Creating a Morning Routine for Night Owls

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from Pixabay. Image by Comfreak/Jonny Lindner

Hate getting up every morning? Me too.

For us night owls and slow starters, mornings bring a special kind of torture. As someone who has trouble falling asleep before 6 a.m., I know all about the struggle of pulling yourself out of bed right in the thick of sleep and dreaming. In fact, for a long time, I’ve found it difficult to get myself together and ready to start working until late in the afternoon.

Like other night owls, I hit the peak of my productivity, energy, and creativity around midnight. But the truth is that unless you’ve got full command of your schedule, are self-employed, or work the night shift, there’s just no workaround when it comes to daytime living. The fact is that we live in a world where banks, government agencies, and a large number of businesses still operate within the standard 8-5 or 9-6 schedule.

So, how exactly can a night owl adapt and thrive in a world that caters to morning people? Well, it all starts with establishing an effective morning routine. The following are the tips I’ve found most helpful in chipping away at my wake-up time. Now, you don’t have to do all the things in this list, but hopefully, you’ll find some of the items helpful on your journey to becoming an earlier, if not early, riser.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

According to an article by the National Sleep Foundation, experts recommend that adults get roughly 7-9 hours of sleep each day. Now, 7-9 hours of sleep every day can seem like a pretty tall order, especially if you’re juggling two jobs, have kids to take care of, or have an ever-expanding to-do list that you need to sift through. But the fact remains that prolonged sleep deprivation can have adverse effects on your mental and physical health. (You can read more about the effects of sleep deprivation on Science Daily.) So as much as possible, do try to go for at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Now, on the days where getting seven hours of sleep just isn’t possible—and there will be days like that—I recommend finding your personal sweet spot when it comes to minimum hours of sleep. You know, that number of hours wherein you may still feel a bit tired but can otherwise power through the day with little trouble.  The number varies from one person to another. I have friends who swear by sleeping 3-4 hours most days, my husband feels at his best with 6 hours of sleep, and as for me, it’s 5.5 hours or 8.

Finding that sweet spot will take some time, but you’ll know it when you hit it. I just don’t recommend relying on this trick too often.

Get ready to get up at the same time every day. And I mean every day.

This might just be the most crucial part of your morning routine. Now, we all know that the key to developing any habit is consistency. And since the goal here is to get up earlier, it’s important to note that the only way to successfully modify your sleep-wake cycle is through creating lasting change in your body’s circadian rhythm and, consequently, its biological clock.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has this really informative fact sheet on circadian rhythms that’s definitely worth a read. But in case you don’t have time to read the article, here are some key takeaways that you might find interesting. First, your circadian rhythm is what determines a lot of your body’s biological functions. We’re talking sleep-wake cycles, eating habits, hormone release, and even your moods. Disruptions to its natural rhythm have been linked to various health conditions like diabetes, obesity, insomnia, and even depression and bipolar disorder.

So, where does waking up early fit in this scenario? Well, here’s your second takeaway. As the article puts it, “Circadian rhythms help determine our sleep patterns.” It signals your body’s SCN or master clock to produce melatonin, a.k.a. the sleep hormone. This is a process that peaks at night. Hence most people feel wide awake during the daytime and then become increasingly groggy as the night progresses.

Because our bodies are predisposed to slip into sleep mode at night, theoretically, it should be easier to transition into nighttime sleeping rather than dozing off once the day breaks. Now, I recognize that this isn’t always the case. I, myself, have gone through periods wherein the only way to sleep through the night was with copious amounts of wine, a few sips of antihistamine, or a p.m. pill or two. But I’ve also found through experience that in the long run, nighttime sleeping is more restful than the lengthiest daytime snooze. Plus, long-term night shift work has been associated with a lot of health risks, including heart disease, ulcer, and even some types of cancer. This is why, unless you absolutely have to work at night, it pays to shift into daytime living.

Since changing your sleep pattern now will cause some ripples in your circadian rhythm, it’s important that you try to stabilize your body’s biological clock as soon as possible. This is where waking up at the same time every day comes in. By getting up at the same time every day for a few weeks, you’re employing the necessary change to your schedule while also giving your body the period it needs to settle into its new rhythm.

But what about the weekends? Well, this is the tricky part. See, getting up late should be fine once in a while, but sleeping in too often will definitely make it harder to turn this practice into habit. So, if you’re serious about making a change to your timetable, make it a point to get up at roughly the same time every day—whether we’re talking Manic Mondays or Slowdown Sundays.

Invest in the right alarm clock.

