I am one of those obnoxious morning people. Every morning, I bounce out of bed like a cartoon princess, skip to the bathroom to brush my teeth and, 15 minutes later, I'm sitting at my desk writing prolifically for Brainscape (an adaptive, spaced repetition study app). In fact, that’s literally what I’m doing right now … at 05:30 in the morning.
Take that, sun. I beat you to the day!
By 2:00 in the afternoon, however, I’m about as useless as a wet gym sock with a personality to match, which is why I spend my afternoons doing things that don’t require a whole lot of cognitive work, like going for walks or clipping my fingernails.
You, on the other hand, are probably reading this because you’ve experienced the stigma that people who aren’t early to rise are lazy layabouts. To boot, you’ve had to get up at the buttcrack of dawn your entire academic career and maybe even now, too, if you work an 8-to-5.
So, you wanna know: is waking up early bullsh*t?
Well, if you suck at mornings but achieve maximum productivity and focus during the day, afternoons, evening, or even at night, then YES: waking up early IS bullsh*t. So, if you ever felt crushed by society’s obsessive “the early bird catches the worm” mentality, this article will help you understand:
- The natural alertness rhythms that govern a human’s day (and how they vary from person-to-person),
- How to wake up early and not feel tired (if you have to), and
- Whether you should stay up late or wake up early (given the choice).
… and then leverage your newfound understanding of all of the above to optimize your productivity according to what suits you best.
Understanding chronotypes: Not all humans are wired the same way
I’m about to teach you a concept that you probably wish you had understood in school so that you could have thrown it in your parents’ faces every time they tried to wake you at 6 AM for class … chronotypes. Like your star sign, everyone has one. Unlike your star sign, they’re actually based on real science.
According to the Sleep Foundation, chronotype is a person's natural inclination with regard to the times of day when they prefer to sleep. Additionally, it has an influence on appetite, exercise, and core body temperature, and is responsible for the fact that you feel more alert at certain periods of the day and sleepier at others.
Importantly—and here’s the silver bullet for the traditional school starting time of 8 AM—there are different kinds of chronotypes. Not everyone is wired the same way. In other words, you have a biological excuse for not being alert and energetic in the morning, just like I have a biological excuse for becoming a couch potato in the afternoon.
It harkens back to our ancestors. If all hominids were crisp and alert first thing in the morning, there’d be no restless night owls to help guard the tribe at night. And while those night owls would sleep late, the “early birds'' would be awake and alert, guarding the tribe. So, that spread of different chronotypes was pretty important for our species’ survival.
[Check out NIH publication ‘Chronotype variation drives night-time sentinel-like behavior in hunter-gatherers’ if you wanna get nerdy about the underlying science.]
The difference between chronotypes and circadian rhythms
A term you may be more familiar with is circadian rhythm, which is your indigenous sleep-wake pattern. It’s what controls your day-to-day sleep-wake cycle, releasing melatonin in response to environmental cues such as sunlight and temperature.
How this differs from chronotypes is that, while they are closely related, circadian rhythms can be “trained” by consistently waking up at a certain time every day and going to bed at a certain time every night. (And thank goodness for that or else moving to a different time zone would leave you perpetually confused and groggy.)
Chronotypes, on the other hand, tend to be a more permanent biological disposition. This explains why even though you’ve been waking up early for school, college, or work your whole life, you STILL only achieve peak productivity and alertness later on in the day. Your circadian rhythms have adjusted to regular school/office hours but your brain is still genetically coded for later-in-the-day alertness. What would we do without coffee?
In summary, your circadian rhythm is your natural sleep/wake pattern that can be trained by going to bed and waking up at a consistent time, while your chronotype refers to the time of day your brain is hardwired to be more alert during, and this isn’t quite so “trainable”.
This brings me to the next important question …
What’s your chronotype?
The cognitive literature typically describes two chief chronotypes:
- Night owls (grumpy bird on the left)
- Early birds or “morning larks” (singing bird on the right)
In reality, however, chronotypes fall more on a spectrum with most people lying somewhere between the two extremes. The more intermediate people are called “hummingbirds” (aww!) while those who are morning people when it comes to some activities (e.g. creativity) and night owls in others (e.g. socializing) fall into a fourth category that breaks with ornithological tradition: the bimodal chronotype.
