasion, several people do make a strong case for the night owl, but at the end of the day, the advantages of waking up early outweigh the perks of letting your creative left brain thrive late at night. Apart from the fact that it’s the proven morning habit that many successful people share, research has also found that women, in particular, who wake up early are less likely to develop depression. Overall, this habit also renders a person more proactive and less likely to procrastinate.
Then there’s this clincher: night owls don’t live as long. Earlier this month, a study published in Chronobiology International concludes that “the later chronotype (i.e. evening preference) and later timing of sleep have been associated with greater morbidity, including higher rates of metabolic dysfunction and cardiovascular disease.”
If there’s anything that warrants the reassessment of night owl habits, it’s this.
Can Night Owls Reprogram Themselves to Become Morning Larks?
The lead author of the study and associate professor of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine Kristen Knutson says it’s absolutely possible. “One way to shift your behavior is to make sure you are exposed to light early in the morning but not at night,” she explained. “Try to keep a regular bedtime and not let yourself drift to later bedtimes. Be regimented about adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors and recognize the timing of when you sleep matters. Do things earlier and be less of an evening person as much as you can.”
Easier said than done? I thought so, too. So I set out to try this for myself to see how achievable the switch is from night owl to morning lark. For two weeks, I made a conscious effort to wake up at 5AM every day and in the process, learned some life-altering things.
#1: The hard reset is—shocker—hard.
On days one and two, I learned something new about myself: I switch off alarms in my sleep. At one point I even switched off my phone with no recollection of doing so, which is the reason I had to hit reset on the experiment itself…not once, but twice. I realized that my two-week goal was ideal, but idealistic…and ambitious. I also didn’t account for a prelude I didn’t know I needed, which was one extra week in preparation for the exercise. It took a lot of learning by trial and error and encountering setbacks before I found a routine that worked perfectly for me.
#2: The goal is to live life deliberately. But to be deliberate, you need to put in time. To put in the time, you need to find time.
And there will never be enough time when you spend a large chunk of it snoozing.
I long wondered how morning people did it: how they managed to be chipper so early in the morning. They were generally less temperamental, too. It turns out that these are linked to their ability to live life more deliberately and they have the early head-start to thank for it.
Waking up early grants people the opportunity to look at the day they’re about to have, set the tone for themselves and get a better grasp of how they’re going to make use of the hours in that day. People who don’t get to pause and get their bearings first thing in the morning tend to go about the day shortsightedly. They rush, forget things and can easily get overwhelmed by unplanned events that come up throughout the day. What’s worse is they neglect to enjoy the now since it feels like a perpetual game of catch-up. (Been there and definitely done that.)
#3: Early mornings are distraction-free. Take advantage.
Having done a 180 with my sleep schedule, I realized that one major downside to having night-owl tendencies is being accustomed to high-stress settings. Night owls, programmed to get into the groove later in the day, tend to dive into things at the busiest points of the day, when the work environment is oversaturated.
The first time I woke up at sunrise, it was almost unnerving. I got so used to the 9-to-6 rush, to dealing with urgent but unimportant concerns in between that timeframe and having a medley of noise pollution in the background, that I completely forgot what stillness was like.
For clarity and sanity, early mornings are the ticket, I tell you. This is the best time to work on things that you’d like to give your complete focus to because not much else competes for your attention at this time of the day (notifications, emails and badge alerts won’t go off when the people you communicate with are still asleep!) I began leisurely reading again, working on plans for side projects and other things I “never got around to doing.”
#4: There’s no use trying to wake up early if you don’t commit to sleeping early.
I learned the hard way that I was setting myself up for failure at first. I was sticking to the same routine that has historically aided in keeping me up at night. It didn’t matter that I was in bed by 10PM; I was still scrolling through my phone (that emits blue light, one of the culprits that interfere with a good night’s sleep), had my laptop at arm’s reach and was still indulging in coffee at 5PM.
Committing to an earlier bedtime meant going to extremes, consciously designing a space and schedule that was conducive to sleep and relaxation. So I resolved to do the following: make my bedroom a completely work-free zone, have the lights out strictly at 10PM and keep my phone on a table across the room instead of my bedside table. No coffee past 3PM either.
#5: It takes 21 days to form a habit, so the work is far from over.
Like all things that stick, consistency is key. Like all changes that are worthwhile, they don’t take effect overnight.
“Eventually” may not have a time stamp, but it will follow as long as you set yourself up to develop a habit rather than meet a single goal. When necessary, be ruthless about hitting your mark. The payoff will be worth it. Case in point: once I got the hang of waking up early, I began waking up before my alarm clock would go off at five. But of course came another challenge: harnessing the willpower to resist going back to sleep. I had to be ruthless about that part, too. A large portion of this, I realized, has a lot to do with willpower. The desire to make a lifestyle change has to trump the desire to stick to what’s safe, comfortable and familiar.
For years, I found ways to justify being a night owl. This largely resided in the fact that, again, my mind worked better in odd hours of the morning; I even displayed that like a badge of honor. But here’s the thing: I never thought to disturb or challenge that sleep cycle to see if there existed a better fit for me.
Having powered through the two weeks and seen the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a done deal. I never thought I’d say this, but morning larks do get more out of life. Attempting to become one is a worthwhile endeavor. Consider me a convert.
Art Alexandra Lara