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I Tried to Become a Morning Person and This Is What Happened

Can following a simple plan turn you into a morning person? I put a sleep doctor's orders to the test.
Image: The early bird gets the worm.
Can adopting a morning routine make you an early bird? John Brecher

It starts with an idle question for my husband: “Should I try to become a morning person?”

“Do I have to live with you?” he asks. “Or can I get a hotel room?”

For most of my life, I woke up to at least two alarms — one next to my bed and another across the room to make snoozing more difficult. I would walk back and forth between them, hitting snooze on each, for an hour or more. Anyone I ever lived with, and many I didn’t, became my wake up caller, checking on me for important events.

Children will change that for you. I haven’t set an alarm in six years thanks to my early rising sons. They wake up sometime around 6 am (or 5 during particularly brutal times) and that’s that. But have I become the morning ray of sunshine who says “Good morning, children! Let’s go play Legos?” I have not.

Sometimes I pretend I’m still sleeping and pray my husband will get them. Sometimes I go to them and zone out while they play, present but inert. Sometimes I go lie under my 6-year-old’s covers, waiting for full consciousness or a chance to sleep, whichever arrives first.

This is not something I love about myself. And though I am expert at implementing bedtime rules and routines for my children, somehow I fail when I try it myself. Daytime me says “Go to bed earlier! Try exercising in the morning!” But when the time comes, inevitably nighttime me says “Oooh, there’s something to read on the internet!” And when I wake up, morning me says, forcefully: “Go back to sleep.”

The internet is full of advice about how to become a morning person, and at this point I may have read all of it: Have a healthy breakfast. Work out in the morning, and lay out all your gym clothes the night before. Drink a glass of water, perhaps with lemon. Start a gratitude journal. Meditate.

I’ve also read the counter-arguments — that changing your natural body rhythms is neither possible nor desirable. Some people will wake up at 4:30 to get something accomplished. Others would rather stay up that late to do the same thing, and that’s OK.

Change is possible, especially if there’s an external factor like early rising children or pets, and if I’m “militant” about my routine.

And yet like most people, I live with constraints: children, an office job and a life in a morning-centric world. So I start by talking to Dr. Dianne Augelli of Weill-Cornell’s Center for Sleep Medicine to find out if it’s even possible to change. She tells me that as someone who goes to bed around 11, I have what she would call “mild delayed sleep phase.”

“Will you be excited to get up in the morning and wake up and want to start your day and be productive in the morning?” she asks. “That may not happen for you.” But change is possible, especially if there’s an external factor like early rising children or pets, and if I’m “militant” about my routine. She lays out a four-step plan:

1. Take melatonin two hours before bed.

Melatonin isn’t a sedative but a hormone that the body naturally secretes to signal that it’s nighttime. Taking it two hours before bedtime can “help synch up your circadian clock and this bedtime you want to have,” Augelli tells me.

Taking melatonin can help kick-start a change in your circadian rhythm.
Taking melatonin can help kick-start a change in your circadian rhythm.Lisa Tolin

She recommends taking the pills for a short time to jump-start the process, starting with a low dose of .3 mg and going up as needed to 1-3 mg. (Anyone with a family history of melanoma shouldn’t take it for long.)

I can do that! I plunk down $8.99 for a bottle of supplements and start that night.

2. Eliminate “blue light” before bed.

Looking at a smartphone or computer in the evening means we’re inundated with sleep-inhibiting “blue light” before bed. And bad news: Night owls are even more sensitive to this stimulating blue light, since it’s encouraging our natural tendencies.

So Augelli suggests cutting off exposure to blue light from phones and computers entirely an hour or two before bed. (TV, she says, is less of a problem because it’s generally farther away.)

This is a little harder. Part of the way I’ve established some work/life balance is by tuning out work during my kids’ bedtime, then logging back in after they go to sleep.

Image: Sleep
Want to become a morning person? Turn off your devices at night. (Programs like Night Shift help but don't solve the problem, experts say.)John Brecher / for NBC News

But in truth, my phone checks have become more compulsive than required — I keep thinking I need to check, but find nothing in need of urgent response. And sometimes my checks even backfire because I read something and think I’ll respond in the morning, but often forget because (as you may have noted) I’m not the sharpest in the morning and an already read email doesn’t get my attention.

That first night, I stop myself from checking my phone but feel twitchy. My husband mocks me: “Oh no! Someone said something snarky on Instagram and you’re missing it!” I snap, a little too quickly, “Instagram is earnest! Twitter is snarky.” And, chastened, pick up a book.