All of this science is reframed in a more “woo-woo” fashion by this sleep doctor, who describes the following four chronotypes:
- The lion: Early to bed, early to rise (hey, that’s me!) These people are most productive before noon, becoming fairly useless in the afternoon, collapsing into bed by 9 PM.
- The bear: Follows the natural progression of the sun by being productive before noon, declining in energy in the late afternoon, and winding down for sleep around 10 PM.
- The wolf: The opposite of the lion. Wolves are most energetic later in the day, waking up late, working productively between 12 PM and 4 PM, and with boosts of energy at night.
- The dolphin: Tends to be a light sleeper and so has easily disrupted rhythms; however, their window of productivity is typically between 10 AM and 2 PM.
(Hey, imagine how much easier life would be if you dated someone of your chronotype, rather than having a partner who unpacks the dishwasher at the crack of dawn every morning. #finemakeyourowncoffeethen)
Taking advantage of your chronotype for peak productivity
Okay, so now that you’ve (hopefully) identified your chronotype, I’m going to show you how you can use this information to improve your productivity, creativity, and even quality/enjoyment of life.
You see, while we can’t all choose occupations whose hours align perfectly with our chronotypes, we can at least schedule our days so that we are capitalizing on our peak productivity hours, while saving the more menial tasks for our off-peak hours.
This all starts by identifying the 2 to 4 most productive hours of your day—the hours during which you feel the most alert and are best able to concentrate. If you don’t know them right away, keep a kind of “alertness” diary for two weeks or so, where you note down the times of day you feel focused and productive, and the times of day you feel sluggish and tired.
Before long, you should start noticing a pattern, provided your circadian rhythms are pretty stable and you aren’t alternating between day and night shifts or anything crazy like that.
Now, use this pattern to schedule your work day accordingly. Since the “bear” chronotype is the most common—accounting for 55% of all humans—let’s use that as an example:
- 8 AM - 10 AM (Unfocussed, tired, and grumpy) - Check emails, take care of light admin, plan your day, drink copious amounts of caffeine, tidy your workspace, get the easiest tasks done, and generally prepare for the coming surge of productivity …
- 10 AM - 2 PM (Focused, alert, and productive) - Execute the hardest tasks on your to-do list, schedule those meetings for which you need to be “on”, solve problems, make important decisions, and other challenging feats of awesomeness like saving distressed damsels from burning towers.
- 2 PM - 4 PM (Fatigue sets in) - Start winding down the intensity of your tasks by taking those boring yet necessary meetings, wrapping up admin, planning for the following day, hanging out by the water cooler, and flirting with Jill in accounting, etc.
The punchline here is to cascade your tasks, getting the hardest and most complex done during peak productivity time with a build-up on either side. Then, during your lowest points, either take a power nap, get out for exercise or, you know, just do what I do and turn on Judge Judy reruns.
(Unless, you can’t afford ANY downtime because you have something important due, in which case, read: Finding motivation when you want to procrastinate)
How to wake up early and not feel tired (if you have to)
Recently, there’s been a shift towards more remote-type work/study so the challenge of balancing your chronotype’s natural rhythm with your school, college, or work hours is, for many people, less of an issue. However, if you are still locked into a situation where you are required to be up and productive early (and you’re a night owl), there are things you can do to improve your alertness and focus.
Oh, look at that! Here are 6 of them:
Drink LOTS of water first thing in the morning
Start your day off by downing a bottle of water. A dehydrated brain is a sleepy brain, whereas a hydrated one is more alert and focussed. Also, all that water will make you want to pee, which will force your butt outta bed to use the bathroom.
Get exposure to sunlight / bright light right away
As soon as you wake up, expose yourself to direct sunlight or to bright light if the sun is yet to make an appearance. Bright light exposure activates regions of the brain that promote alertness and mood, and improves cognitive performance.
Use caffeine wisely for more consistent energy levels
If you love (read: need) your coffee, use it a little more intentionally to establish a consistent level of energy by (1) sipping it slower, rather than knocking it back; and (2) only drinking it at times of the day you tend to feel the most sluggish. For example, if you are naturally a morning person, save your “morning coffee” for later on when that fatigue starts to creep in. Also, cut the sugar and you’ll cut the sugar crash!
Raise the height of your computer / laptop
Focusing on something at eye-level (or higher) has been shown to improve your alertness, whereas looking down tends to activate your brain’s standby mode. This sounds a little weird, right? Well try it. Without moving your head, look down at your lap. Do you feel the accompanying sleepy tug on your eyelids? Now, look up. It works instantly to make you feel a little more dialed in, right?
