February 28, 2024


I can’t actually remember when I first started thinking of myself as a “morning person”. When I was in my 20s, the only time I saw a sunrise was if I stayed up all night – I had a series of jobs that let me stroll from bed to work in about 15 minutes. If I ever did overtime it was until one or two in the morning, trying to string together words on a combination of tea, beer and deadline adrenaline. Fast forward a couple of decades and I don’t think I’ve slept past 7.30 in the last six months.

This wasn’t exactly a lifestyle change I made by choice. First, I got a job with actual responsibilities and a commute, then a life-partner who worked as a personal trainer, and finally a small child with zero respect for the concept of a lie-in. But, although I’m frequently up before the birds and the binmen, I’ve never felt better. I’ve become one of those people who reads self-improvement books and grinds out kettlebell swings while most people are blearily thumbing the snooze button. It might even be helping me stay in shape – there’s some evidence from a study published last year in the journal Obesity that moderate-to-vigorous exercise earlier in the day is more beneficial for weight management than hitting the gym in your lunch break or after work.

Also, if I’m honest, I feel less guilty about my habits than I used to when I was working until the wee hours, though I’m probably putting in about the same amount of actual graft. And I’m probably not alone – we’re a nation that venerates the morning routine. In contrast, we often treat late sleepers with suspicion: the former, after all, seem to be up and attacking the day, while the latter are simply making up for lost time. But is one routine really better than the other? And if you’re looking to go from late sleeper to early riser, how easy is it to actually do?

“Many people don’t even realise that they have what’s known as a ‘chronotype’,” says Dr Amantha Imber, an organisational psychologist, behavioural change specialist and author of Time Wise. “We’ve all got peaks and troughs in our natural energy levels throughout the day, and if we know our own we can do our hardest work in the period when our brain is most alert.” There are various chronotype questionnaires on the internet to help you estimate your own with questions like “What time would you get up if you could?” and “What time do you prefer to eat?” but the key thing to understand is that performance is just as important as preferred waking time. If you’d rather schedule gym sessions or important exams earlier rather than later, you’re probably what researchers call a lark – otherwise, you’re an owl.

‘A simple way to push things in the right direction is by getting up a little earlier every morning.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Observer

A 2007 survey of more than 50,000 people found that chronotype distribution follows a bell curve, with extreme morning and evening types at the far ends. For most people, however, there’s a certain amount of elasticity to chronotype that allows the occasional early morning or all-nighter. I’m mostly larkish – I have my best workouts at 7.30am – but I’ll take a lie-in when I can get one and I can just about get it together to work until midnight if I have to.

There are several key factors that contribute to your chronotype, says Professor Russell Foster, neuroscientist and author of Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock. “One is your genetics, which essentially means that our parents keep telling us when to go to bed and get up throughout our entire lives through their contribution to our genes. Another is how old you are – from about the age of 10, you want to go to bed later and later, with a peak in males around about the age of 21 and in females around 19.” Women, incidentally, seem to be more larkish on average, according to a 2020 study of more than 53,000 individuals – but as we age, this difference tends to diminish, as we all become morning people. “There’s a slow move to an earlier chronotype,” says Foster. “So by the time you are in your late 50s or early 60s, you’re getting up at about the same time you did prior to puberty, following almost precisely the changing levels of the sex hormones in the body.”

So is the larkish default to be encouraged? Does it make us happier and more productive?

The answer seems to be: it depends. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t mean much, as you can find champions for both schedules. Jane Austen got up ahead of the rest of her family to dress, bathe, go for the occasional stroll and (somehow) practise piano before 8.30am, while Hunter S Thompson reportedly did most of his writing after midnight. Benjamin Franklin, apparently, woke every morning at 5am and asked himself, “What good shall I do this day?”, while Churchill confounded the whole process by getting up early, working in bed until mid-morning, glugging an imperial pint of champagne and having an hour-long nap before dinner and then working long into the small hours. Of course, not everyone can construct their days like a wartime prime minister and there’s a fair chunk of evidence that morning types are better off.

Some of this could be down to the way we’ve constructed society, with exams, meetings and even marathons often happening earlier rather than later. In one study from 2014, for instance, Dutch high-school students who were randomly assigned exam times in the morning or afternoon saw owls score badly in morning sessions, but that disadvantage disappeared for late risers taking the test in the afternoon. Another recent review of studies suggests that morning types are more conscientious but, again, that could be down to the fact that “morningness” is so frequently associated with seizing the day that it’s something go- getters aspire to.