The next morning, I wake up to 42 emails. But not one needed to be seen the night before.

3. Get out in the sun soon after waking.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. Augelli recommends 30-45 minutes of sun exposure within an hour or two of waking.

My usual work routine involves a quick walk to the subway, then staying underground for about 30 minutes, then walking through more underground tunnels into my midtown office building. Until recently, I worked in a windowless office, stayed inside for lunch and wouldn’t see the sun again until I emerged out of the subway after work, often when the sun was down. (This explains my Vitamin D deficiency.)

View from a morning run. (Yes, that's possible for night owls.)
View from a morning run. (Yes, that's possible for night owls.)Lisa Tolin / NBC News

Clearly, this was not ideal. But with the sun rising around 6:45, would it be possible to get some sunlight and still make it to work on time? I decide to put it to the test with a sunrise jog, which I feel should earn me some kind of extra credit in non-morning person karma. I rise at 6:15, get the children dressed, settle the 2-year-old with some puzzles and the 6-year-old with a “Carpool Karaoke” video and leave my husband to handle breakfast. My children are confused. “No like shoes,” the little one says, pointing to my sneakers.

With the sun just coming up, the air is gray, my body is achy and in my rush to leave the house, I have not put in contacts and see the world as a blur. I feel very much as though I would prefer to be sleeping. I know my usual run would take an hour, and my husband might actually kill me if I leave him that long with the children before work, so I do a shortened route.

I put on my most inspirational running music. It takes me about 10 minutes to really wake up and start to enjoy it. The sky gets a smidge lighter as I watch the yellow glow rise over the trees. I am home in 40 minutes feeling more alert than usual, having accomplished my exercise goals and half my water goals for the day before even finishing my coffee. Everyone is fed and my husband doesn’t appear to want to murder me, though without my contacts I can’t actually see him.

This is why morning people feel smug.

I vow to keep up this routine, but buy a “happy light” on Amazon, just in case. (Augelli also suggests wearable devices such as the Re-Timer or Luminette.)

4. Stick to a regular schedule.

This one’s the real rub. On weekends, I am desperate to sleep in or take a nap. As a working mom, it’s one of my few moments of real rest. That’s hard to give up.

On my first day off work, my children wake up extra early at 5:20. And it’s raining, so that morning sun routine isn’t going to happen. I’m not fully alert until around 9 a.m., nursing my second cup of coffee and reading “Rosie Revere, Engineer” to my 2-year-old in the glare of the happy light. I realize that I have already spent about a quarter of my waking hours in a haze.

The next day, the sun is back and in the hours I would have normally slept, I manage a longer run and finish the week’s grocery shopping.

Image: Alarm clock by bed
Sticking with a consistent wake-up time is key to a better morning.Image Source / Getty Images/Image Source

But as the days pass, this morning routine feels like more of a slog. I don’t feel so much as though I’ve become a morning person as I feel I’m using a massive amount of will to force myself through my paces.

On the eighth day, I wake up before my children. But I return from my run to find my husband irritated. The toddler’s got a cold and is screaming for tissues. The house is a mess. And I realize that disappearing for a run for 45 minutes isn’t much better on the good mom/wife scale than sleeping in — except now I’m doing it almost every day.

Can the Slog Become a Habit?

I turn to Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before” and a forthcoming book about changing habits, for some help. Instead of bucking me up with ways to make this morning run a habit, she tells me I’m making this too tough on myself. Since waking up is itself a challenge, she thinks expecting myself to exercise, too, is setting myself up for failure.

Rubin has mapped out “four tendencies” for people who want to change, and I’m what she calls an obliger — someone who has an easy time making changes for someone else (a boss, my children) but a tougher time following through on my own resolutions. She suggests some options that could help me: finding a wake-up buddy to check in with, tracking my progress and — this is diabolical — setting a consequence that would punish someone else, like my husband. (No dessert for him if I oversleep, for example.)

She also suggests some personal mantras when I’m feeling reluctant:

  • "I'm modeling good behavior for my children: showing them that I can stick to my commitments, and that exercise is an important part of life, and worth making an effort to incorporate."
  • "This is an important time for my husband and kids every day. It's different when I'm around. I want to make space for them to have their own relationships with each other, their own routines, inside jokes, patterns of behavior."
  • "If I exercise, I'll be a better parent and wife. I'll be healthier, I'll handle anger better, I'll have more energy. This time will help me do a better job during all the other parts of the day."

