Surviving mornings when you're not a morning person

I am not a morning person. Not even close. If it were up to me, my day would start somewhere around 10:00 and ease into work mode somewhere around noon. I start slow. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been able to follow that schedule, though. Real life doesn’t care what my body’s natural rhythm is. There are deadlines to meet. People want answers now. Contacts over in Europe would really like me to respond before they close up shop for the day, which, coincidentally, is about 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time.

Add to that schedule the fact that we have school-age children who dominate the early morning. Currently, they get on the bus right at 7:00. That means they need to be on their feet no later than 6:15 if we want them to catch that bus. They’re not old enough to responsibly get themselves ready every morning, so we have to be up and awake and in charge. We control how their day starts, which subsequently relates to whether they have a good day at school.

In an ideal world, we would all be able to follow our body’s natural circadian rhythm. For those in the back who haven’t been paying attention over the past 40 years, circadian rhythms are “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle [source].” If we were as smart as we pretend to be we would adjust our schedules and routines so that we’re working during the times when our bodies are most inclined to be productive, exercise when our muscles are best toned for stretching, and sleep when our bodies tell us. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Without question, we would all be healthier, get more done, and live happier lives if we were to follow our body’s natural timing.

However, one of the downsides of the industrial revolution is that corporations need everyone in the same place at the same time in order to get things done. Despite all the advances we’ve made in distance and remote working, there are still too many instances where we need people in an office, or a boardroom, looking at each other face-to-face. That means we have to put aside out circadian rhythms and follow a unified schedule. More often than not, unified schedules mean being in an office by 9:00 every morning, a time when many people’s bodies would much rather be sleeping.

Forcing ourselves into schedules outside our circadian rhythms has its downside. Not only are we likely to be less healthy, we are also more prone to making mistakes [source]. Errors may not be a big deal if one is in a dead-end job where their efforts are duplicated a couple of dozen times, but it can have devastating effects if one is, oh, a brain surgeon or something really important like that. So, when we find ourselves in a schedule that is oppositional to our natural circadian rhythms, we have to make some adjustments to keep everything around us from exploding (hopefully using that word in a metaphorical context).  I’m about to give you some life hacks. Pay attention.

Prep your morning before going to bed

There are certain things in everyone’s life that we just know we’re going to have to do before we walk out the door in the morning. Things like getting dressed, personal hygiene, and probably coffee. We know we’re still going to be half asleep when we do those things, though, so the best way to combat potential areas in this department is to prepare for them the night before. Go ahead and decide what you’re going to wear and set everything in a safe place where you can find them literally with your eyes shut. This avoids time lost and mistakes made when we go searching for clean clothes when our brains have yet to start functioning. Set out a towel and washcloth. Prep the coffee so that all you have to do is turn things on (better yet, get a coffee maker with a timer).

When we do this, we make morning life a lot easier for ourselves by reducing the amount of actual brain activity required before our brains are ready to be active. Give yourself some space where you’re able to reasonably function on auto-pilot until you’re fully awake and aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t force yourself into a position of having to jump out of bed and start making decisions before your eyes are even open.

Nix the bright lights

Our brains respond to light in a very interesting fashion. Bright, cool light tells our brains that it is time to be awake and productive. Warm, soft light tells us that it is time to chill, relax, and prepare for sleep [source]. Having super-bright lights in your bedroom makes zero sense because that is the one place where you need your brain to take it easy, not try and keep you up all night. This means you’re probably going to have to make some adjustments like leaving your cell phone on a nightstand turned face down and changing the wattage of the bulbs in your bedroom from 100 watts to something more in the neighborhood of a soft 40 watts. Most importantly, make sure the room is as dark as possible when you go to sleep. Even nightlights disrupt your sleep pattern and keep you from resting as well [source].

Non-compensated plug here: GE makes a special bulb called C-Sleep that is designed to fit our natural sleep patterns. These are LED bulbs controlled by an app on your smartphone. You set the times at which you need sleep light versus wakeup light and the bulb adjusts to give you the right kind of light for the time of day. The bulbs are a little pricey on the front end ($75 on the front end when ordered directly from GE) but only use 11 watts of electricity so they’re likely to save money on your electric bill. Most importantly, they give you the right light to help you rest and get your morning started off well.

Eliminate distractions while you sleep

This is a big one for me and one that, quite honestly, I don’t do well enough. I’m a light sleeper. I grew up in a family where the phone was likely to ring in the middle of the night and when it did it was never good news. Depending on the severity of the situation (whether one or both parents were needed), we could find ourselves getting dressed and having to jump in the car at 3:00 AM without any warning. That uncertainty set up a life-long habit of constantly listening for sounds that might indicate an emergency. Sure, I no longer have to worry about my phone ringing at 3:00 AM, but my brain won’t turn off that switch. any noise and I’m up and assessing the danger level. It doesn’t help that I have a dog who is even more sensitive to sound than I am.

The general recommendation to help us get a good night’s sleep is to listen to white noise, such as the sound of waves crashing, while we’re snoozing [source].  Generally speaking, I rather like that idea with one exception: we have children. Those of us who have children know that we have to keep one ear open all night in case one of the kids wakes up and needs attention. The younger your children are the more critical this factor.

