By Jenny McCoy
If you want to know how to wake up early, well, you clicked on the right article. We asked sleep experts for advice on shifting your wake-up time forward in a way that’s healthy and sustainable—and trust us, it is doable.
Despite the fact that CEOs obsess over it, countless people add it to their list of New Year’s resolutions, and we talk about waking up early like there’s something fundamentally moral about it, there is nothing inherently better about waking up at, say, 5 a.m. as opposed to 7 a.m., according to Claire Kenneally, M.D., board-certified sleep specialist at the Chicago Sleep Center. “I think societally we always have this idea of ‘the early bird gets the worm,’ but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone,” she explains. “It’s a matter of knowing what works for your body.”
Dianne M. Augelli, M.D., board-certified sleep medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center, puts it this way: Some of us just function best in the morning—our energy levels are higher and we’re more productive during that time—whereas others thrive at night. So what determines whether you’re a morning lark, a night owl, or some bird in between? It’s all about your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock), which is influenced by genetics, age, environmental factors, and individual biological differences.
You can determine your circadian rhythm by noticing what time you naturally go to bed and what time you naturally wake up when there aren’t any outside factors influencing your routine (like alarm clocks or work schedules), says Augelli. Your circadian rhythm is “a little mutable,” she says (meaning, you can change it slightly), but making drastic changes—like bumping up your wake time three or four hours—is going to be pretty challenging. Still, with patience and dedication, it can be done. (And in some cases, it might be necessary, depending on your work schedule, desired lifestyle, and demands at home.) Here are the tips that can help you finally figure out how to wake up early.
1. Understand your motivation.
If you’re naturally more of a night owl, waking up early is not going to be easy, so you have to be committed to make it a long-term habit. The first few days will probably be hard, warns Kenneally. Generally, though, most people do fine once they establish a new, healthy sleep pattern.
Augelli asks her patients to be honest with themselves about why they’re trying to shift their routine to wake up early. If it’s simply because of societal pressure to be an early bird, that might not cut it. Instead, make sure your rationale is strong enough to pull you out of bed at a consistent time each day, even on those mornings when you’d really rather hit the snooze button.
2. Change your sleep schedule gradually.
It’s much easier to cement a new habit of waking up early if you give your body time to gradually adapt. Augelli recommends moving up your wake time 15 to 30 minutes every week until you reach your goal. “Thirty minutes is fairly easy for our body to acclimate to versus big shifts, like an hour or two hours,” she says.
3. Don’t force an early bedtime.
If you want to wake up earlier, you should just go to bed earlier so you can get more hours of sleep, right? Not exactly. Trying to go to bed before you feel sleepy can actually induce insomnia, says Augelli. Instead, she urges people to establish a relaxing bedtime routine (more on that in a minute) and to go to bed only when you are truly tired. The hope, she explains, is that as your body gradually gets accustomed to your earlier wake time, you’ll gradually start falling asleep earlier at night.
4. Strive for consistency.
Many of us wake up at drastically different times on weekdays versus weekends. This yo-yoing can shift our internal clocks and cause a phenomenon known as “social jet lag,” says Augelli. Social jet lag can negatively impact your health and make your goal of getting up early more difficult. Say, for example, you slept in until 10 a.m. on the weekend, but it’s now Monday and you want to get up at 6 a.m. That four hour difference is probably going to feel horrible because you’re essentially plucking your body out of prime sleep, Augelli says. What would feel less horrible is waking up at 7 a.m. on Monday after a weekend of rising at 8 a.m. Kenneally generally advises people to have no more than a 30-minute difference in wake time between weekdays and weekends and to avoid napping during the day. Keep this in mind when setting your wake-time goal. Getting up at 5 a.m. might be completely feasible on the weekdays, but if you’re not going to be able to stick with that on the weekends, you should reevaluate.
“The body craves consistency,” explains Augelli. So if you want to establish a long-term habit of waking up in the early morning, you need to be relatively consistent with it seven days a week. It’s also really important to get adequate sleep every night, she adds.
5. Get light first thing in the morning.
Our bodies use light to tell time, so exposing ourselves to light at the same time each morning can help us adjust our circadian rhythms (a.k.a. our natural sleep cycles) to an earlier wake time, explains Augelli. Ideally you should be exposed to light for about 30 minutes within the first hour of waking up, and it’s best if this light is sunlight, which you can get by either going outside or sitting by a sunlit window.
