How to be Awake in the Morning and Sleepy at Night
“Morning is wonderful. Its only drawback is that it comes at such an inconvenient time of day.”
— Glen Cook
You’ve probably heard of the circadian rhythm — the natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle governing the lives of most animals, humans included. For 99% of our history, we moved naturally to this rhythm, guided by nature’s dependable patterns of light, temperature, and sound.
But that’s all in the past. Today, we have the power to artificially manipulate the triggers that regulate our circadian rhythms. And sadly, we’re not blessed with nature’s great sense of rhythm.
The result is a society filled with millions of minds that are sleepy when they should be awake and awake when they should be sleepy. This unfortunate situation is robbing many people of much of their lives.
We need to rediscover our rhythm. Here are the three steps that helped me reclaim mine.
Set Your Latest Allowable Wake-up Time (LAWT)
1 The first step is also the hardest, at least initially. You need to set your LAWT and make sure it’s set in stone. Weekends, holidays, or late nights don’t change a thing. Your LAWT is law.
Initially, this is a very tough rule, one that puts many people off. But any sleep expert you talk to will back this up. If you want the kind of sleep required for high performance, consistency is the #1 recommendation. Without it, your confused circadian rhythm traps you in a state of permanent jet lag. And that’s no fun.
You can make it easier on yourself by accounting for your natural sleep rhythm. If you’re a night owl, don’t start with a 6 a.m. LAWT. But our society rewards early risers, so it makes sense for owls to push their LAWTs a little earlier over time. It’s possible. I was a notorious late sleeper, but now, I generally get up around 5 a.m. — alarm-free!
Great, so you’re willing to give this a go. Where to start? In my book, the best way to establish this invaluable habit is to find yourself a committed Accountability Buddy.
Your Accountability Buddy is someone who will be waiting for you shortly after your LAWT and be quite disappointed if you don’t show up.
My Accountability Buddies are my parents. After I moved to Norway from South Africa, we slowly drifted apart for many years. But when my brother also moved to Norway, leaving their nest well and truly empty, it became clear that something had to be done. That was when I, somewhat reluctantly, decided to give the Accountability Buddy idea a try.
It worked like a charm! For the past 30 months, we’ve talked for about 15 minutes at 6:30 every morning. The habit is now so deeply ingrained that sleeping past 6:15 is not even an option.
And if you can’t find an Accountability Buddy? Well, there are some evil alarm clocks and apps out there that are guaranteed to drag you out of bed. You can also throw a bit of positive motivation into the mix by adding a timed coffee maker to Step 2 outlined below.
Yes, it’s tough initially, but keep your eye on the prize. Your LAWT brings back the beat to your circadian rhythm. And that steady beat will let you shine on the great dancefloor of life ;-)
Maximize Early Morning Sensory Stimulation
2 Getting your body and mind fully activated in the early morning is something of an art form. The secret? A quickfire stimulation of all five senses.
Like most music, the first beat of your daily rhythm should be strong and punchy. Don’t hold back!
Sight is the best place to start. If the sun is out, open every window to invite it in. If not, turn on every light you can find. Light is a key trigger for our circadian rhythm, and a healthy dose at about the same time each morning is a great way to get your life back in sync.
Next in line: hearing. If you do the smart thing and choreograph your morning routine to your unique soundtrack, this part happens automatically. A loud and inspirational song is a great way to start a fully automated, handcrafted morning routine.
While your wake-up song is playing, take care of the other three senses. For touch, a splash of cold water in the face is always a winner.
For taste and smell, coffee is undoubtedly the most popular option. That’s fine, especially if you invest in a timed coffee maker to help pull you out of bed before you LAWT. I’m not a coffee person, so I just put on some fragrant deodorant and take a mouthful of some surprisingly pleasant mouthwash to get that morning taste out of my mouth.
If you choreograph your sensory barrage well, it can wake you up in two minutes flat. Consistent repetition of this wake-up ritual is a great way to set your internal body clock for natural wakefulness every single morning.
Minimize Evening Sensory Stimulation
3 When evening comes, the exact opposite applies. Everything in your environment should send out subtle signals that bedtime is approaching. Most important: no TV or any other screens.
If you want to be awake in the morning and sleepy at night, you need to give your circadian rhythm every hint imaginable. This means a powerful sensory barrage in the morning and a soothing sensory winddown at night, administered consistently day after day.
Start by defining your desired sleep opportunity — the amount of time you want to be in bed with the intention to sleep. For most people, this should be around 8 hours.
From here, your desired bedtime is only a bit of basic arithmetic away. For example, if you decide on 8 hours of sleep opportunity and your LAWT is set at 6:30 a.m., you should aim to be in bed before 10:30 p.m.
The 30 minutes before bedtime is sensory winddown time. Dim the lights, put on some soft and relaxing music, and quiet the mind with some relaxing reading, yoga, or meditation.
Initiating your winddown period at the right time takes some practice. Unlike your LAWT, your bedtime is not set in stone. Listen to your body, and start your winddown ritual only when you start feeling sleepy.
So, what to do when bedtime is approaching and you’re still wide awake? My favorite strategy for these nights is to spend some time on the most boring task on my plate. This hastens the onset of sleepiness and ticks something tedious off my to-do list — a lovely double-win.
But whatever you do, don’t indulge in digital entertainment when you should be winding down. Late-night TV or streaming seriously confuses your sleep rhythm, especially if it’s any good. Such sensory and mental stimulation is the polar opposite of what you want during this critical time.
Finally, if social duty calls for a late night out every once in awhile, no problem. Just make sure it doesn’t become a ridiculously late night and religiously maintain your LAWT. Your body will automatically demand an earlier bedtime for the next night or two, restoring balance and keeping your circadian rhythm intact.
To Sum Up
Here is the simple 1–2–3 to a restored circadian rhythm and a mind that actually wants to wake up in the morning:
- Set your latest allowable wake-up time in stone. To get through the tough initiation phase, call on the power of an Accountability Buddy or an alarm clock/app that shows no mercy.
- Maximize morning sensory stimulation. Build a quickfire ritual that covers all five senses and runs every morning.
- Wind down at the right time. Determine your ideal bedtime to make sure you give yourself enough sleep opportunity. Your environment should send every conceivable hint that sleepytime is approaching.
In today’s technological age of badly confused circadian rhythms, being able to wake up alert and refreshed at a decent hour is a huge advantage. Rediscover your rhythm, and this advantage is yours!
This article is part of Chapter 1: Morning Routines in the HHWPS project.
All images were custom-made for this article by Janet Cloete.