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Sick of being a night owl? How I became a morning lark and adjusted my chronotype

A sleepy owl sitting next to a very enthusiastic morning-bird

I used to be a typical night-owl. I was comfortable working in the evenings and nights, and grumpy in the morning. I used to be happy with it (and there’s loads of people who are happy with it!), but it didn’t work for me anymore.

Now that I have children, I noticed I would no longer be activeat night, but instead spent my nights watching YouTube videos and eating chips (very confrontational, but true!). I always got into bed too late. It sounds crazy, but it was as if I was too tired to get myself to go to bed.

And then in the morning, I would have trouble ‘pulling myself back together’. It felt like my wife and two kids were way ahead of me in energy and I was playing catch-up. I would get up at 06:45 with them, and I was grumpy until about 08:30. In my head I kept pleading: “Slow down everybody!”

Night owl at work #

And that’s not all. Being a night-owl also brought me troubles during working hours.

Workdays start at 08:45, which always felt like a big bummer to me because I’m at my most productive between 15:00 and 20:00. In the mornings, I would be sluggish and have some ‘brain fog’. But at the end of the afternoon, I get into a flow of work, and it feels good. At 15:00 my engine was on and I was working full focus: the pieces coming together, my projects finally making progress. 100% productivity! But, of course I have to leave work to pick up the kids at 17:15. This got me so annoyed everyday: “AAARGH! I’m just getting started!!” I would shout out to myself (and others unfortunate enough to be near).

Is there anything I can do about this?

Night owls and morning larks: your chronotype #

Scientists have called your sleeping schedule your ‘chronotype’. You can divide this into as many buckets as you like, but traditionally I’ve found it’s either two buckets (‘night owl’ and ‘morning lark’), or the following four:

  1. The Lion: The early risers. The 4 am tribe.
  2. The Dolphin: The insomniacs. If you’re struggling with sleep, you land here.
  3. The Wolf: The night owls. They have trouble waking up in the morning. If you fall under this category, your day starts around 11 am.
  4. The Bear: The majority of hustlers move with the Sun. If you fall under this category, you fall asleep around 11 pm and wake up around 7 am. ⠀ Your chronotype changes over time (young children are lions, young adolescents are wolfs) and then gets ‘fixed’ when you’re an adult.

And that’s it: traditional wisdom says your biological clock gets fixed with respect to sleep.

Which sucks because if you are a ‘Wolf’ (or night owl) like me, you have the whole of society working against you. You are expected to wake up early, go to work no later than 09:00 (preferably earlier!) and then stop working around 17:30. That’s not the way-of-the-wolf!

Surprise: you can change your chronotype! #

I’ve been investigating how to deal with my chronotype since having children. It’s very uncomfortable to be so out of sync in energy in the morning. I’m still grumpy and waking up, they are running, playing, singing, happy.

Everything I read online, stressed the ‘unchangeable’ nature of your chronotype, until I found an article by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. In the article, he mentions:

9am summer festival orchestra rehearsals were kind of rough. My fingers would feel sluggish, my brain would be in a fog, and it wasn’t until rehearsal wrapped up around noon that I started to feel like my normal self

That’s me! Hooray! I’ve found a fellow-sufferer!

Even better is that Kageyama has found scientific literature that:

if you have been keeping night owl hours, and would like to be more of a morning person, it’s totally possible.

Great news: you can change my sleep pattern to be in-sync with the rest of the world. Even better news, according to Science a ‘morning lark’ sleep pattern also leads to less stress, more happiness and less depression, and this applies to people changing their sleep pattern as much as ‘natural morning larks’.

My experiment: waking up at 05:00 #

Based on the scientific article quoted by Nao Kageyama, I set up my own experiment.

I know I need around 7,5 to 8 hours of sleep: this amount makes me feel rested and good. Based on the article of Kageyama, I wanted to get up at 5am.

