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How you can become an early riser, and get the most out of your working day

There are a large number of high-achieving early risers such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, lawyer and writer Michelle Obama, Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and author John Grisham. Does it make you wonder whether early rising and success at work go hand in hand? A study by the Huffington Post concluded that rising earlier will provide an opportunity for greater productivity and will ultimately help you lead a less stressful day. Employers can benefit from promoting awareness about sleep patterns and productivity at work, paving the way for a more alert and focused workforce.

Becoming a morning person

Whether you are a “get-up-and-go” type of person and are generally more productive in the early hours, or whether you tend to prefer working later in the day and stay up late into the night, is influenced by what is known as your “chronotype”, and is partly controlled by your genes.

Our genetics exert a powerful influence on whether you are a “morning lark” type of person or a “night owl”, and is further influenced by other factors such as your age, hormone activity, the levels of sunlight you receive, and even where you live.

Chronotype changes through your life

Many people experience changes to their sleep/wake cycle during their lives. With the onset of puberty, teenagers develop a natural tendency towards a later sleep/wake cycle which lasts about five years – so there is a reason it is difficult to get teenagers out of bed!

Women in general tend to be more morning orientated earlier in life. During pregnancy, hormonal activity often shifts your chronotype to an even earlier sleep/wake cycle during the first and second trimester and back to a later cycle during the third trimester. As women approach their middle years and the amount of oestrogen reduces, their sleep/wake cycles generally shift to later in the day.

Most men tend to be late risers early in life, with their chronotype shifting due to hormonal changes to becoming more morning orientated as they age.

Seasonal influences

Apart from the shifts in our sleep/wake cycle relating to the phases of life, many people also have varying sensitivity to the changing seasons and variations in light, which influences our sleep/wake cycle.

Can you change your chronotype to become more of a morning person?

The COVID-19 pandemic has, for many, possibly highlighted the benefits of being a “morning lark”. It gives you precious time to prepare for the additional duties many of us are experiencing in lockdown, such as children’s home schooling, or additional family commitments, or just that little bit of extra time for you to pursue your own personal goals, around the demands of the traditional 9-to-5 working day.

Given that your chronotype is, to a greater extent, governed by your genetics and stages of life, is it possible to influence your sleep/wake cycle to change yourself into a morning person and get those early-morning hours working for you?

If you are not naturally a morning person and your genetics are in turn wired against you, trying to chameleon yourself into being a comfortable early riser may take a little effort, and probably won’t result in a permanent switch for life. The good news, however, is that it can be done.

Circadian rhythms: adapt your body clock for a more successful work life

All of us have an internal master body clock known as the circadian rhythm, which plays a critical role in regulating our wake-up time, how alert we feel during the day, our increasing levels of fatigue as the evening draws to a close, and eventually, when we go to sleep.

Our daily routine has a big influence on regulating your circadian rhythm, so changes to our routine through the day and evening can have a real impact on our sleep/wake cycle. Below we list some advice on adapting your everyday routine for better sleep patterns and a more successful work life.

1. Go to bed earlier if you want to get up earlier

It seems an obvious bit of advice, but it needs to be stated – if you want to get up earlier, you need to get to bed earlier.

It is recommended to start changing the timing of your sleep wake cycle slowly in incremental stages (e.g. 20 minutes). For example, if you usually sleep from 11.00pm-8.00am, change your schedule to 10.40pm-7.40am for the first few days of your new routine, then 10.20pm-7.20am for the next few days, and so on. This way, there is no trade-off between an earlier morning routine and a good amount of sleep. 

You will also need to bear in mind that going to sleep earlier may have a knock-on effect to altering your dinner to an earlier time. As has been explained, mealtimes have a key influence on your internal body clock, so adjusting here will also help shift your sleep/wake cycle. This may seem like an effort, but you will soon reap the rewards of a more productive and successful work life.

2. Light your way to waking early

The level and type of light you are exposed to during the day also has a powerful influence on the timing of your circadian rhythm cycle. The bright light of sunrise naturally stimulates you to wake up, whilst the amber or red tones of sunset signals you to wind down. 

Try giving screens a miss at least an hour before bed, as the blue light that comes from them can often cause a restless night’s sleep.

To help you shift your wake-up and sleep times, try using natural light by positioning your bed facing the window, with your curtains open, so you benefit from the morning light gradually increasing, which will stimulate you to wake up. Alternatively, you might like to try a sunrise alarm clock, or dawn simulation light, where an artificial light source is integrated into a standard digital clock and is timed to gradually wake you up at a selected time, by mimicking the steadily increasing light of sunrise.

“Did you know that the two most powerful forces that influence the calibration of our circadian rhythm, are natural light and regular mealtimes.”

3. Create a night-time routine

The night owls amongst us will know that it’s not that easy to override the lifetime habit of staying up late, as your body clock is programmed to run a late sleep/wake cycle. 

Here again, changing your routine can help. Switch watching late night thrillers for relaxing night-time routines; this can include such things as stretching, meditation, breathing exercises, listening to relaxing music and reading before bed. 

A relaxing night-time routine will help you wind down and relax into an earlier start to your sleep/wake cycle.

4. Exercise in the morning

Research has shown that making time for regular daily exercise, particularly in the morning, has the effect of shifting people towards an earlier sleep/wake chronotype. 

Scheduling exercising into your morning routine will make you less likely to skip exercise, and your master body clock will thrive on the routine.

5. You are what you eat, so watch out

There saying that “you are what you eat” can convey several lessons in the way of improving our sleep routines. Much research has been undertaken in order to compare diet patterns with different chronotypes. Studies have revealed that evening people tend to skip breakfast, eat their dinner late, and consume more alcohol and caffeine than early morning types. These may be difficult habits to lose, but focusing on reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, eating earlier, and having a healthy breakfast, will not only help you shift your sleep/wake cycle earlier, but will significantly help you towards all-round better health and wellbeing both at work and in your everyday life.

6. Trying to change your chronotype is challenging

If you are really intent on trying to shift your sleep/wake cycle, set some positive action points from the advice above, and commit to giving them a go for a good month or more. Begin slowly, taking small steps, noting the positive impact on your wellbeing along the way, and reward yourself for all your achievements. We are all creatures of habit, and if you objectively observe your daily routine, you will notice that to a great extent these habits shape the rhythm of your day. This in turn will influence your master body clock.
Making small incremental changes and sticking to them will support you in gradually shifting your time clock. Change will not happen overnight, so be patient and persistent.

7. Find a goal and let it motivate you

Having a personal goal may help motivate you to achieve the shift towards waking up earlier. Whether you are intent on creating some precious early “me time” hours to just potter around, or generate extra time to fulfil a personal goal, or better organise your day. Whatever it is you want to achieve, big or small, let this motivate you to stick to your plan.

Embracing chronotype diversity

If you give it a go and you find that it is just impossible to leap out of bed as the sun rises – don’t despair! The COVID-19 pandemic has meant an accelerated acceptance of flexible, remote working practices which will no doubt pave the way for work schedules that allow “early birds” and “night owls” to collaborate harmoniously. So if adapting your sleep pattern is simply not a viable option for improving your work life, then rather embrace chronotype diversity and find a routine that works for you.

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