Experiments in hacking my sleep patterns: Why I may never be a morning person


I’ve read in so many places over the years that the most successful people in history were almost invariably early risers. Over the weekend, someone challenged me to 7 days of waking up “stupidly early,” as a way to test if it would improve my productivity. I asked them to define, “stupidly early,” and they replied, “two or three hours before you usually get up.”

For me, that’s still a lie-in for most people–being self-employed as a freelance writer, I typically rise around noon (sometimes later if I was up very late engrossed in a book or a side project or…okay, usually Tumblr), work until 8 or 9 pm on most days, and go to bed around 2 or 3 am. It’s the same schedule “normal” people keep, except my brain apparently lives in a different time zone than my body. So when I replied to my friend, “ok, so I’ll get up around 9 am for a week?” they insisted I was missing the point.

“The idea is to wake up and have a couple of hours to do things before people will bother you,” they said. For me, that’s what late nights are for, though I’ll admit, with many of my closer friends living on the west coast these days, my typically uninterrupted creative time of 2 am and beyond has sort of evaporated, hence many of my late, late nights lending to my occasional rising at 1 or 2 pm. 

I’ve never been a morning person. Even as a child, my mother told me that she appreciated my ability to typically sleep until at least 8 or 9 am, which for a little kid is pretty late. As I got older, I had to get up for school, and I was good about it because I knew I had to get up, but I was on autopilot until at least 10 am throughout most of high school. It’s a wonder I did as well as I did in my morning classes. My first semester of college, I was so lucky to get a schedule where my earliest class was at noon. I did my best to always schedule my classes to start in the late morning or afternoon, but sometimes it wasn’t possible. My very last semester of school, one of the classes I needed to graduate was only offered at 8 am. It almost felt like an indignity–I was a graduate student who had been in school for nearly seven years, and I had an 8 am class–something I had managed to avoid since the second semester of my freshman year. But I got out of bed and made it to almost every class. My body adjusted. And for a couple of months after I graduated, I was still getting up pretty early most mornings (aided somewhat by moving from the Eastern time zone to the Central time zone). But after a couple more months, my wake-up time crept later and later, as I was self-employed and had no reason to be up early.

My point here is that I can get up early, but left to my own devices, and without a compelling reason to do so, I don’t. But I do love a challenge, so I agreed that for seven days (beginning this past Sunday), I would wake up no later than 9 am. In addition to that, I would have to do three “enriching” things before noon. I chose exercise (which I do pretty much right after I’m awake enough to walk without bumping into things), guided meditation, and reading for personal education/growth–all things I typically do, just normally much later in the day. I’m allowed one “NASA nap” in the afternoon–that is, a nap that is about 20-30 minutes in length. (It’s called a NASA nap because apparently NASA did some studies about nap length and mental acuity, and found that 20-30 minutes is ideal for avoiding sleep inertia and improving reaction time and mental sharpness). I set my alarm to go off after 25 minutes, and this is just enough time for me to drift off into a light sleep for about 5 or 10 minutes total. I don’t fall asleep quickly.

I’m at the end of the second day of this challenge, and I have to say that getting up today was easier than getting up on day one. Sunday morning, a cold front had just come through, and I woke up to a room that was cold enough to make me want to text my friend and tell them to take their challenge and go straight to hell. Not to mention, I didn’t fall asleep until nearly 4 am, so I’d gotten maybe 5 hours of sleep. But I’m nothing if not resolute in the face of a challenge, so I dragged myself out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt and thick socks, and got on with it. I definitely took my NASA nap.

Today was still a bit of a grumble getting out of bed, and perhaps more of one doing my calisthenics because I was a bit sore. But I think by the end of the week I might be able to take things a little further and get up before 9. No promises, but we’ll see. As I said, I can get up in the morning; I just don’t like to.

Today, I read about a handful of “early rising” successful individuals who embraced two-phase sleep. Many of these individuals lived in the 18th century or earlier, when the practice of going to sleep around 8 or 9 pm, sleeping until midnight, waking until around 2 or 3 am, then sleeping again until around 6 am. Some modern individuals have adopted and adapted this, with some following the traditional structure and others going with the flow of their more night-owl tendencies, sleeping from 12 or 1 am until 4 am, then from 7 am until 10 or 11 am. Honestly, though I consider myself a night owl, if I decide to play with my sleep cycle terribly much more, I might experiment with the traditional pattern. I almost always find myself flagging around 9 pm, but I know from experience if I give in to the urge to sleep, I’ll wake up around 11 or 12 and not go to sleep again until at least 3. But if I embraced that, I’d probably find myself waking around 7 or 8 feeling perfectly ready to go. This would be great if I could work my social life around it, but it seems that people tend to want to go out right around the time where I’d be perfectly inclined to sleep for a few hours (and THEN go out).

One way or another, if I ever pick up a job or a contract that requires more normal hours of me, I’ve got to figure out the best way to hack my sleep to exist on a schedule expected of someone living in my time zone. I’m halfway tempted to see if that whole “sleeping two hours a day by taking 5 twenty-minute naps” thing actually works. Though I’ll be honest, I think I like sleeping too much for that.

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