I stick with the exercise routine and turn to the mantras. I also modify things a bit, reducing the number of days I’m running and sometimes taking the 2-year-old with me in the jogging stroller to make things easier on my husband. I even try taking my 6-year-old with me to the park for a morning “boot camp.”

And as the days pass, I realize: I like this. I want to keep running in the mornings. When I miss a few days, I feel especially fuzzy-headed and wonder: How did I function like this in the mornings at work and in school for decades?

So, Am I a Morning Person?

After more than two months of following this routine, am I a morning person? The answer is … drumroll please… kind of?

I do not wake up cheerfully to the sounds of birds chirping. I have no desire to set my alarm to wake up earlier than my children and get things done. My most productive time is still in the afternoon. So I am not what you’d normally think of as a “morning person.”

But have I changed? Absolutely. And here are some secrets I’ve learned:

Night Owls Can Exercise in the Morning and Like It

I never thought I could work out in the morning. I was so tired and groggy. The fact that other people enjoyed morning workouts mystified me. I just figured we were wired differently. And science suggests we are. But this experiment showed me that mornings might actually be the perfect time to work out if you’re not a morning person.

First, there’s the brain boost. I felt more alert in the mornings after running, and it clearly kick-started my metabolism, because I was also eating much more at my desk. (Another issue.)

Running in the morning means being able to get more work done later when I'm most alert.
Running in the morning means being able to get more work done later when I'm most alert.Lisa Tolin / NBC News

But more important, I think, was that running when I wasn’t alert meant I had fewer competing priorities to excuse myself from doing it. If you plan to exercise when you feel motivated and alert, you’ll be using your motivated and alert time to work out instead of accomplishing the 80 other things you want to accomplish during your motivated and alert time.

For me, finishing work always took precedence over workouts. Now that my workouts are discretely tucked away in a time of day when I wouldn’t otherwise be accomplishing much, I am much better about actually doing them. I haven’t been so consistent about working out in years, and that feels great.

You Have More Time Than You Think

Adding a workout into my schedule in the morning wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined. Although our mornings had always felt rushed, I realized my husband and I were often fumbling through inefficiently, both trying to do the same thing. Leaving for 40 minutes didn’t bring the house tumbling down. Making other accommodations for my husband kept him from resenting me too much.

And as it turns out, cutting off email an hour before bed changed absolutely nothing for me at work, although I did get a sideways “must be nice” from my boss when I explained my doctor-prescribed limit.

I have loosened up on nighttime screens recently, and the blue light before bed has crept back in. I’m using Night Shift for iPhone to filter out some of the blue light — f.lux for computers does the same. Augelli says those programs help somewhat, just not as much as actually turning the thing off.

The Power of Just Doing It

My 2-year-old is deep in his “I did it!” phase. As he becomes more independent — opening a door by himself, or snapping together a Lego tower — he’ll turn to me with a smile and say proudly, “I did it!”

I am an overthinker by nature, and had almost forgotten the power of that simple sense of accomplishment for myself. Forcing myself past the “but I don’t wanna” — I don’t wanna get out of bed! I don’t wanna run in the rain! — worked those muscles and made me feel that simple, satisfying sense of “I did it!” And the less I think about it, the easier it is.

My new mornings: Time to cast shadows instead of hiding in them.
My new mornings: Time to cast shadows instead of hiding in them.Lisa Tolin / NBC News

That’s a lesson I hope sticks, even if my morning routine doesn’t. I don’t want to become my own drill sergeant, but it can be easy to cut yourself a break because you’re tired or busy, when you might feel better following through on your goals.

My Personal Wake-Up Call

My 6-year-old was brainstorming Mother’s Day gifts when he dropped this on me: “Let’s see. Mommy likes to cook, mommy likes snuggling, mommy likes ... lying down.”

Biology is powerful, and for me that includes a pull to lie down more than I’d like. I don’t think I could have become a morning person at any other time in my life. In college, I really did get more done at 2 a.m. than I could have if I’d woken up early to study or finish a paper. In my 20s, I didn’t have to take “disco naps” to have fun with friends at bars.

I also couldn’t pull this off now if it weren’t for sane working hours and a supportive husband who makes breakfast and lunch for our children. (Yes, that’s possible.)

But right now, I can do this. I ask my husband how he thinks it went.

“You are still not a morning person,” he says, “but you have stunningly and to great effect fought your inner nature. I say it’s a draw.”

My hope is that by next Mother’s Day, my son will have a new list: “Mommy likes to cook, mommy likes to run ... mommy likes to wake up and play with me.”

But maybe just for Mother's Day, I'll take a nap.

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