Depending on the weather and season, that’s not always possible, in which case you can use a broad-spectrum light box or a specially designed light alarm for similar effect. Simply turn on the light soon after you wake up and sit near it while you eat breakfast, work, or complete another part of your morning routine. “That can be really, really helpful,” says Kenneally. Just be sure to turn the light off after you’ve gotten the recommended half-hour dosage. “You want to be really careful about using it later in the day because it can have the opposite effect,” Kenneally warns.
6. Exercise at the right time.
Working out can help you sleep well (and thus make it easier to wake up early), but you have to get the timing right. The ideal scenario is to exercise outside during the day, when there’s sunlight, says Augelli. But if that’s not possible, just make sure to squeeze in a workout more than two hours before bedtime; otherwise, you could unwittingly push back your sleep time. “When we exercise, we get activated,” she says. “And if you’re trying to go to bed at 10 p.m. and you’re exercising at 9 p.m., you’re not going to be able to fall asleep.”
7. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities before bed—like work, reading the news, or scrolling social media—can activate your brain, trigger stressful thoughts, and make it more difficult to fall asleep. “It’s very hard if you’re working on your computer to just close the computer and get into bed,” Kenneally says. “The brain can’t switch gears that quickly.”
Such activities can also negatively impact the quality of your sleep. “If you wake up in the middle of the night, the thoughts can start flowing again pretty smoothly,” Kenneally says. Initiating a relaxing bedtime routine about two hours before bed can help guard against that by sending cues to the brain that it’s time to wind down. What’s relaxing will vary person to person, but you can try things like reading, guided meditation, gentle yoga, or talking to a loved one.
8. Take low-dose melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone that your body naturally produces, and your melatonin levels typically peak several hours before your normal bedtime, explains Kenneally. So if you’re trying to establish a new habit of going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier, it can help to take a low dose of over-the-counter melatonin (about three grams) about an hour and a half before your desired bedtime each night, suggests Kenneally. Doing so can help cue the body and the brain that it’s time to sleep.
9. Limit light at night.
Our electronic devices emit light that can interfere with our circadian rhythm and melatonin production, which in turn can impact our ability to fall asleep, says Augelli. That’s why she recommends avoiding screens in the hour or two before bed. If that’s not possible, wear blue-light-blocking glasses to help filter out the most harmful wavelengths, she says.
10. Don’t eat before bed.
Eating too close to bedtime can trigger acid reflux or silent acid reflux, which can disrupt your sleep (and thus make it more challenging to wake up early), says Augelli. Instead, plan your schedule so that you have dinner several hours before bedtime. “That’s going to put you on a better path so you have time to digest” before you hit the hay, she says.
11. Curb alcohol consumption.
You may think your nightly vino habit helps lull you off to sleep, but alcohol can actually have the opposite effect. Having one drink several hours before bed generally isn’t a big deal for most people, says Augelli, but sipping more than that can disrupt your sleep, particularly during the second half of the night. You may have more snoring, sleep-disordered breathing, and silent acid reflux. Moreover, one night of excessive drinking can affect your sleep multiple nights in a row, says Augelli. So if you’re committed to waking up early, keep alcohol intake at a minimum—it’ll make a big difference come morning.
12. Monitor caffeine intake.
You’ve probably heard the advice to avoid caffeine in the hours before bedtime. A better rule of thumb is to focus on total daily consumption, says Augelli. Because caffeine can linger in your system for longer than eight hours, consuming too much of it at any time of day can fragment your sleep and prevent you from achieving a deep state of slumber, she explains.
How much is too much? Augelli recommends most people stay below 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, and folks who are sensitive to the stimulant or have difficulty sleeping should aim for much less (100 to 300 milligrams at most). Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to order a venti triple shot.
13. See a sleep specialist.
If you’ve followed all the above advice but are still struggling to wake up at your desired time, seek help from a sleep specialist. There may be other factors that are impairing your ability to stick with your ideal sleep routine, says Kenneally. A certified pro can help you get to the bottom of the issue—and on the right track to meet your sleep goals.