I’ve always been a night owl. My creative energy peaks around midnight, and while I love sleep, it’s usually something I succumb to at 3 a.m., laptop on face, after a deadline-fueled work session and/or six consecutive episodes of Jane the Virgin. Consequently, I’m not the biggest fan of mornings. So when I recently went freelance after a long-term 9-to-5, I worried that without the structure of office life, I might never see sunlight again. At first it was great. But soon, I was sleeping in every day, rushing to get errands done during business hours. I felt neither relaxed nor productive, just short of time.
Something needed to change. Corporate life had proved to me that I could drag myself out of bed at a normal hour when I needed to, but even then, I struggled to show up for the occasional 8 a.m. meeting. Could I become a morning person, this time for real? I enlisted a team of sleep and nutrition specialists to help me find out. Here’s what happened.
STEP 1: GO THE F TO SLEEP
Most experts agree that adults need seven hours of sleep in order to be their least terrible selves, so the path toward becoming an early riser is obvious: Go to bed early.
Unfortunately, I don’t start feeling tired until around 2 a.m. According to clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Power of When, this makes me a wolf, the most nocturnal of the four circadian rhythms he identifies in his alternative demography to the classic early worm/night owl binary. (The others are lions, early risers; bears, average sleepers; and dolphins, insomniacs.) To alter my sleep schedule, Breus explained, I essentially had to induce jet lag. The key, he said, is to do so incrementally. So I adopted a bedtime of 12 a.m. the first three nights of my experiment, 11:30 p.m. the next three, and so on. I moved my wakeup time up by a half hour every three days as well.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Sass, RD, instructed me to avoid light-emitting devices, alcohol, and caffeine before bed. She also said that my average wine intake was “over what we consider moderate alcohol consumption,” advising me to stick to one 5-ounce glass per day.
The first few nights, I took melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone, which also comes in pill form. It led to some of the greatest sleep (and most Lynchian dreams) I’ve had. As my bedtime crept earlier and I stopped dosing, though, it took me hours to drift off, and then I’d be stirred awake by an idea or something I remembered to put on my to-do list. Only when I hit the two-week mark did I start getting yawny around 11 p.m. That night, after one approved 5-ounce glass of wine, I fell asleep with my clothes on.
STEP 2: GET LIT
No matter how many hours of sleep I got, I still felt like a zombie in the morning. “People who tend to be night owls also feel a lot of what’s called sleep inertia,” explained Jennifer Martins, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist. “The longer you linger in bed, the longer you stay in that twilight zone.”
To jolt my system awake, Breus prescribed 30 minutes of light directly following waking up, either directly from the sun or from a blue light therapy box. “Light is really what turns on or off the melatonin faucet,” he explained. On day one, I walked a sunlit mile to my first appointment (morning exercise is similarly useful) and was amazed by how alert I felt within minutes. Days two and three were cold, so I soaked in rays from my bedroom window.
But the following week was gloomy. There was no sunlight to zap me out of my lethargy—until my Philips goLITE Blu arrived. As delightful as it was to stare dreamily out of my window every day, the device was much more time-efficient. The goLITE Blu plugs into a socket but is compact enough to carry around, so I toted it from my bathroom to my kitchen to my closet as I went about my morning routine. I can’t say it made me love mornings, but it definitely made me hate them less.
STEP 3: EAT A WHOLE FOODS BREAKFAST
I’m nervous to admit this here, but I generally don’t eat breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the griddle and all its good work, but if I’m awake during pre-brunch hours on a weekday, I’m usually exhausted, nauseous, and in a rush.
So Sass had me train my stomach to get onboard with breakfast by eating something small (nuts, a juice) within an hour of waking up, for three days. Then I graduated to “a well-rounded, nutrient-rich breakfast,” which she broke down into five musts: vegetables, lean protein (eggs, Greek yogurt, chicken), fats (avocados, nuts, oils), unrefined carbohydrates (fresh fruit, whole grains, beans), and spices and herbs. “Carbs and good fats are your fuel sources,” she said. “Your body uses them to energize in the morning hours. Adding protein slows down the process of digestion and sustains that energy.”
While most aspects of my new schedule made me miserable, the idea of having the time and appetite to eat a full breakfast had me jazzed. What I didn’t love was how time consuming the ingredient list sounded, though Sass assured me that there are reasonably quick dishes that check off all food groups: A green smoothie with Greek yogurt, almond butter, berries, and ginger. A vegetable omelet with black beans, turmeric, and EVOO. According to Breus, I wanted to eat lunch about four hours after breakfast and dinner about six hours after that.
Days three and four, I prepared colorful smoothies and omelets that satisfied almost all of Sass’s requirements. I felt accomplished before even starting my workday. But I also fell behind schedule. Day five, I simplified, eating yogurt with fruit, avocado, and honey. Day six, I thirstily downed a bowl of Frosted Flakes.
Two weeks in, my eyelids began to feel heavier earlier, and I managed to throw off my covers nearly on time most days. I loved how present I felt falling asleep with intention instead of collapsing from exhaustion. But my earliest wakeups left me cranky, not well-rested. I also wondered whether my early-bird lifestyle was actually robbing me of my most productive hours—and according to Breus, it likely was. There’s something I find meditative about nighttime that helps me focus. Once the daily flood of emails and tweets—reminding me of all the things I could and should be doing—slows to a trickle, I feel unhurried and able to concentrate. I’m sure some people feel that way at dawn. I don’t.
Ultimately, my sleep coaches agreed that there’s no inherent value in being a morning person if your schedule doesn’t require it. What’s more important is consistency. So I decided to aim for something between rising with the sun and waking up at noon, spooning a burning-hot laptop. Part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t cut it as an early bird. I, too, have read a dozen articles about the amazing things Fortune 500 CEO’s achieve before 8 a.m., with their stock photos of calming sunrises and steaming lattes. But as I considered those images, I realized that they pale in comparison to the Zen of what I did next: Delete my 7 a.m. alarm.