In health, it seems to be more clearcut in favour of larks. A 2018 review of studies reported in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that night owls may have a higher risk of suffering from heart disease and type 2 diabetes than early risers, possibly due to erratic eating patterns and overconsumption of unhealthy foods. More recently, a study published in Experimental Physiology seems to show that our sleeping and waking cycles are associated with our body’s metabolism, with “early chronotypes” relying more heavily on fat as an energy source during high-intensity exercise.

Larks also seem to fare better on some measures of mental health. In a 2021 study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, more than 450,000 middle-aged people recorded their waking preferences with those who woke up earliest also tending to report lower instances of depression and anxiety. This might, of course, be correlation rather than causation – for instance, there are studies that link sunlight exposure to a decreased risk of depression – or the causal relationship might go the other way.

“Sleep comes out of trauma sometimes – if you’re put in an impossible situation, staying in bed can be a comfort,” says sleep coach Sue Gray. “What I sometimes advise clients is to try to think back to being a child – when we’re little we just allow life to happen, things go wrong but then we drop them. There aren’t any easy answers, but the important thing is to be kind to yourself.” So don’t force yourself out of bed, but do try to see the sun early, or go for a walk if you can.”

‘Try to set your wake time and sleep time to be regular to help regulate your system to a new temporal order.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Observer

But how – apart from waiting 40 years – can you shift

from one type to the other? Well, I did it by brute force, first by setting my alarm to go off at 6am for years and then by getting up with a baby who had no respect for traditional scheduling. But I might have accidentally stumbled on something, because this is Professor Foster’s other key factor: the most important part of the puzzle seems to be light, with our eyes’ detection of dawn playing a key role in regulating our internal body clock. “For most of us, our body clock runs on a cycle slightly longer than 24 hours,” says Foster. “So without light, we’d tend to get up a little bit later every day. I’ve studied the blind and that’s exactly what happens. What you need is to give your body clock a daily nudge in the right direction and that means getting morning light is very strongly recommended.”

This can mean that larkishness or owliness is self-perpetuating. Teenagers who sleep in at the weekend, for instance, don’t get the dawn light that’s essential for resetting the clock, so they tend to struggle even more on Monday morning. But it also means you can nudge yourself towards morningness with a few days of setting an alarm and getting some light in. Or, er, do something more extreme.

“There’s a beautiful experiment from the University of Colorado where the researchers took a group of people camping and only allowed them ‘natural’ sources of light – sunlight, moonlight and campfires, but no flashlights or personal electronic devices,” says Dr Samer Hattar, chief of the section on light and circadian rhythms at the US National Institute of Mental Health. “It brought their sleep forward hugely – on average, their self-selected sleeping time was two and a half hours earlier than normal while camping. Of course, there are a number of confounding factors – they were also out in greenery, getting fresh air and exercise – but that’s also a finding we’ve seen in other experiments in a more controlled environment.”

‘I’ve never felt better getting half of my to-do list done before most people have their second coffee’: Joel Snape making the most of another early start. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

This means it might also be helpful to avoid bright lights at night, though the impact of screens has probably been overstated. One of the most commonly cited studies suggesting that e-reading devices affect sleep, for instance, asked test subjects to look at them on their brightest settings for four hours before lights out, and they only nodded off 10 minutes later. This is partly because, even looking directly at them, these devices give off far less light than even a cloudy day.

“Obviously, it’s difficult if the sun isn’t out in the morning, but a walk in the sunshine at lunchtime can help to entrain your body clock to a new schedule,” says Hattar. “Apart from that, my best advice is to keep to a regular routine. Try to set your wake time and sleep time to be regular, keep your mealtimes regular and stick to a schedule with your other activities, and that will help regulate your system to a new temporal order – where hopefully you won’t feel tired all the time.”

A simple way to push things in the right direction is by getting up a little bit earlier every morning, says Imber. “Get up 10 or 15 minutes earlier, wait a few weeks for that change to settle in and then set the alarm earlier again.” It can also help to turn the morning into a time you look forward to, rather than dread. “Switching the news straight on puts your nervous system straight into fight or flight mode,” says Gray. “Try listening to a comedy podcast, or a bit of your favourite standup comedian early in the morning – it’ll activate your parasympathetic nervous system and create positive associations between waking up early and feeling good.”