Okay, I definitely feel these effects but if you don’t quite believe me yet, American neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew D. Huberman explains this hack very eloquently in this podcast episode of ‘Huberman Lab’.
Use exercise to oxygenate and energize your brain
If you’re feeling really tired but need to be productive, snap out of your funk by doing a quick 10 or 20 minute burst of exercise. It could be as little as taking a walk around the block, especially in the sunshine; or doing a quick set of jumping jacks next to your work station. The movement will get your blood circulating and your lungs pumping, which’ll oxygenate your brain and make you feel more awake. Also, exercise releases endorphins. Woo!
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
I can practically see Brainscape CEO, Andrew Cohen, rolling his eyes at this one because keeping a consistent sleep schedule tends to be a privilege reserved for those without insomnia. And since he’s on the Sandman’s naughty list, he often lies awake at night, cooking up ingenious schemes to hack the human brain to optimize learning.
However, for those of us who do have the luxury of a sleep-compliant brain, it’s important to go to bed at night and wake up at the same time every morning so that your circadian rhythm normalizes. In other words, if you’re up early (6-7 AM) during the week, sleeping in until 12 PM on the weekends is a bad idea. In fact, it’s making you MORE tired because you’re screwing around with your circadian rhythms.
Oh, and if you do struggle with occasional insomnia, check out ‘How to cure insomnia, without drugs’ (Andrew figured out a few things from staring at his ceiling for much of his early adulthood.) And if you NEED help being productive when all you want to do is sleep, hit up the linked article!
Should you stay up late or wake up early?
This all brings us to a final question: should you stay up late or wake up early?
The answer is, it depends on your chronotype!
But the underlying truth is that you will have a richer, healthier life if you seek a career and lifestyle that produces circadian rhythms aligned to your natural chronotype, rather than forcing a circadian rhythm upon you that is fighting against your chronotype.
So, if you’re a wolf (late to rise, late to bed), allow yourself to sleep in, take the time you need to adjust to the day, and then throw yourself into those afternoon, evening, and/or late night work sessions.
But if, on the other hand, you need to be at work first thing in the morning, schedule your day according to your productivity peaks and troughs, getting the less demanding tasks done earlier on in the day, and the more demanding tasks done later on. Even better, if it’s an option, consider speaking to your employer about adjusting your office hours. (Nothing ventured, nothing gained.)
Now, if this question is coming from the perspective of one of those “hummingbirds” I mentioned earlier—able to roll with either a diurnal or nocturnal schedule—I’d personally recommend aligning your circadian rhythm with the sun so that your brain and body receive the very real physical and mental health benefits of exposure to sunshine. Just make sure you wear sunscreen.
And, finally, if you’re asking whether you should stay up late or wake up early to study because you have a big exam in the morning (and kinda left things to the last minute), my advice is … well, just watch this video:
Final thoughts on waking up early
Now that the science of chronotypes has been better defined, it’s clear that waking up early is bullsh*t. And what all those famous people said about the virtues of waking up early (or the evils of sleeping in) is also clearly bullsh*t … like these two quotes, which I’ve taken the liberty of correcting:
“Lose an hour in the morning, and you will be all day hunting for it.” ― Richard Whately
Correction: “Lose an hour in the morning, and just work an extra hour in the evening, when your brain is more focused and alert.”
OR: “How we start our day determines how we create our life. Are you snoozing through your morning, snoozing through your life, and snoozing through your unlimited potential?” ― Hal Elrod
Correction: “How we start our day determines how we create our life. So figure out your chronotype and start your day to align with your productivity peaks to realize your unlimited potential (without forcing yourself to work when you’re tired or sleep when you’re inspired … because that’s stupid).”
So, remember. Humans are wired differently. Always have been. And outside of regimented school and office hours, it doesn’t matter which you are—a morning lark, a night owl, or a hummingbird, wolf, lion, dolphin, or bear—so long as you identify which you are and instead of trying to work against your hardwiring, optimize your productivity by leveraging your best focus, thinking, and problem-solving when they’re at their peak.
This is the key to rising to your challenge.Now, check out some of the other cool articles and guides in Brainscape’s free Academy and get our web and mobile app (Apple | Android) to help you conquer your next learning challenge!