So, that’s my big idea: sleep at 21:00 and wake up 05:00

This reminded me of the book the “5AM-club” (short summary: get up at 5am and become incredibly rich), which I read before and didn’t really resonate at the time. A quick dive into my notes gave me a great idea for what to do at 5AM. I would try the 20/20/20 method: 20 minutes of sport, 20 minutes of reading, 20 minutes of meditation.

And based on Sanjeev’s article I structured things around an abstract goal. His 100 days seemed arbitrarily long, but hey: it works, so I’m using it also. Another thing I picked up is to evaluate my project at set intervals: 20, 40, 60 and 80 days (this article is based on my evaluation of the 20-day interval).

How do I motivate myself? #

I’ve set a reward: I will “allow myself” to buy an Apple Watch if I can maintain the schedule for 80 days of the full 100. At this point, I don’t know if I really want or need a new watch, but it was the motivation that came to mind quickest 😅

I’ve found out that the motivation that works best for me personally, is not an abstract goal, but writing down a quick evaluation every morning. Usually it’s just one or two sentences: “woke up at 05:15. Alarm didn’t go off. Went for a run, but no meditation. Feeling good, though”. Writing these small evaluations motivates me to keep going much more than the prospect of owning an Apple Watch.

The results of the experiment #

I’m currently at day 29 of my ‘wake up early’ experiment and so far I’m really happy with my results. I was afraid I’d slack off after a week, but that didn’t happen.

Overall I managed to get up around 05:15 most days, and about two-thirds of all days I was up before 05:30 — even when my alarm didn’t go off. I’m happy with this statistic, but I need to improve if I want to meet my success criteria of 80%.

Most of the reasons I ‘failed’ to get up early were outside my control: my alarm had ‘troubles’, or I had a bad night of sleep (I was sick for two out of the four weeks in this experiment). I also ‘gifted myself’ three mornings of sleeping in.

I’m very pleased with my sleep pattern, not so satisfied with the sporting I did. I try to walk at least 20 minutes right after getting out of bed, but this I managed to do only ten times out of nearly 30. Pretty bad statistic… But, I think this is largely because I was sick for two weeks. I’m hoping the average goes up now that I’m feeling better.

My sleep and wake times in a graph
My sleep and wake times: I woke up late 5 times, and 5 times in the ‘danger zone’ between 05:30 and 06:00. All 18 other days I woke up before 05:30.

For reference, here’s the ideal morning for me:

  • 05:00 My alarm goes off
  • 05:15 I’m downstairs
  • 05:25 I’m taking a walk outside
  • 05:45 Back inside, eating breakfast and drinking tea, reading news
  • 06:10 Meditation
  • 06:20 Read my book
  • 06:40 Unload the dishwasher, set the table, prepare coffee, make lunchboxes…
  • 07:00 Breakfast with wife and kids

Evaluation time! Are you happy with your experiment? #

Most days I felt pretty happy with myself for getting up early and ‘doing my thing’. I’m proud I made a decision, and proud that I manage to keep at it. I’m more cheerful, energetic and more productive during the day, especially when I went for a walk in the morning.

The Good… #

In general, the change I made in my sleep pattern is a very positive experience for me. I like morning-lark-me. I’d like to stress this is a personal evaluation: I realize I’m at high risk of sounding like a positivity-guru or LinkedIn-productivity-hacker in the following paragraphs.

My energy-levels seem more ‘equalized’ during the day. No more “drowsiness in the morning, hyper productive in the afternoon”. This by itself is already worth it. I was very annoyed in the past for ‘losing my flow’ at 17:00 when I needed to pick up the kids, and this annoyance is gone.

With respect to health, I now sport more as I try to walk every morning. I set this goal for myself in the evenings as well, but it was much harder: I didn’t have enough energy to ‘push’ myself to go outside. Another ‘healthy effect’ is that I eat less chips. I usually snacked some in the evening, again, being too tired to ‘stop myself’. This same ‘lack of energy’ kept me from reading books (instead watching YouTube) and going to bed early (I usually stayed up until 23:00, regretting that in the morning). My new ‘more equal energy-levels’ mean that I have more energy for good decisions in the evening. I feel more ‘naturally tired’ at the end of the day, and go to bed at 21:00.

