“Early to bed, early to rise, will make you healthy, wealthy and wise.” Judging by Benjamin Franklin’s famous observation, getting up early has its ardent fans. In this article, we take a look at reasons for its popularity, and we get to the nitty-gritty on how to become one of the early risers.
The Eternal Debate
Early risers and late sleepers do not understand each other well. When they are in the same household, there always seems to be a bit of tension between the two groups. The early risers are irritated with the late sleepers, who they view as lazy. The late sleepers make fun of the early risers for going to bed at 9 PM when they (the late sleepers) are getting ready to go out and have fun. They find each other’s habits incomprehensible. They never seem to be in agreement, and for good reason: each body has its own clock.
It’s All In The Rhythm
Human bodies run according to body clocks, called circadian rhythms. Part of their function is to determine when we feel sleepy or energetic, and how much sleep we need. Our bodies use the hormone melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland, for this function. The secretion of melatonin is directly connected to light intensity: darkness causes an increase and vice versa. When melatonin levels are high, we feel sleepy. The stress hormone cortisol also influences circadian rhythms.
The exact functioning of these chemicals is unique to each individual, similar to a fingerprint. In terms of our circadian rhythms, it means that we are all dancing to a slightly different beat.
Instead of being purely morning- or evening people, most of us are something in between. Where one lies on the spectrum is determined mostly by our genetic makeup, apart from external factors like light intensity. Which means that some of us are not free to choose, especially those of us on the extremes of the spectrum. They may find it difficult, or impossible, to interfere with and modify their established circadian rhythms.
Most of us know instinctively how much of a morning or evening person we are, but there is good news for those with doubts: it is surprisingly easy to get an objective scientific opinion. Do the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ) – it forms part of long-term research on circadian rhythms done by chronobiologists Till Roenneberg and Martha Merrow. There are hundreds of other quick-fix quizzes on the subject all over the internet, but the thoroughness of the MCTQ leaves almost all of them in the dust.
I am one of the lucky people who can successfully live as either an early bird or night owl. For many years, my line of work – entertainment industry related – demanded the night owl lifestyle. I was used to working until 2 AM, and remember being impressed if I could get to bed before the first birds started chirping. It is striking how many culinary establishments refuse to serve breakfast after 11 AM.
As my lifestyle and work environment changed over the years, I found myself in the position where I could choose when I wanted to work, go to sleep or wake up. I chose (and still choose) to be an early riser. As much as I liked staying up late, I gave it up gladly, and here’s why.
Why get up early?
- Better sleep
As an early riser, your circadian rhythm is more aligned to the natural cycle of day and night. It literally makes falling asleep and waking up easier. After a week or two, I didn’t need to set an alarm any more, as I would wake up just before it would go off.
- “Extra Time”
Late sleepers would say that this is an illusion. You still have the same number of hours, it doesn’t matter what time you get up. Fair enough, that is why I put it in quotation marks. The big difference is: early in the morning, there are no distractions. You are free to do what you like, without constant external demands for your attention.
- Early risers use this time to exercise, relax, think, start work or be creative, among many others – often things that may fall by the wayside on a typical busy day. I now treasure and look forward to this quiet time, making it very easy for me to wake up.
- The Sunrise Package
To experience daybreak, with the sky changing colour, chirping birds, crisp oxygen-rich air and the crescendo of sunrise, is about as good a start to your day as you’re going to get. Apart from pure sensory indulgence, it provides a rock solid starting point to your day – an anchor of sorts. You feel ready to tackle the day, and are less likely to be thrown off course.
- Productivity Spilke
Increased productivity is closely linked to “extra time”, but deserves a heading of its own. Since becoming an early riser, I have noticed an effortless increase in productivity. It is not from feverishly cramming activity into my “extra time”, it is more a case of me using my work hours productively, since I have a head start early in the morning.
Does this make you want to try it?
How to become an early riser
1. Get a good alarm clock
Whether you prefer a standalone alarm clock or an app on your cellphone, find one that works for you. Do not go for the loudest, most obnoxious alarm you can find. Your alarm clock should just wake you up, not shock you into consciousness, which will make you loathe the experience straight away. If you are inclined to hit the snooze button a few times every morning, place the alarm clock out of your reach, so you have to get out of bed to switch it off. It also helps to do something immediately while you are on your feet, like making coffee or brushing your teeth.
2. Plan something for the early morning beforehand
If you suddenly start to wake up two hours earlier, you’re going to need something to do. Otherwise, you will concentrate only on staying awake, which is an annoying (and often failed) exercise. It is a case of simple distraction: get your mind to focus on something else, particularly something you enjoy. It will make the new experience feel less empty and strange.
3. Go to bed earlier
If you get up early and are physically tired from exercise, this will come naturally. The cycle will start to sustain itself after a few successful attempts. Some night owls find this even more difficult than to get up early. The trick is to still get into bed even though you do not feel sleepy, and then do your best to fall asleep with reading, subdued lighting and other techniques. If you routinely get to bed earlier, your body will most likely adjust to the new circadian rhythm and you will feel sleepy at the appropriate time.
4. Make sure you have a comfortable bed
It will be easier to get up early if you feel refreshed. Physical discomfort is the last thing you need when trying to get a good night’s sleep. You will wake up often, struggle to go back to sleep, and feel less rested. People who wake up in the morning feeling groggy should take a look at the mattress they’re sleeping on, as it could be the culprit.
Buying a new mattress can be a daunting task with a bewildering number of choices out there. For example, when buying a bed for a couple at The Mattress Warehouse, the range starts with the affordable Ruby Firm double bed and goes right up to the super-luxurious Sealy Posturematic S600 Motion Bed – King XL, with hundreds of models in between.
Mattress design has become highly specialised. For example, some mattresses are designed to alleviate specific medical conditions like back pain, fibromyalgia or arthritis. Another example is where designers focus on body type or preferred sleeping position and tweak the design accordingly.
Having such a wide choice of mattresses is fundamentally a good thing because it means that there is room to be extremely specific in your choice. The right mattress for you (and your budget) is out there. Do as much research as possible and find out exactly what is available, so you can make an informed choice.