Maybe the most important thing you can do is not beat yourself up if early rising just isn’t for you. “The biggest mistake you can make is running your day on defence rather than offence,” says Imber. “A lot of people just react to whatever happens throughout the day and that’s not optimising your productivity. We want to proactively design our day, so that we do the hardest things when our brain is most alert, whether that’s early morning, midday or evening.” If you feel at your best at 11pm, don’t fight it. But if you want to join the ranks of morning people, we’d love to have you: get a bit of fresh air and morning sun when it’s possible, and try not to stay up too late doom-scrolling. Personally, I’ve never felt better getting half of my to-do list done before most people have their second coffee – but if my six-year-old ever allows it, I wouldn’t mind a lie-in soon.

Top of the morning

Start the day with positive purpose using these 20 tips to get you up and going

Drink up: get a protein hit with a shake. Photograph: Lee Rogers/Getty Images

1. Get straight out of bed with the 3-2-1 rule Addicted to the snooze button? Break the habit by counting 3, 2, 1 and then getting up immediately. In theory, the countdown overcomes your rationalisations for not getting up.

2. Wake up with a roll-down ‘This helps you wake up your spine and hamstrings, and sets you up for a backache-free day,’ says Pilates instructor Eloise Skinner. ‘Start by standing tall, your feet hip-distance apart. Tuck your chin into your chest and roll down your spine, moving one bone after another until you end in a forward fold – bend your knees to make this more comfortable. Take a few deep breaths, then roll back up. Finish by standing tall and rolling your shoulders a few times.’

3. Skip the check-in Waking up is a golden, distraction-free moment, advises Make Time author John Zeratsky – preserve it for as long as possible by not looking at emails.

4. Drink water Even mild dehydration can lead to lowered mental acuity.

5. Smell the coffee Ground yourself with the simplest mindfulness exercise: stop, close your eyes, and name one thing you can hear, feel (the floor, your clothes) and smell.

Photograph: Getty Images

6. Make a ‘first thing’ list Instead of ‘Do taxes’, for instance, the first thing might be ‘Find shoebox of receipts’.

7. Make a ‘Don’t do’ list ‘I do this to steer clear of easier, less important jobs,’ says strength and conditioning coach Joseph Lightfoot. ‘It keeps me focused on what’s most important.’

8. Do a ‘wall angel’ To steer you away from spending your day in a hunch, stand with your back to a wall, holding your hands above your head like you’re being held up. Slowly bring your elbows downward, pause, and reverse the movement, keeping contact with the wall.

9. Use the ‘Rule of 3’ Try this productivity tip from JD Meier’s Getting Results The Agile Way: decide the three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day.

10. Eat the big frog first No, this isn’t some mad diet hack. When you’re looking at your to-do list, pick the thing you’re most dreading and do that before anything else. It’ll build momentum.

11. Get a hit of protein It’ll help you feel full for the morning, making you less likely to snack. A couple of eggs will do the trick, or consider a shake.

12. Have some sauerkraut It can improve your gut microbiome and is tasty with scrambled eggs.

13. Open a book Twenty pages? Over-ambitious. Ten? Still a stretch, if you’re busy. But opening a book – or an app – is something you can do every morning.

14. Look at the sun Yes, this works. Just don’t stare straight at it.

15. Go for a walk If you work from home or drive, get an amble in.

Photograph: Getty Images

16. A podcast-free shower It might be the cue for a brainwave: writers and scientists report flashes of insight while engaged in other activities, especially if they’re simple enough to engage what’s known as the brain’s ‘default mode network’.

17. Listen to something funny It’ll help your parasympathetic nervous system kick in – and, if you’re not a morning person, get you in the mood for the day. Brian Blessed’s Absolute Pandemonium is a winner.

18. Do a five-minute workout Do seven squats and five press-ups – use a wall or couch to make the angle easier if you can’t do the regular kind – every minute on the minute for five minutes.

19. Box breathing A technique used to take deep low breaths, sometimes known as four-square breathing. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four. You’re done!

20. Don’t look at social media It’s really not going to make your day any better than it is.

Styling by Sam Deaman; hair, makeup and nails by Sarah Cherry; assistant Callum Su; model Ana Vizuete at Body London; navy silk pyjamas by intimissimi.com; yellow and purple cotton pyjamas by teklafabrics.com; shot at Loft Studios.



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