And now we come to the incredible bonus of waking up early… Me-time! I have two whole hours of energetic ’time for Matthijs’. As a parent, this is paradise. Just two hours for me. So selfish! Of course, in reality it’s not two but one hour (due to waking up later, doing chores and children waking up early), but still! I know parents who would kill for 60 minutes of their own time everyday!

Is waking up at 05:00 only a selfish thing? No! Because at the end of the day, I have much more focus on my wife. I used to have a lot of things nagging at me in the back of my head (“I want to read this article”, “I want to finish my blog-post”, etc), and all those things are now postponed to the next day. I know that I have time for them, so I can let those nagging thoughts rest and spend full-focus time on my relationship. I’m now going to bed at the same time as my wife, as she already went to bed around 21:00. I’m also more in-sync with my kids: they naturally have an early-rise and early-to-bed rhythm.

There is more good news, because I have a lot of fun playing Hotel Pappa. While the rest of the house is still sleeping, I prepare breakfast, unload the dishwasher, make coffee, create the lunch-boxes for my daughter, feed the cat, set the table, prepare porridge for my son… It’s all done when they come down stairs. These chores are mindful for me, and save time for them. There’s a lot less ‘hurry up, faster, go now’ every morning. Less stress.

The completely unexpected bonus is that ‘sleeping in’ for me is now waking up at 08:00. This is deliciously wicked! No parent can sleep in when they have young kids! No parent, except me!

… the Bad … #

I’m quite happy with this project of changing myself from owl to lark, but nothing can be all good!

My morning-mood changes quite quickly from happy to gloomy if the children wake up before 07:00. It’s amazing how quickly I got used to the ‘me-time’ and how defensive I am about it. Every evening I envision how my morning will be, and if it doesn’t work out the way I envisioned… I get quite cross. The mornings get messed up: there’s no ‘Hotel Pappa’ where I prepare everything beforehand, there’s no meditation or mindfulness, instead it’s “pappa can I have this, can you do that” while I’m not ready for it. Luckily, it doesn’t happen too often.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I am already playing fast-and-loose with my own rules. It’s easier to go sport and meditate in the morning (versus in the evening), but that doesn’t mean I always do it 😅 Especially when sick, I didn’t sport in the morning and instead watched a movie…

Lastly, the bed-time of 21:00 is a hard deadline. Whenever I went to bed later, I got tired and unfocused the next day.

… and the Ugly #

As I said earlier: society is mostly oriented towards morning-larks. Activities like work and school expect you to be up and active by 07:00.

But not everything is oriented toward morning-larks. Most social activities are night-owl events, they happen in the evening, or early night.

My badminton practice starts at 20:15 and I usually played until 21:30. This is no longer possible. I went playing once, missed every ball and hit myself in the knee. At 21:00 I felt disoriented and had to stop.

Three weeks ago, my parents visited us. We had great fun during the day, but they were very disappointed to see me head-off to bed at 21:00; we usually talked until late in the evening.

I’m not yet 100% sure how I will deal with these social aspects yet. I might join an earlier badminton game practice, or sport in the weekends. I’m also hoping to get more resilient and energetic in the evenings by sporting every day, so that I can do a ‘one time late night’ every now and then. I’m confident that will be possible. My experience with ‘sleeping in’ for a day (until 08:00) is that it doesn’t break my schedule as much as I expected.

Next steps #

This article is the evaluation of my first 30 days in transition from night-owl to morning-lark. Based on this evaluation I do not see the need for big adjustments in my schedule. The only improvement is to keep at it with sporting and meditation!

I’m happy with the change I made, and I’m not the only person.

I’ll leave you with the words of my wife:

I like this new Matthijs much more, he has the same energy as me in the morning

Published before on Medium