One of these days, you’re not going to need an alarm clock to get up in the morning. However, let’s be honest. If you’re reading this article, today is not going to be that day. Neither is tomorrow. So, go ahead and use your phone’s built-in alarm clock as your personal rooster for as long as you need to.

But if you’re a sleepyhead like me, chances are, you’ve found yourself immune to your phone’s alarm. That thing could ring, buzz, and ping for hours and you’d still be out cold ‘til noon. It’s a good thing that there are a lot of alarm clocks out there that are designed specifically for heavy sleepers. In this list from Health.com, there’s even one that will legit shred your money if you don’t get up on time. Now, that’s too hardcore for me and I’m too lazy to maintain another gizmo (other than my laptop and phone), so I prefer downloading apps. If you’re more of an app person like me, here’s a list of android and iPhone alarm clock apps from TechUntold.

I’ve tried about half of the apps on the list, but the one that has worked best for me is Alarmy—specifically the barcode option. I use the barcode of a book that I keep in another room, and the alarm just keeps going until I get up and scan that barcode. It’s equal parts maddening and effective.

To snooze or not to snooze?

It’s unanimous. All productivity experts agree that the key to getting up early is killing one’s snooze-hitting habits. But, honestly, I still haven’t gotten to that point where the first alarm is good enough. In case you’re in the same boat, one thing I recommend is to set alarms in three-minute intervals—and to also use your phone’s alarm. That way, it’s impossible to get back to sleep for the next 30 minutes or so.

Make your bed first thing in the morning.

According to this article from CNBC’s website, people who make their beds first thing in the morning tend to feel more productive and driven compared to their non-bedmaking counterparts. They also tend to be confident, adventurous, and sociable early risers. So, how can one simple habit boost a person’s sociability and productivity?

Well, productivity experts including retired U.S. Navy Admiral SEAL William H. McCraven, author of the bestselling book “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World,” believe that this is down to that sense of accomplishment that comes with ticking off the “first task of the day.” This simple chore takes but a few minutes of your time, keeps you from crawling back into bed, and helps fuel your productivity throughout the day. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Find 20 minutes of ME time or Meditate.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the things that make mornings so distasteful to me is the harried feeling that comes with rushing from one task to the other. By the time I get dressed, I’m exhausted and up to my neck in stress that the only thing I want to do is crawl back into bed. But here’s the beauty of getting up earlier than you have to. You can make time to slow your morning down into something enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be a complete hour—though if you can squeeze that hour in without being late, then go for it!

At the risk of sounding hokey, sometimes all you need is a few minutes to sit down and take in the opportunities that come with the new day. Take a bit of time for yourself. Meditate if you can or just sit down with a notebook and map out how you want the rest of the day to look. Get your to-do list together. You may not tick off all the boxes on your list, but at the very least, your day will have purpose and direction.

Creativity may thrive in Chaos but Productivity Favors the Tidy

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While writing my review on Marie Kondo’s hugely popular book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I came across a very interesting study on the correlation between creativity and ‘mess.’

In 2013, Psychological Science published a study that proved how having a ‘disorderly’ space could actually yield more creative thinking. The study was led by Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist from the University of Minnesota. Vohs had conducted an experiment wherein half of the participants were asked to stay in a ‘clean’ room, while the other half stayed in a ‘messy’ room. They were then instructed to think up of new ways to use ping pong balls.

Although both groups came up with the same number of suggestions, the answers from the participants staying in the cluttered room were deemed to be more interesting and creative. Now, as a hoarder and an aspiring writer, this is the type of study that I could really get behind.

However, in another 2013 experiment, this time by Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu, it appears that productivity may actually favor employees working in a neat environment. In the article published in the Harvard Business Review, the duo detailed an experiment involving 100 students. The undergraduates were brought to either a cluttered space strewn with paperwork and used cups or an orderly desk. The students were then asked to solve a geometrical problem—an unsolvable one—that entailed finding a way to trace the figure without lifting pencil from paper or retracing lines.

The result? Students working in the ‘messy’ environment gave up after an average of just 669 seconds. Compare that to the average 1,117 seconds that the students in the ‘neat’ environment were able to keep up. Now, while this may be a study on persistence rather than direct productivity, we all know that to succeed in anything, you’ll need to have the patience to stick it out.

So, does that mean that messy creatives aren’t productive and the neat go-getters aren’t creative? Not necessarily. Perhaps the solution lies in the middle ground. In life, few things are ever really black or white. Ultimately, I believe that everything boils down to preference and personality. That, or one should always keep one’s desk neat but with inspiration-driving clutter within reach. Food for thought.