While we may not all be able to enjoy falling under the spell of white noise all night, we can do other things to minimize distractions. Things like taking down wind chimes, keeping pets sequestered outside the bedroom, and using sound-reducing shades to block out external traffic noises can all help. We may not be able to eliminate all the distractions but we can minimize them enough to help our sleep be more effective.

Establish a morning routine

Just because our eyes are open and our body is out of bed and mobile doesn’t mean we’re actually conscious just yet. This whole waking up thing takes a minute, you know? If we have a routine, though, we can allow our bodies to operate on auto-pilot as long as we have a routine that is safe and efficient to get us through the first five-ten minutes of our day. Mine is pretty simple. When my feet first hit the floor, the first thing I do is let the dogs out the back door. I can almost do this with my eyes shut because the dogs flank me every step of the way. They won’t let me deviate from the appointed path. While the dogs are out, I put food in their bowls and check the cats’ food supply as well and then fill the community water bowl. By this point, the dogs want back inside. Making coffee and pouring my morning cereal (necessary for taking morning meds) are next in line. The first 20 minutes of my day are a set routine that never deviates even on weekends (the animals don’t care if it’s Sunday or Tuesday, they still want out and to be fed).

There’s no right or wrong to what one puts in their morning routine, simply that it be consistent. Personally, I like things peaceful and quiet so my brain and slowly ease into gear before the children get up and start demanding that I think. Those whose existence is more solitary might find benefit in turning on music and there are even some crazy people who find an early morning run to be helpful. The nature of your routine depends largely on your circumstances and the rhythms in which your body wakes up. Find what works for you and stick to it. After a couple of weeks, muscle memory takes over and the routine becomes automatic.

Give yourself plenty of time

I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to leave the house to go to work. My commute consists of turning my chair around and looking at the computer. For most people, though, going to work means getting in a car, fighting their way through traffic, and struggling to make it into work on time every morning. I’ve been there and know that it’s not easy. One is tempted to wait until the last possible minute to get out of bed and then rush to work like a bat out of hell. The problem with that approach is that it increases our stress levels and makes it much more likely that we will make mistakes and even leave things at home, such as the notes for that all important meeting you had right at 9:00.

Give yourself some time before you have to put on your super suit and be an action hero. I set my alarm at 5:00 every morning not because I’m a morning person but because I’m not and I need that hour and fifteen minutes to mentally prepare myself for children. On the very rare morning something happens and I don’t get up well before the demons, their morning doesn’t go well. I’m crankier than normal (and that’s never a good thing), I’m more easily frustrated, and my blood pressure meds haven’t had time to kick in yet so I’m more likely to yell and scream over insignificant things like why no one can find one of the 50 million combs and brushes I know we have in this house. Your time may vary, of course, but waiting until the last minute isn’t helping you. Get out of bed a little earlier and give yourself a chance to start the day better.

Avoid the negative

I cut my adult teeth on the news. Working first for a local newspaper and then a major news syndicate, the news is in my blood and something that will never leave. The news is rarely a positive starting point, though, and having the Internet at my fingertips only makes the obsession worse. I have aggregators that assemble all the important stories that have accumulated overnight and place them in my inbox for my convenience. What I have learned, though, is to not start my day by opening those email. As tempting as it is, I leave those alone until I have found something, somewhere, to make me laugh. Not a big, loud guffaw mind you. I want everyone else to stay asleep for a while. Just something that makes me giggle on the inside and maybe turn up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds.

Our lives are filled with enough negative things. The instant that those emails are opened I’m going to go from smiling to concerned or worried or angry. If I can put off all that negative emotion for a bit I’m less likely to let that negativity spill onto the people around me. Sure, there are days when the news is so bad and so unavoidable that the people around me are affected; there typically isn’t anything I can do to stop that from happening, especially given the current state of chaos. There is a lot I can do to reign that in, though, and much of that starts with making my own morning as positive and upbeat as possible. When I wake the little ones, the first voice they hear should be cheerful, not angry.

There is no perfect solution

Lives are different and everyone’s circadian rhythm is different so don’t think that what works for me has to work for you. If you are one of those people who work third shift and has to sleep during the day, there are different precautions you have to take to make sure you are not disturbed. Those of us who work remotely from home can be much more flexible in our morning schedules than can those who are slaves to a corporate taskmaster who doesn’t care what’s going on in your personal life.

What’s important is that you find what works for you and don’t let anyone interrupt your flow. If you need to be in bed by 9:00 at night, don’t let someone shame you into staying up later. If you need your first cup of coffee to be stronger than what you drink the rest of the day, know that you’re not alone. You can make this work.

We have been born into a society that doesn’t really work for the vast majority of people. If it did, offices probably wouldn’t open before 11:00 in the morning and we’d all take a nap around 4L00 in the afternoon. Since corporations dominate a third or more of our lives, those schedules are not likely to change. We have to find solutions that help us fit into that routine in the best way possible. Hopefully, these tips work for you.

Abide in Peace
The Old Man

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surviving mornings when you're not a morning person
photo credit: charles i. letbetter

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