How to wake up early : Life Kit Waking up at dawn with the bakers and the baristas may not be for everyone — especially night owls. Whether you have to wake up early or you'd like to become more of a morning lark, here are a few habits that can help you set yourself up for success at that first alarm.

How to wake up early, even if you're not a morning person

How to wake up early, even if you're not a morning person

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For some people, waking up early just feels natural. Carla Finley is a baker in Brooklyn, N.Y., who starts her day at 5 or 6 a.m. Finley is what we would call a morning person.

"Sometimes it's still dark, which actually I love," she says. "Something about feeling the light come in feels really sacred."

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Of course, not everyone is as lucky as Finley. Emily Gerard is a writer for the Today show, and she often finds herself waking up at odd hours to prepare for the show, which starts at 7 a.m.

"When that alarm goes off, I have a few moments of feeling like I want to die," she says.

There are a lot of reasons why we may have to get up early. Maybe it's for work, or maybe it's to get your kids ready for school or take care of a family member. Maybe you just want some time to work on your hobby or take care of errands before a busy day.

But if you're not naturally a morning person, how much room do you have to change your wake-up schedule?

"We have a fair amount of wiggle room, but it's behavioral," says Dr. Katie Sharkey, an associate professor of medicine and psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University's Alpert Medical School.

Basically, your biological clock, which determines your circadian rhythms, is baked into who you are to an extent, but a few habits can help make waking up earlier less of a chore.

Use external cues to optimize your body clock. And be consistent

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Composite image of light box, running shoes and old-school alarm clock.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


The most potent way to get your body feeling awake is to expose yourself to light when you wake up, says Dr. Afifa Shamim-Uzzaman, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and the director of the Ann Arbor VA Sleep Disorders Center.

Sunlight helps regulate your internal clock by curbing a sleep-regulating hormone called melatonin. If you live somewhere where it's dark in the mornings, a broad-spectrum light box can be helpful to simulate sunlight and trick your body into feeling more alert.

"When you're exposed to bright sunlight, it shuts [melatonin production] off, sort of telling the body, 'Hey, it's time to be awake,' " Shamim-Uzzaman says.

Conversely, at night, don't blast your eyes with bright lights, especially blue light from screens. Those lights will signal to your body that it's still daytime, which definitely won't help if you're trying to go to bed on time for an early wake-up.


Exercise, or just getting your body moving in the morning, is another way to tell your body clock it's time to be awake. "It's going to be a lot more important to be more active during the daytime or earlier in the mornings," says Shamim-Uzzaman. Maybe that means going for a morning run instead of an evening one, doing a few minutes of yoga in your living room or just doing some jumping jacks when you get out of bed.


Sharkey and Shamim-Uzzaman agree that whatever you do, it's important to keep a fairly consistent sleep schedule. Even making sure that you're eating at about the same time relative to when you go to bed can make a difference.

That means if you're waking up early for work during the week, try to wake up at most a couple of hours later on the weekends.

"You just don't want to have the shift that you're making between days off and days on so wide that it's basically like you're flying over six time zones every weekend," says Sharkey. "Because we know that that's probably not good for the body clock."

Naps, caffeine and melatonin can help, but be cautious with how you use them

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Composite image of an eye mask, a cup of coffee with cream and a bottle of melatonin tablets with three tablets off to the side.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


Try as we might to go to bed early enough to grab a solid seven or eight hours of sleep, waking up early often means that we wake up sleep-deprived. Sleep doctors call that a "sleep debt," and just like credit card debt, it has to get repaid for your body to function well. If it doesn't, you might end up suffering the more serious consequences of sleep deprivation.

Life Kit's sleep tips

Naps are a great way to squeeze in some extra shut-eye. (Sleep studies show naps that are even as short as 10 minutes can make a difference!) Try to keep naps under an hour and toward the middle of the day or earlier in the afternoon.

"If we nap too late, too close to bedtime, then it'll make it hard for us to go to sleep at night," says Shamim-Uzzaman.


What about using caffeine to make an early morning go more smoothly? A good rule of thumb is to keep your caffeine intake to mornings, and definitely cut it out within six hours of going to bed.


Our bodies produce a sleep-regulating hormone called melatonin in response to darkness. Usually, our melatonin levels increase in the hours before bedtime.

Shamim-Uzzaman says melatonin supplements — in small doses, about two to three hours before bedtime — can make it easier to fall asleep so you're well-rested for an early wake-up call. She usually recommends somewhere between 0.5 and 3 mg doses. The supplements are particularly useful when you're trying to reset your body clock or changing time zones.

Reward yourself and take it slow

Create an incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that's a mindfulness exercise to remind yourself of who or what you're waking up early for. Something as simple as promising yourself a toaster waffle as soon as you get out of bed can do the trick.

And then, try waking up even a few minutes earlier than you need to. Giving yourself an extra five minutes so you're not rushing out the door will make your mornings go more smoothly.

Think about waking up early like a skill you're practicing, and start incrementally: Try to go to bed 20 minutes earlier tonight, or hold off from hitting snooze tomorrow morning. You'll get the hang of it soon enough.

Be patient

Finally, remember that training yourself to wake up early is a process! Try to be patient with yourself.

Some mornings might be rough at the outset. But Sharkey says if you're doing a decent job keeping your habits in check most of the time, you'll be able to handle an occasional bad night of sleep here and there.

"It would be a terrible system if every night had to be perfect for us to function. Because every night isn't perfect, and we still function. So it's unrealistic for us to think that our sleep has to be perfect for it to be optimal."

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Marcia Caldwell.

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